On Content, Execution, and the Future of Genre

I have been thinking very recently about a whole host of things.

This is usually trouble.

I’ve been thinking, as you can see below, about the Franzen issue, and the implications it holds for genre fans, or anyone who considers themselves outside of the mainstream literary spectrum.

I’ve also been thinking about this post by Niall Alexander, which caused a bit of a furor yesterday, as well as this post by Vagabondage press. It highlights an interesting conflict, a sort of very-uncoordinated Sharks and Jets street-rumble that just keeps on keepin’ on.

I will, for the sake of argument, generalize very, very, very terribly here, and say that it is common for genre fans to hold some disdain for literary works. This may be for a lot of reasons, but the words I hear used a lot are “boring,” “stuffy,” and “pretentious.” This may very well be the case. (I have not read much Franzen, for example, but I did read an excerpt of “Freedom” and was not particularly impressed.)

At the same time, however, genre fans paradoxically wish to reap the same amount of critical and establishment respect that’s given to these literary works. We, as lovers of a genre, Wish To Be Taken Seriously. How many times have we said that our fantasy/sci-fi/speculative-fiction/graphic novels are not just for juveniles, and in fact are works of art? (On the other side, literary authors are probably astounded by the amount of fan adoration genre authors get, and would possibly [though they would not want to admit it] kill for a chunk of their sales.)

Since the word “genre” is so commonly used in all of these discussions, the issue seems to be one of categorization. What is this, or that? How do we know? And what are the standards for judging it?

This all boils down to a viewpoint I’ve held for a very long time, which is that the current genre marketing system separates by two standards: content vs. execution.

Think about it. What are literary novels about? What do they usually focus on? What subject do the majority of them revolve around? I find that there is no common theme, no re-examination or re-imagining of the same subject matter. Literary novels can be about nearly anything. The content of a literary novel does not matter as much as the execution, that being prose, narrative, thematic and character development, and the use of scenes or descriptions to invert, subvert, or mirror previous instances in the story. These are the standards that qualify a book as “literary.” This attention to execution can make these very same works difficult or even “dense,” and perhaps require more thought than a standard straight narrative. As always, this will vary on the author and the reader.

But genre, well… That’s different. The content of any given genre work – be it chicklit, epic fantasy, science fiction, murder mystery, espionage, etc – can usually be depended on, to a moderate degree. It says it right there in the genre name. You have a good idea of what you’re getting when you buy the book. Conversely, the presence of a certain subject – say, magic – will immediately qualify a book as fantasy, regardless of how good the execution is. I believe I’ll quote Terry Pratchett here, who expressed the same sentiment in a much more amusing way:

Now fantasy — that’s the horse turd in the bucket of wine! If you have one bucket of horse turds and one bucket of wine, put one horse turd in the bucket of wine and now you have two buckets of horse turds. But if you pour some of the wine into the bucket of horse turds, it’s still a bucket of horse turds. Any recognizable fantasy element introduced into an otherwise innocent novel turns that novel into a fantasy. Isn’t it interesting, how it’s so one-way?

(Note: finding this quote required me to google “terry pratchett” and “horse turds.” I was very relieved to see this was the first return.)

So, in a very broad sense, we now have two camps that have been arbitrarily separated. One is mostly concerned with what the book is about, the other is concerned with how it is about it. Each camp gets balkanized to the degree that they have their own critics, magazines, fans, and culture.

The tendency, I think, is that both camps may tend to radicalize themselves in order to be admired among their individual faction. (Again, I am horribly, awfully, detestably generalizing here.) It’s much like a political primary – you express the most absolute version of the quality admired by your party in order to ensure favor. So one gravitates toward focusing on nothing but execution, and the other focuses on nothing but content.

As Vonnegut put it, literature often tends to “disappear up its own asshole.”

To anyone who likes both camps, like myself, this state feels unsatisfactory. A story’s contents, no matter how cool, imaginative, and fascinating, does not necessarily render that story good. It must also be told well. To quote Jeff Vandermeer, who’s recently weighed in on the issue:

I do worry about one thing in particular: too many genre works where, at the paragraph or sentence level, the book is dead. Which is to say, I see sentences doing only one thing, paragraphs with generic description, and in general the equivalent of a vast kill-off of all of the things that happen at the micro-level that make fiction come alive.

Similarly, even the most blistering and beautiful prose and insightful and innovative techniques will not make a book readable if the subject is as boring as ditchwater. I know Don DeLillo is a critical and cultural darling, but that doesn’t mean I found “Underworld” compelling enough to finish the remaining 400 pages or (the more intimidating task) lug it around with me any further.

There has to be moderation somehow, a happy medium somewhere. I consider Michael Chabon possibly one of the greatest heralds of How Things Could Be: sparkling, crackling writing combined with brilliant, fun plots and fantastic worlds. John le Carre, who is often tossed onto the Tom Clancyish “international intrigue and espionage” pile, features some of the most poignant and subtle characterization put on page in the last thirty years. And if you can count all the allusions in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” I’m pretty sure you get a degree, or at least a chicken dinner free-of-charge.

But, unfortunately, there have been attempts in the past to introduce brilliant, poetic storytelling to genre subjects, and the entirely wrong lesson has been learned.

The most obvious example is Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” We all know it as the graphic novel that changed graphic novels. It evinced innovative, breath-taking narrative techniques and absolutely devastating characterization. Its themes and suggestions had enough depth to make a literary novelist positively green with envy. People sat up and took notice. Suddenly, comic books could tell a different kind of story.

But what sort of stories were the result? Did they feature such astounding storytelling? Such thoughtful layering of scenes and action? No. Instead, the new stories focused not on the execution, but on the content – spectacular violence, flawed (if not sociopathic) superheroes, sex, and swearing. We got the New Gritty Age of comics, to Moore’s own dismay. Rather than fostering experimentalism, we were given comics full of castration and cartoonish violence, and a protagonist who ended the story by giving the audience the finger and saying, “This is me fucking you in the ass.” And these stories were wildly successful, even lauded as the best of the best of the graphic novel world, even though they fell well short of the standard set by Moore. If I were to hand one of these books to a critic and tell them it was the current best in comics, I would not be surprised to be met with a scornful laugh.

This was mimetic in content. Not execution. Moore eventually stated that he wished he’d never written Watchmen at all.

I can see why it’s unlikely that anyone would attempt to bridge the two camps. It’s all too possible that you’d be too literary for the genre folk, and genre enough so that the literary establishment wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole. (After all, it’s well known that the genre camp is replete with cooties.) But we’ll have to see what will happen. Susana Clarke produced what I believe will be thought of as one of the greatest fantasy novels of our time, and, interestingly enough, when I went to buy it I searched the fantasy shelves but came up empty. I was directed by a store clerk to the mainstream fiction section, and there it sat, next to all the other literary and mainstream novels. Even though it features wizard kings, fairies, and the walking dead.

I wonder what that says about the future? I’m not sure.  But maybe we’ll eventually stop seeing the grudging praise, “Good… for a genre book.”