The Tyranny of Genre

11 Dec

To anyone who writes fiction, or reads it, or is interested in it as a theoretical subject, the idea of genre is probably of greater interest now than it has ever been. Carl Linneus, the famous natural scientist, earned his laurels by finding a way of categorising the world’s fauna and flora into families and sub-families, by a formal system of division between one species and another. Because of Linneus and those who continued his work, we know that a fulmar is not a seagull, and a chough is not a crow (while of the same genus), though to all intents and purposes they look very similar. We also know that a lemur is not technically speaking a monkey, and that a platypus is most closely related to the spiny ant-eaters of Australia and New Guinea. But one could argue that the thrust of science here was to observe the workings of evolution, and uncover inherent evidence in nature. Science did not invent evolution, science observed evolution.

In the realm of fiction it is much harder to argue that there is any innate genre to be discovered by literary critics. Writers do not adhere to genre, they create it. Or maybe that is also a dubious statement? If we look carefully at mythology, which, one could say, cannot be anything but a universal declaration of the laws of humankind, we may observe that only a limited number of genres are possible. Yet, however one argues, it remains true that while crime or horror or science fiction are characteristic forms of fiction, they are hardly innate. There are crime stories in which no crime takes place, or where the criminal is the hero, or where the crime that has taken place or is about to take place is largely uninteresting and peripheral to the story – that is, there are crime stories where the crime is of lesser interest than the people affected by it. There are horror stories where no monstrous or diabolical beings make their entrance – in fact where fear of such non-existing things is enough to make one take stock of “the reality” of horror, namely that horror is just a fiction of people’s imagination. And there are horror stories written for young teenagers, where the themes are so ridiculously infantilised that one would be better advised to put them in a sub-genre of the comic book. The Linnean point here would be, does literary crime fiction (Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White”) belong to the same genre as Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? I would argue that they are related in much the same way as a platypus is a bit like an ant-eater, but not in a scientific sense.

When we start looking at literary fiction we run into our biggest classification headache. As yet there are no effective genre sub-systems for defining literary fiction, at least none that I am aware of. (Although, the more one looks into it, genre seems to be the tiddler of literary specification, the most irrelevant distinction of all.) What Raymond Carver has in common with Doris Lessing, apart from both being practitioners of literary fiction, seems rather irrelevant. Admittedly Lessing writes novels while Carver sticks to short stories, but these are not genres but literary forms. To get niggly about it, one might say that Carver often expresses social satire or at least social bleakness, whereas Lessing documents the everyday human condition, as opposed to the role of the marginalised human – though in “The Fifth Child” she comes close to expressing a dark horror, which is a basic aspect of what one might term “ordinary life.” Of course, Lessing has also written science fiction, but with Lessing’s writing one gains little by classifying it. Her science fiction subverts or inverts or converts the commonplaces of the genre by giving us either more or less than what would seem to be required. Equally one might ask where Clarice Lispector belongs, or Penelope Fitzgerald, or J.M Coetzee. “Good writing” is not as far as I know considered a genre. Highbrow readers are currently getting away with thinking that they are not part of the movements of their time. They are partaking of higher, more rarefied moods. How wrong they are.

The highly regarded Swedish crime writer Åke Edwardson has stated that he is not really a crime writer, and he is not alone among crime writers to make this assertion. It seems quite obvious: good writers may conveniently get lumped into genres, but in the end what they convey is something additional to the standard fare of those pigeon-holes. While Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” is credited with inventing the modern Swedish crime novel, I do feel bound to add that nothing about being Swedish qualifies as a genre definition. I say this because there is a suggestion that Swedish crime writing has added a new sub-family to the genre. In fact it could not possibly even be a sub-sub-form. Admittedly Swedes are supposed to be depressives who have to endure long winters, and in a certain way it could be conceded that a police commissioner (for instance, Wallander) who suffers from melancholy is more interesting than a clean-cut American cop or a gentlemanly Agatha Christie amateur investigator. Hercule Poirot has become rather dated. Sherlock Holmes took opium and suffered from clinical depression, hence his longevity. Let’s just state here quite clearly that there is nothing original about a dysfunctional cop – one need only look at the neo-noir creations of James Ellroy or Raymond Chandler in “The Big Sleep” (1939), to appreciate the ubiquitous presence of the down-at-heel-and-heart outsider as policeman. It is important to understand that these groundbreaking books all diverged from, or added to, existing practice. Those who stick to the rules of genre are the Lumpenproletariat of that genre, the fortune-seekers and mediocrities. Good genre writing must by definition be an attempt to use some of the existing conventions while expanding and enlarging upon them in a way that delights and stimulates.

Aristotle, as in so many other respects, was the first to attempt a classification of writing, defining it as comedy, epic, or tragedy. But to Aristotle the only proper forms of writing were drama and poetry, and he would not have had an appreciation of prose writing as anything but a record of events – if even that. Writing, to Aristotle, was much more about performance than mere text. Poetry and drama in his time were orally conveyed. Drama touched upon the sacred realm, an area not greatly in vogue in the modern era. Last century, writers such as Joyce or D.H. Lawrence still made allusions to a sort of heightened consciousness that seemed almost divine in its scope. And in the preceding century, Wordsworth and other Romantics developed the idea of the spiritual hero.

Other eras have had their fads. The Augustans (in the eighteenth century) were big on satirical poetry (Pope, “The Dunciad”) and satire (Swift, “A Tale of a Tub”). Dryden and others relished the impossibility of writing epic poems (such as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) and with a snarl invented the anti-hero, although some (including William Blake, who suggested that Satan was the true protagonist of Milton’s epic poem) later tried to revive the true hero in a more updated format. Byron, for instance, did his best with “Childe Harold”, but he could not conceive of a hero that was not encumbered with doubt, melancholy, and a sort of dashing lack of care for his own well-being – and so we were still stuck with the anti-hero.

The heroic/ anti-heroic theme continued in the nineteenth century historical novels of Sir Water Scott, whose writings achieved an astonishing level of popularity in his day. “Rob Roy” (1817) sold 10,000 copies (and that’s in leather-bound hardback) in two weeks. His poem “Marmion” (1808) sold 2,000 copies in a month, at one and a half guineas per copy. It was followed by another 12 editions by 1825, meaning that Scott on the strength of one poem alone had made enough money to live in a decent house with servants cooking his dinner – not a fate one would anticipate for even the most famous of modern poets. Yet in the case of Scott it is not form that is important, for his novels sold as well as his poems. Scott, in a very modern way, wrote for popular taste and chose a genre – historical romance – that appealed to the masses. Later, Charles Dickens also dipped into the lucrative historical genre (“A Tale of Two Cities”), but most of his great novels were strictly “literary fiction” – stories about people living in a world we recognise as our own. In other words, not a historical, fantastical, horror-tinged, or crime-defined reality populated by policemen and thieves. Dickens wrote familial stories tinged with tragedy (though not on a grand enough scale to qualify as Aristotelian), where happiness, once it appeared, had a pastoral tinge to it (while often intensely urban and usually set in the great metropolis of London). There are no shepherds in Dickens, but his happy characters wear suits, have comfortable homes where children play, and go off to work every morning with a spring in their step, as if off to inspect their teeming flocks.

The nineteenth century also produced a surprising breakout from a genre that bubbled out of the Romantic obsession with dwarves, monsters, ruined castles, spirits, and diseased maidens (Keats, “The Lay of St Agnes” and Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”). At some point in the 1820’s, Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” (1817) and James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (1824), and many other books pursuing a similar line, invented a Gothic horror element. Hogg’s book, published anonymously, was disturbing in its implications, namely that a man could be so filled with nihilism that he would commit terrible crimes in the blithe assurance that he would nonetheless go to Heaven as one of God’s Elect. Hogg seems to have invented the psychopath as anti-hero, a theme resounding in our modern crime fiction, which would long ago have withered without the constant fertilisation of psychopaths. One need only think of Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psychopath”, which perhaps could never have been written without the cultural influence of Hogg some 150 years earlier.

Genre very much operates in this way. It is an evolving phenomenon and responds to social factors. The emergence of the Swedish crime story, for instance, owes much to the collapse of what has sometimes been referred to as “the Swedish model.” Swedes, once safe in the knowledge that the State was there to guarantee their security, began to write about horror and evil in society once the State receded like some weary grandfather clutching a bottle of booze.

Where do we conclude these ramblings on genre in our time? Only with the simple statement that readers – and this must also include sophisticated, literary readers – should not avoid genre writing. If they do so, they are ignoring the weight of literary tradition. So-called “literary novels” are merely novels that do not belong to any genre that has been defined as yet. Most genre novels (and literary novels) are too awful to be countenanced. And the exception does not prove the rule, because there is no rule.

2 Responses to “The Tyranny of Genre”

  1. Marcus Speh December 11, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    Much enjoyed this tour de genre farce. I feel like you. Outside of the small club of authors and their sponges (critics, scholars, publishers) nobody cares about genre. I observe the confusion on the bookstore chain seller’s face when he must place a transgenre tomb and doesn’t know: is it sour Scandinavian depresso, smutty French deconstructo or grumpy German complaintiff? Don’t lool these nouns up, dear anal-retentive non-native, digitally confounded reader: they don’t exist. Just like the counties of the land of genre don’t really exist. But what about you, dear Henning, are you transgressing yourself into genre? I know I am: have begun to write that sci-fi that I’ ve been thinking about for years…after shedding my genre fears. It’s great fun, too.

    • Henning Koch December 11, 2014 at 10:20 am #

      Probably I am transgressing myself into genre, as you say. “The Maggot People” is genre, but not really. I mean, if it was just a novel about a bunch of crazy people filled with maggots then I’d be guilty of slavish genre adherence. But I hope it’s more than that. I thought the book was a lighthearted critique of organised religion. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just about “priests with guns.” Hmm…

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