The Sins of the Genre

With dull regularity a major publication will run a story about the popularity of genre fiction. It will not resist the temptation to criticize its adherents, both those who consume it and those who produce. It will call the former juvenile, their tastes undeveloped, their knowledge of the world stunted; the latter it will call both pandering and self-indulgent. It will do this all with warm condescension, a parent who does not correct the child but rather drolls to the other parents while waiting for it to grow out of such behavior. And it shall present itself as if its perspective and methods were new and unique, the first stone ever cast against science fiction and fantasy.

The same pale polemic will be trotted out at least once a year, a groundhog ardently searching for a shadow. And yet each time it arrives the community it criticizes will raise their swords (the giant glowing, the historically accurate) as if such a creature had never before come to their gates. This they do, I expect, because:

-accepted majority groups with roots in oppressed minorities – Catholics in America, Protestants in Europe, nerds everywhere – are often at pains, and usually unconsciously, to paint their critics Oppressors and themselves once more Oppressed. It is hard for the genre community to realize that they have become the windmill – especially when Quixote seems to be having a great deal more fun.

-the long attention spans required to read the books filed at the bookstore under “Epic” (fitting about three to a shelf) are well tempered by the ferret-like ADD developed by those who post to SF/F forums

-many of these crusaders have joined the community recently enough that this is their first exposure to critique. This mainly because they were, at the time of the last jeremiad’s publication, still reading picture-books and watching Barney

-taking issue with the posits of others is delightful

The resultant Controversy (the internets are restless!) will generate more total verbiage than a fanfiction contest with a cash prize. The author of the piece will be happy in getting attention; the authors of the rebuttals will be happy at having been righteously unhappy; no minds shall be changed; nothing shall be proved; and in a few months the memory of it will husk and blow… just in time for the next homily which calls forth the sins of the genre.

It is not an unmerited prejudice. It is shameful and a shame that stories of swords and spaceships so regularly substitute set-pieces for real storytelling. It is a waste of opportunity when any story in which set-pieces are lovingly pushed around the board does not use their movements as an opportunity for emergent gameplay. It is unfortunate that the tropes of fi and fancy are not often questioned, and when they are it is with a subtlety one normally associates with the guillotine. The potential of the genre may not be limitless, but its reality is such that even its most passionate adherents can be excused a desire to critique – if not to administer extreme unction.

It is a shame how they are used, and it is no less shameful that non-genre fiction holds itself, most often, to no higher standard. For every wizard in a high tower waiting for a knight there is a twentysomething miss-understood looking for Mr. Right. For every black robe or shining sword there is a craggy Clint or buxom Brandy. For every dragon there is an Axis, Russians, Arabs, PMC; for every dungeon there’s a high-school dance or a high-school reunion or coffee-shop bromance or cubicle soiree.

It is not the fault of the set-pieces. There are only five people on a basketball team, but that doesn’t stop them from performing within their constraints accomplishments that are as art. The reason that most wizards are not Gandalf is the reason that most point-guards are not Gary Payton; the reason that most fantasy novels are not Tolkien is the same reason that most basketball games are, even in the internal context of other basketball games, really not that interesting.

A work is only judged as genre fiction if it trades on certain tropes. The more such work is produced, the less interesting each work individually. Soon you reach a point where the only apparent difference between the stories are the pointiness of the elves’ ears or nipples or the liberality with which words are broken up by apostrophes of dubious linguistic provenance. The stories become variations upon a theme. If you do not love the theme for itself, they are not interesting books; if you love the theme for itself, you are not an interesting reader.

The primary difficulty with complaints about genre fiction are that they apply equally well to anything that can be easily slotted into any narrative genre. If you praise newness and punish derivation, the categorization “genre fiction” is a necessary pejorative – but no more than Romance Novel, Detective Story, Period Piece, or, it seems to me, Literary Fiction.

I have no difficulty in declaring that most fiction of science and sorcery is, in one nice and summary monosyllable, bad. But this is no fault of the particular tropes of the genre. The difficulty is with genre itself – fiction of any genre – fiction whose primary definition comes from its being placed on a shelf with its peers – a work whose author set out from the first to commit the sins of the genre, thus that it could be happily buried in the appropriate corner of the cemetery. From the first they never would have deserved great mausoleum. From the first, most works were stillborn. Their authors did not desire them to be great generals or leaders of men. They were content for them to be soldiers, buried in neat rows beneath a humble grave.

The underlying assumption in every such article is that fiction of a genre cannot ever be good. The act of shelving necessitates judgment. Categorization is inherently pejorative.

I do mean herein to object to this aesthetic. In fact it rather attracts me. I would like to see it explored in more substance, to see what would happen if it were taken to its logical conclusion.

But that is not what these essays undertake. They are not so wise. They are not so interesting.

We should hold the critics to the same standards as the criticized.

Like the striking of noon come the diatribes against the genres. Their arguments do not change. Their examples do not improve. They diagnose a malady whose character is understood and presence well known. They do not attempt themselves to be an alternative. They offer no suggestion for a cure.

None of these essays is much different from the others. At best they are better than their peers at being a peer. At worst they are derivative, redundant, and – by the lights of this essay – tautological. No matter their relative quality they have no absolute value. They are works of a genre. So they are judged.

As Genre, an interesting reader is one who will close them, place them on the appropriate shelf, and return to the search for stories which defy categorization, stories which establish their own tropes, stories of the genres of the future… stories which are new… stories which are good.


~ by davekov on 24 May 2012.

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