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Some thoughts about genre


The other day, over at Spike, the delightful Jessica Au posted some thoughts about genre, and the rather vexed question of its changing relationship to the literary.

Jess’ thoughts were sparked by China Mieville’s The City and the City, but they echoed a series of questions I’ve been pondering for a while now. Certainly a cursory glance across the bookshelves of your average reader is likely to reveal a rather more catholic collection of books than one might have found there a generation ago. Where once the white spines of Picadors jostled with writers such as Peter Carey and Raymond Carver, now one is apt to find Harry Potter jammed next to Cormac Mccarthy and Stiegg Larsson.

The usual reaction is to say one of two things. On the one hand, people will argue that the literary as a category is changing, growing more diverse and inclusive. And to an extent that’s true: Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin are in the Library of America these days, and literary readers seem perfectly willing to embrace work that is essentially SF from writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood. But while I think the category may be more inclusive than it was a decade or two ago, I suspect it’s always admitted work which drew on the fantastical and SF (Angela Carter, anyone? Riddley Walker?). And I think it’s important not to overstate the extent to which the category has actually changed: conventional literary fiction is, 99% of the time at least, still conventional literary fiction (and, as a quick flick through the prize lists of the last year or two will demonstrate, in surprisingly and even counter-intuitively good health).

The other response usually comes from those outside the literary world, and takes one of two tacks. One is to argue, as writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Adam Roberts (author of the rather excellent Yellow Blue Tibia) do in articles published in New Scientist and The Guardian last year, that the literary novel has already been so efficiently colonized by science fictional conceits it’s already dead, and it’s only the insularity and elitism of the literary world that stops us acknowledging that fact. The other is essentially the line that Jess runs on Spike, that what we’re seeing is a larger breakdown of the categories that once structured and organised our reading, and that the whole idea of SF, or Crime, or even the literary is now essentially meaningless, and what matters is story.

I have some sympathy with both points of view, not least because I think both are, to some extent, correct. But I also think that by continuing to understand this in terms of the comparative merits and businesses of genre they put the cart before the horse. The shift in reading habits and tastes in recent years isn’t about reality and SF becoming indistinguishable, or the old canard of readerly impatience with unreadable literary novels, it’s part of a much larger shift in the power structures that underpin our culture, a shift that’s as visible in the increasingly belligerent populism you see on display amongst younger Australians (the “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” and tattoos of the flag crowd) and the manner in which the outside-the-Beltway world of new media keeps pushing back against old media’s highly controlled, scripted and insider-friendly coverage of politics as it is in shifting reading habits.

That may sound like a long bow to draw, but I’m not sure it is. One of the signal features of political and social discourse in recent years has been the accelerating pushback against traditional loci of cultural authority. The increasing sophistication and power of the new media, and in particular the rise of political blogs and websites such as Crikey!, Mumble and Possum’s Pollytics in Australia and Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo in the US, are probably the most visible aspect of this process (if you’re interested in exploring this question a bit further you could do a lot worse than read Michael Massing’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books, ‘A New Horizon for the News?’). But I think it’s also visible in the rise of right wing populism: Fox News and Sarah Palin are signal example, but here in Australia it’s also pretty clear that a lot of the fairly belligerent populism is about an anti-politics pushback by working class and lower middle class people once excluded from the political process (here in Australia I think that process is being amplified by the boom of the last few years, and the now not-inconsiderable wealth of many such people: once you’ve got a big house and kids in private school you’re probably a little less likely to put up with being told what to think by the educated middle classes).

While it might be a sideshow, reading tastes are being transformed by the same process. While it’s fashionable these days to deride the “literary” as simply a marketing term, it’s in fact much more than that. “Literature”, like high culture in general, is one of the more significant repositories of cultural power. What you read matters (or did until very recently), not least because it’s a powerful signifier of membership of the educated middle classes. It’s certainly not accidental that the boundaries of what’s acceptable was (again until very recently) pretty ruthlessly policed by academics and critics writing for major broadsheets and magazines such as The New Yorker, The Monthly and The New Statesman, since those publications are read by the educated middle classes. I don’t want to sound too much like some Refectory Trot, but basically the middle classes are a club, and you get in by going to the right schools and universities, and by reading and watching the right things.

But in recent years these loci of cultural authority in the literary world have been experiencing exactly the same pushback as the newspapers and the accepted boundaries of political discourse. Critics no longer make or break books, TV shows such as Oprah and Richard and Judy do, reading groups and word-of-mouth are on the rise, as are any number of online services allowing readers to share and disseminate their own views on what’s good and what’s not. Indeed what’s really interesting is the way the last decade has seen not just the rise of the Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code-style literary blockbuster, a phenomenon which seems to have almost nothing to do with the way books once found success, but also any number of reader-driven, word-of-mouth successes such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Part of it’s certainly about the increasing preparedness of publishers to explore non-traditional avenues of distribution, such as supermarkets and petrol stations, and the increasing sophistication of marketing, but most of it’s about the rise of the reader.

At this point in the argument a lot of people are likely to start banging on about the rise of the reader being a reassertion of the power of story over the dreary worthiness critics and academics once foisted upon us, but – not to put too fine a point on it – that whole line of argument is anti-intellectual crap. Reading pleasure and sophistication aren’t mutually exclusive. Sure there are lots of boring literary novels, but there are just as many boring SF novels, or boring Crime or Fantasy books.

But I think it is worth recognising there’s another factor at play here, which is education. “Literature”, and the literary may be socially contingent cultural constructs, but they’re not arbitrary, at least within the context of our culture. What’s good and what’s bad is defined by relation to the canon, and by standards of judgement which (while they change over time) have been developed over hundreds of years.

Nor do they come for free. Until very recently our education system, both at a secondary and a tertiary level, placed great emphasis upon understanding literary tradition. That didn’t just mean reading the canon, it meant learning how to read, a process which embraced an understanding of Latin grammar, the memorisation of slabs of poetry by Homer and Shakespeare and Tennyson, a grasp of the Bible, and the Classics, and an attentiveness to the way language works on the page.

Things might be different overseas, but nobody in Australia gets this sort of education anymore. In its place we have a system of literary education that emphasises personal response and personal expression, and which privileges comparison of groups of texts over close reading of particular texts. At one level this is great, since it opens us up to new forms of expression and empowers the individual, as well as breaking down the hegemony of the literary, but it also means almost all of the criteria that once allowed us to define “Literature” have slipped away, and our judgements about books and writing are now made on quite different criteria.

I should emphasise this isn’t meant as a jeremiad or a lament: it seems to me there are now extremely sophisticated cultures of critical judgement and appreciation operating within forms such as SF, cultures which have their own criteria and agendas. And while I want to scream every time I hear a reader talk about a character’s “journey”, I recognise they’re using a critical language that makes sense to them, and which they find enriches their reading experience, which is, at the end of the day, what criticism should be about.

But it does mean that at almost every level our capacity to regulate or even define the boundary of the literary is diminished. What’s good is no longer defined by gatekeepers schooled in the right universities and armed with an intimate knowledge of Renaissance poetry and the Russian novel (though there are plenty of them out there). Instead it’s defined from the ground up, by readers, who are finding ways of communicating and sharing things they like online and elsewhere, and bypassing traditional organs of cultural authority such as the newspapers. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, part of that process has been the falling away of many of the old status anxieties about genre and the literary, and a freeing up of readers to seek out books unhindered by those anxieties.

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20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well, not just the readers, James. David Carter in his time also had quite a bit to say too (I found this great piece a while ago, but just read it last night):

    The really pissy thing about that AHR database is their elegant inability to date each article!! I could look through the index or look it up on Austlit, but I think this was written in 2001 ish.
    Say what you like about the passing of teh culturalists – someone as sophisticated as Carter still has things to say about the rules of art and money to this demos dweller, and I’ve quoted from that article here:

    February 13, 2010
  2. godardsletterboxes #

    You rise some very interesting ideas. In my field of study it has been quite clear that the breakdown of genre borders and conventions has been going on for quite some time. There are so few straight out procedural crime shows now; almost all of them involve an element of what would be considered conventionally soap opera structures and they are no longer placed in a world external to real time – they have taken this approach. Increasingly there has also been the breakdown of barriers between standard programs and the sci-fi/fantasy genres. X-Files and Alias which combined crime procedural/spy fiction with sci fi and fantasy have seen these kinds of things bleed in to all sorts of shows with programs like Grey’s Anatomy even entering into it. I think that, as you say, some of the cultural gate-keeping has been broken down and creators feel free to take anything from the suite of narrative tools to create a great big post-modern cultural melange. Which makes it all interesting, but infinitely more challenging to box in. Not that we don’t try; and what we are finding is that the intellectual/class divide comes now with the split between “reality” tv and drama in its greatest form.

    February 13, 2010
  3. (Apologies in advance for the long comment!)

    “Until very recently our education system, both at a secondary and a tertiary level, placed great emphasis upon understanding literary tradition. That didn’t just mean reading the canon, it meant learning how to read, a process which embraced an understanding of Latin grammar, the memorisation of slabs of poetry by Homer and Shakespeare and Tennyson, a grasp of the Bible, and the Classics, and an attentiveness to the way language works on the page.

    Things might be different overseas, but nobody in Australia gets this sort of education anymore.”

    James, this was pretty much exactly my initial reaction to Jessica’s piece. To your list of things that that education comprised, I’d add a practical working knowledge of literary history, which equips one to recognise that ‘genre’ in its original literary usage is a noun identifying a general set of literary conventions (spec fic, fantasy, crime, romance or historical fiction, westerns, whatever) within which a novel, poem or play, from any time or place, may or may not be operating. Many of the stories in Boccaccio and Chaucer are what we’d now identify as crime and/or romance and/or some other generic mixture. Fantasy tales are as old as the hills. And there’s nothing recent (or Anglophonocentric), about the breaking down of genre boundaries. What’s recent is the change in the way we talk about it.

    (And maybe not even that. “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited.” That’s from Hamlet.)

    But ‘genre’ in much contemporary popular usage seems to have morphed into an adjective meaning ‘not literary fiction’. One of the real losses in the disappearance of the kind of traditional specialist education in literature is that sometimes people are reinventing the wheel in discussions like this, because they’re not aware of the histories of different genres, or that these sorts of classifications shift over time — and attach themselves in different ways to the kind of class analysis that you’re making here, as the class structure itself shifts.

    This is especially the case if you’re looking at an era before universal literacy. There are stories of groups of working people getting together and putting in a penny each to buy a Dickens novel and finding a literate person who would then read it aloud to them after supper, if they’d had any. Dickens really shook up the whole relationship between literature and class — his work was a kind of catalyst in the massive industrial-era social shifts and the rise of the middle class in England.

    When I saw that Genevieve had linked to a piece by David Carter I assumed till I saw it that it was his equally terrific piece from 2004, ‘The Mystery of the Missing Middlebrow’. I currently read a fair bit of middlebrow fiction in the course of my work, and as with genre fiction I make it a point of honour to take the middlebrow seriously on its own terms (and, more importantly, out of respect for its readers and fans) — and I’ve got David’s thinking on the subject largely to thank for that.

    One of the things I found staggering about Stephen Sewell’s spray the other day (sorry no link, many people will have seen it) about how much of popular culture is “rubbish” was his implied contempt for the people who like it — but the pro-pop-culture people tend to be just as sniffy about the middlebrow. Perhaps we’re just never happy unless we’ve got someone to look down on, no matter how much of an aggressively anti-elitist push might be coming at us from both sides of politics.

    February 13, 2010
  4. Can’t wait until the genre borders of literature and sculpture melt in too.

    Maybe those mothballed Lenin statues will come to life and invade Easter Island or something.

    February 13, 2010
  5. Was just about to look up Mr Carter in teh Austlit for more reading – thank you Kerryn.

    February 13, 2010
  6. Thank you, all of you.

    Gen – I’ve not read the Carter essay(s) but will.

    Melissa – I’m interested you also think this whole question is related to the changing relationship of representations of reality to reality, because I’d agree.

    And Kerryn – you’re right, of course, and I’m being simplistic and a bit sloppy in my use of the word “genre”, but I’m glad you feel some of the same frustration with the way this argument seems to take place in an historical and political vacuum, as if notions of “literature” and “genre” and “culture” weren’t incredibly loaded. My sense of it is that a lot of the problem is that most of the time people seem to have an agenda (usually promoting a particular kind of writing, or bagging snotty literary types), which is why I was so keen to point out that none of this goes on in a vacuum, and that it’s intimately connected to a series of other questions about power and culture (though I have to say the class stuff came off sounding rather more strident than I meant it to – occupational hazard of quick ‘n’ dirty blogging, I suppose).

    February 13, 2010
  7. “Can’t wait until the genre borders of literature and sculpture melt in too.”

    Oh, but they have! Shaw’s Pygmalion (based on a Greek myth and in its turn the basis for My Fair Lady, how’s that for intertextuality) and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale come to mind (both have statues coming to life), and I’m sure there are more.

    Srsly, the breaking down of boundaries between artforms and multi-form artistic practice generally is coming more and more to the fore as technology makes it easier and standards go up. Robyn Archer wrote a brilliant essay (partly) about this called “The Myth of the Mainstream” in 2005, when the Howard government was taking the Australia Council backwards by abolishing a couple of its Boards. She wrote

    “A conservative view of the arts still dominates and is reflected in the division of the Performing Arts into the discrete sectors of Theatre, Music, Dance, Visual Arts and Opera. The fact that these generic borders have disappeared in the best and most successful work all over the world means nothing to these bureaucrats, who are restructuring according to their preferred view, no matter how out of step they may be with the ways of artists in the twenty-first century.”

    February 13, 2010
  8. Jane GW #

    Fascinating discussion. I agree, Kerryn, that there’s nothing new about the breaking down of genre boundaries and that what’s new is the way we talk about it.

    And along the same lines, James, in response to your comment that

    ‘“Literature”, and the literary may be socially contingent cultural constructs, but they’re not arbitrary, at least within the context of our culture. What’s good and what’s bad is defined by relation to the canon, and by standards of judgement which (while they change over time) have been developed over hundreds of years.’

    I’d say that literature and the literary are, if not arbitrary, then constantly open to challenge and revision, always in flux. So many writers now unquestionably enshrined in the canon were once derided, outsiders. Defoe and his bestselling success were disdained by the literary gentlemen of London. Keats was grouped with the ‘Cockney School’ and mocked by the establishment for spouting uneducated rubbish. Melville died forgotten and impoverished and his genius was not recognised until reread with a modernist eye.

    The energy of literature is constantly renewed by ‘interlopers’ who bring to it new language, new perspectives, new stories. Most recently in Australia I’d say our own literature has been electrified by two writers writing against and extending the ‘canon’: Alexis Wright and Christos Tsiolkas, who has over four novels and twenty years gone from a ‘cult’ ‘grunge’ outsider to a bestselling, acclaimed, much awarded literary superstar.

    February 14, 2010
  9. bluerose #

    Interesting piece, thank you, James. And Genevieve – I will look up the AHR references.

    There are many factors in the mishmashing of “literary/mainstream” and “genre” over the last 20 years, in particular, and a lot of them have already been mentioned. I see the source of some of it in the opening up of tertiary education to working-class and lower-middle-class students in the mid-60s (the Commonwealth scholarships Menzies made available) – writers/artists of all sorts could come from a broader section of society than before.

    Another factor I see: in times of economic stress, the novel of plot becomes more resonant/relevant/important to more readers, than novels that deal essentially with mores.

    (It’s not always easy to distinguish between them at first – Douglas Coupland’s novels do not age well, for example.)

    I agree that The Myth of the Mainstream is a very important essay because it illuminates so well the way politics/power relations can inform judgements that are presented as wholly aesthetic.

    February 15, 2010
  10. bluerose #

    And then there is the fact that in a time of great social upheaval, bits of parallel universe busting into your world can be pretty much what life feels like.

    (Pick your own universe – crime&violence, alien planet, the past irrupting into the present and co-existing with it, the underworld suddenly opening…)

    February 15, 2010
  11. I’ve had a poke around and sadly Carter’s missing middlebrow article doesn’t seem to be available online. If anybody has a link it’d be great to have it.

    Reading back over the post and the comments string I’m struck by the fact that Mark Davis has been making similar arguments in the context of his broader critique of the cultural aspects of class in Australia. Of particular relevance is his Overland lecture, ‘The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing’.

    February 15, 2010
  12. That said, searching for the Carter piece did lead me to the rather wonderfully-titled Middlebrow Network. I’m guessing that means there’s a whole field of academic research called Middlebrow Studies, which has made my entire day.

    February 15, 2010
  13. Teh Mystery of the Middlebrow essay is in a book entitled Imagining Australia : Literature and Culture in the New New World, edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Judith Ryan. Iz in Harvard Uni catalog/ue:

    Possibly at a university near you? thanks to Austlit for great list of all Carter’s works, which I found the other day and emailed selections to myself.

    February 15, 2010
  14. And look at that right column on that link – they call Harvard UP ‘hup’. Now that has made my day.

    February 15, 2010
  15. Jane GW #

    Yes, I agree bluerose, and like the way you put it – ‘in a time of great social upheaval, bits of parallel universe busting into your world can be pretty much what life feels like’. As experienced by the surrealists post WWI.

    I think of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and other so-called ‘magic realist’ novels that blend the fantastic and the real – and are also seen as ‘literary’, like Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ and Alexis Wright’s ‘Carpentaria’.

    As Marquez said about writing ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’: ‘My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic’ so that he could write truthfully, ‘realistically’, about his ‘outsized reality’, as he put it.

    February 15, 2010
  16. bluerose #

    Jane GW: Thanks for your acknowlegement!

    Some decades after 100YOS I understand the notion of a corporation buying an ocean and shipping it away. I suspect the technical term might be “overfishing” or “development (excluding the locals)” or “Superfund site”…

    February 16, 2010
  17. I don’t think they call it “overfishing”. I think they call it “sensible use”. At least until the whole fishery collapses, and then they blame the whales for eating the fish, or the greenies for holding back development of other, new fisheries. The best thing is it’s a game you can play over, and over again, and the outcome never changes.

    February 16, 2010
  18. bluerose #

    I think the latest term might be “adding value”…

    So I think what I am saying is that when there is great social upheaval, straight mimetic fiction is not always intense enough to utter the weight and urgency of the writer’s sense of reality.

    I would have left out the “always” if I hadn’t read “Sacred Games.” But that book was an immense undertaking. Genre offers a kind of shortcut, perhaps.

    February 17, 2010
  19. Let me get just a little bit pretend huffed up and say that actually, *some* people at Australian universities do get very precisely that kind of education.

    The irony is that it’s largely by accident or as the unintended byproduct of management decisions. I’m thinking of the students at my institution’s regional campuses, where the entire first year intake into Arts is usually between 30 and 40 people in each location. So for English only one subject can be offered each semester – so they haven’t a choice about what they study – so we try to offer them a rounded, comprehensive tried and true sort of sequence. They graduate having taken courses on classical drama, medieval lit, renaissance, romanticism, and so forth.

    They might be the exception that proves your rule because it demonstrates another truth about the way current Arts students come to be taught what they’re taught: most students have some degree of choice about what subjects they study, and they study what interests them.

    On your major point about readers having more catholic tastes and a less strict sense of hierarchy in terms of genre than they did not so long ago – yes, I completely agree with that observation. But I suspect that while most readers have a more eclectic approach to genre, fewer writers and perhaps fewer novels are read overall. The mega-bestsellers have a little bit to do with this, but not much.

    February 18, 2010

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