LITERATURE VS GENRE – SECONDS OUT (PART 2)

1

by Mike Carey

Continued from part one, published on The Norwich Radical two weeks ago.

I hate to rake up ancient history, but here’s another example from a little further back – dredged up because in this case it is a writer of literary novels (Edward Docx, in the Observer in 2010) who’s saying this, so the agenda is maybe a little more naked.

Even good genre… is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

Considering that Docx rails against “a fundamental dishonesty” in the way this subject is usually discussed, I’m going to pick my words with care.

Yes, of course there are constraints when you write genre fiction. There are also constraints when you write literary fiction. Totally unconstrained writing would be (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut) gibberish interspersed with exclamation marks. When you write – when you write anything at all – you write on the end of a tether. But it’s a flexible tether, and it’s all about the dance you perform on the end of that thing and how you work with it or strain against it or in some cases tie it into knots that were never seen before.

In the case of The Girl With All the Gifts, my latest novel, there was more than one set of constraints. The novel began its life as a short story, which already imposes some limits on length and – more subtly – on structure. And the story was written for a themed anthology, a collection of stories with dark fantasy or horror elements on the topic of “school days”. So genre, settings and themes were partially specified too.

Yes, of course there are constraints when you write genre fiction.
There are also constraints when you write literary fiction.

What that meant for me, as a writer, was this: I went into the story on a different vector and it came together in a different way. Specifically, it accreted around the character of Melanie – a ten-year-old girl trapped in a monstrously inhumane institutional setting and unintentionally revealing (to us, the audience) the bleak truth about herself and her world as she interacts with the adults around her.

If Docx’s thesis is right, the fact that I was working in a space that had been partially defined for me should have robbed whatever I produced of all or most of its potential value. I think the opposite was the case: being coaxed out of my comfort zone made me take creative pathways I’d never noticed or thought about before, and the results were unexpected and exciting. I realised almost as soon as I’d sent the story in that I couldn’t part company with Melanie so soon. I’d inadvertently written the first few scenes of a much larger narrative. There were events that hadn’t eventuated, other characters waiting in the wings, and a box (Pandora’s) that had finally to be opened.

The constraints were liberating, and believe me when I say that I speak as someone who has no interest in bondage.

But special pleading aside, look at the works of Ursula LeGuin, China Miéville, Lord Dunsany, Angela Carter, Ray Bradbury, Connie Willis, Mervyn Peake, Ted Chiang, Raymond Chandler and Don Winslow (just for starters) and see whether writing in genre made their work less resonant, less profound, less valid and affecting, than the work of any canonically approved genius you care to mention.

I tend to see the entire “literature versus genre” debate as a dead horse so cruelly and relentlessly flogged that it isn’t even vaguely horse-shaped any more.

And while you’re at it, there’s fun to be had in trying to think up reasons why Hamlet and Macbeth aren’t genre fictions. Because they’re old, maybe? Because there’s an R in the month? One’s a ghost story, the other one has witches in it, and both were written (whatever else was in Shakespeare’s mind) in a sincere bid to break the record for “most groundlings in a theatre the size of a pocket handkerchief”.

If I’m honest, I tend to see the entire “literature versus genre” debate as a dead horse so cruelly and relentlessly flogged that it isn’t even vaguely horse-shaped any more. It lies in a neglected corner of the academic meadow close to the intentional fallacy and the vast midden of post-modernism. But since Mr Burkeman has tried to put a saddle on it, I felt it was probably worth offering an opinion (“It is an ex-horse. It has ceased to be…”). And on top of that, to slip in a reference to one of my favourite writers and her eloquent rebuttal of this whole daft non-argument. I’m referring to Ursula LeGuin, who in the introduction to The Left Hand Of Darkness laments the tendency of people who don’t like or get science fiction to pronounce (ham-fistedly) on what science fiction is and does. Along the way, she has this to say about the relevance and importance of her chosen genre:

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great
dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of
these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words.

I like this formulation very much. I seldom write pure sci-fi, but LeGuin’s words apply just as well to horror and dark fantasy and probably to serious-minded works in any genre. I also like T.S.Eliot’s famous dictum about everything you write being “a raid on the inarticulate”. A genre is a tool you pack and carry along when you go on one of these raids. It takes it place – its honourable, earned place – among the other tools of the writer’s trade.

The position espoused by Krystal and Docx could loosely be paraphrased as “my grapnel is better than your carabiniere”. Which suggests that they may not have got the hang of this writing malarkey at all.

One thought on “LITERATURE VS GENRE – SECONDS OUT (PART 2)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.