Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

31 thoughts on “Crossing boundaries

  1. Pressed the wrong Button! I’ll start again. This reminds me of a ten year old I taught who wanted to write a story with what I call ‘a meanwhile back at the ranch’ structure. In other words, she wanted to tell what was happening in two places at the same time. However, she didn’t have the language structures to manage it so she divided her page in half vertically and wrote was happening in one location on one side and drew what was going on in the second location on the other. She was really worried when she gave her work in because she thought she had broken the rules about how you write a story in school and would be in trouble. I told her she was a genius!

    Liked by 6 people

    1. That’s a wonderful description of yours to describe the interweaving of simultaneous narratives, familiar from film and TV, but one which requires great skill to achieve. Your ten year old did what I do when taking notes on parallel stories or when comparing various versions of a narrative in folk or fairytale and even medieval chronicles.

      I do love it when young minds are innovative especially as they’re conditioned early on by societal norms on what they should and shouldn’t do. Genius indeed!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. earthbalm

    Love the idea of dividing the page into halves. It’s the sort of thing that ebooks and graphic storytelling could do but so rarely does. Great post again Chris and speaking of genres, I’m thoroughly enjoying a copy of M.R. James’s collected ghost stories I bought for pennies in Hereford. Stylistically, exactly my kind of thing. Ain’t books (storytelling) just grand?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pratchett occasionally does a similar thing with his idiosyncratic footnotes: some are so detailed and fill half a page or more that they’re almost like parallel stories.

      I’ve also got a secondhand copy of James’s ghost stories, possibly the same one as yours published I think by Wordsworth Classics. I got about a third of the way through before getting distracted but have always meant to come back to them. The same with Edith Nesbit’s Tales of Terror collection, which I half thought I might finish off at the end of September or early October.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        Shall look out for Nesbit’s collection. Yes, it’s a Wordsworth Classic copy I have though I’d like a hardback copy. I agree with you about Pratchett’s footnotes but would also reference Susanna Clarke’s footnotes in “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” as being able to enhance the story telling and create a parallel narrative. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, of course, I’d forgotten the Susanna Clarke but that’s an even better comparison! Have you read its companion volume of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu? They’re quite spooky too. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

        1. To be honest I get news on current affairs that doesn’t always feature in the Guardian, and rarely from the BBC, from Twitter, along with more frivolous though entertaining stuff. But it’s far too easy to get obsessive and I try to limit my time there.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    Hear, hear!

    I’d blame marketing departments of big publishers… the trend started long ago, but I think that’s where and when it got out of control. Precisely targeted books with no soul, of a kind that AI already started writing, and when it replaces the big names of the genre industry (our genre will probably not be the first here, there are simpler ones), we’ll hardly notice the difference 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, now how do I know ‘Piotrek’ isn’t in fact an AI writer programmed to write satirical, outraged comments and posts, already replacing human Piotr by hijacking his online identity and composing by proxy?! How do you know I’m not a replicant which has hacked a mediocre musician’s account, analysed his stylistic foibles and…

      That’s enough now, Calmgrove, I’ll take over now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Robert Holdstock, The Fetch (1991) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  5. AMEN! Love Jones’ talks. It doesn’t help that publishers encourage writers to tell people what their book is like: “Beauty and the Beast meets Mulan,” etc. It’s like we’re being told our stories HAVE to be like other stories already known. And we’ve been told this so much that, I guess, many writers have wondered why they should try writing anything original at all…

    ugh, I got cynical there. time for coffee xxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cynicism can often be the spur for effecting something different rather than retreating into crabbiness, and I’m sure that’s the case with you, Jean. 🙂 Lord knows that’s what I keep telling myself! But coffee’s (strewth, predictive text suggested covfefe!) always welcome, especially before midday.

      I’d like to see some really creative back cover blurbs for books, you know, along the lines of
      A novel in which Proust meets Reader’s Digest or The ideal companion for those seeking a self-help book when marooned on a desert island orbiting the planet Zarg or If Douglas Adams wrote historical romance this would not be it.

      In fact I feel a post is suggesting itself…

      Liked by 1 person

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