Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literature as a genre - asking questions of texts

It's Wednesday again...

Some of my dear readers may have noticed that I very often go out of my way to avoid using the term "literature", and instead talk about "written fiction". I'm not being eccentric, though. I have a point.

Literature is a genre all of its own, just like fantasy or science fiction or spy thrillers are.

In this entry, I talk very briefly about genre, using the angle that genre is about subject matter, furniture, setting type. That angle served the purpose of that double-post, which was to set up a four-dimensional matrix useful for classifying fiction, and to emphasize the need to distinguish between genre and medium (fantasy vs MMO), and between genre and mood (science fiction vs comedy)...

... But it is one of the most naive angles that one can take on genre.

A more sophisticated angle is to view genres as on-going conversations or discussions, where newer works are replies to older works, touching upon the same themes (e.g. gigantic space habitats that spin to generate artificial gravity). This phenomenon, of on-going conversations, is subtle, and therefore difficult to perceive, but is a very useful angle, because it enables the discussion of when a cluster of works split off from the main genre and become a genre of their own, e.g. as D&D fiction has split off from fantasy (if it ever was fantasy), or discussion of how fantasy and magic realism are two completely different things, with no relation to each other, even though if viewed superficially they share some furniture.

The Questions that are Frequently Asked
I might write a blog post about that some day. In this entry, though, I'll take the angle of questions-and-answers: That genre is the reader asking a set of questions of a text as he is reading it, and that genre is also the author anticipating those questions and answering them in the text as he is writing it.

This angle opens up for talking about mismatches. Some years ago at a crit group meeting, I had a text read aloud to me (reading out loud was one of the quirks of that crit group) that did not answer the questions I asked of it while listening. I kept asking questions about the world. When it was possible in this world to construct extremely human-like robots to be used as sex pets or sex slaves, what else was this extremely advanced technology used for? I kept asking the text to show me, but it never did. There was only this female robot, and the implication that lots of other similar artificial humans were afoot in the world, constructed via technological means, technology available to the humans in the world, rather than being some kind of donation from advanced aliens who gave only that one very specific kind of gift and never any other kinds.

I was asking science fiction questions. The science fiction questions. The questions that all readers of science fiction ask of all science fiction stories.

But I was asking them of a horror story.

The questions for fantasy are remarkably similar. What are the novums of this world? What are the implications, the consequences, of these novums? If magic can do amazing stuff A, B, C and D, why don't the wielders of magic also employ their magic to do less amazing but much more useful equivalents a, b, c, and d?

As I wrote in this earlier post, science fiction and fantasy takes place in a world1, whereas horror does not.

I'd like to think that there are questions that are the questions for horror, the ones always asked by readers (by fans of horror), and always anticipated and answered by writers. But I don't know what they are. Really, I don't. And by this I mean to say that I don't think horror has such questions, as a genre tradition.

The wrong angle?
So far, this seems to speak against this proposed "angle of genres" of mine, that it makes sense for fantasy and for science fiction but not for horror. My defence, though, is that it also makes sense for the genre of literature. In literature, the questions - the questions - are about symbolism and meaning. Meaning not in the sense of what the fuck actually happened. Not questions in the style of what did strangely-named-creature just do? No, deep, philosophical, angsty, literature-shaped meaning. And everything symbolizes something. Every character and object and event in the story is meant to be interpreted, by the reader, as being something else.

Jo Walton talks about it here, how some people do not understand that literature is one genre among many2, but instead bring their questions with them, and then react with anger and derision when non-literature texts blithely fail to provide any answers to those questions, much as if someone were to visit a foreign country and becomes angry when the people there can't speak the languge of his homeland.

I kinda did the same, with that horror story. Or maybe not kinda. I should probably admit that I did do it... But then again, the story was misleading. It contained a robot, clearly indicated in the text as being very advanced technology. When I come across very advanced technology in a fiction, I think that I am entitled to expect it to be science fiction, and thus to demand that my (no, the) science fiction questions are anticipated and answered. Questions about the world.

Questions about how real people, real realistic people - by instinct greedy, horny and materially insecure3 - would exploit the newness, the new magic, or the new technology. Yes if they could build sex robots then they would build sex robots. That's not the problem. The problem is that they would not confine themselves to building only sex robots. That's not realistic. They would also build other things that are roughly at the same level of robotechnological sophistication. And with technology (but not always magic) there is a process of progress, of forward motion, which means that if it is possible to build advanced human-like robots in (e.g.) the year 2060, then it would have been possible to do things in 2040 that are notably less advanced but still far ahead of what we can do here in our world in the year 2011. Thus there should also be relics of tech, stuff that was once cool but is now taken for granted, but which is still in use, because while no longer cool it is still useful, and possibly also because it is cheap.

The literature people are different from me in their arrogance (in the way they are arrogant). They insist upon their questions. They refuse, vehemently and tacitly, to acknowledge that theirs is just one genre and that their questions are not valid elsewhere, and that texts that ignore their silly questions can be perfectly legitimate because they fully live up to all the quality standards of the genres that they belong to. Of course they - the literature people - also don't know the genre protocol, the method used by SF authors to move information from the inside of the POV-character's head and to the inside of the reader's head, in an elegant and non-intrusive fashion.

And they don't know that when reading fantasy or science fiction, the reader is supposed to be interested in the world, and supposed to engage with the world and to accept it as an alternate reality, and to evaluate the characters based on how they cope with the rules of this alternate reality - if they are wise and savvy and clever, or if they are immature and stupid.

You're in a zombie apocalypse. It's real. Deal with it! Don't waste a lot of time looking for symbols and metaphors and meanings that ain't there! The zombies are trying to eat your brains. What are you going to do? Cope with it, for fuck's sake! Figure out what your options are4, and then use that knowledge to survive.

What others have to say
"...those who refer to their genre as "serious literature" - as if the rest of us are just kidding." - said by Orson Scott Card, in several different places.

Le Guin has a snarky essay here. I haven't read anything by Chabon yet, and some of the things I've heard about his novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" makes me wonder if it is in-genre or if it is mainstream (and/or literature), thus making me unsure of whether it is something I ought to read. On the other hand, a couple of months ago, I found out that Chabon really likes my favourite novel, Bengtson's "The Long Ships" ("Röde Orm" in the original Swedish). So I probably ought to give him a chance.

English Wikipedia has this article section, about Literature viewed as a genre.

And of course Terry Pratchett, who started out writing parodies of fantasy tropes but quickly mutated into something else5, and who will commit suicide not too far into the future, rather than to suffer the indiginity of Early-onset Alzheimers, jokes about sometimes being accused of literature. If I ever get some of my fiction published, and someone accuses me of that, I'll have to look into my options for a defamation lawsuit.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

1. Note that most of the movies with "In a world..." trailers probably do not take place in a world, but rather entirely in our world.

2. Of course I'm not saying that literature is one genre among equals, because I consider it inferior to those genres that can stand on their own (at least in English-speaking countries), without needing to be supported by grants and propped up by the academic circle-jerkers, because their authors actually remember that it is important to entertain the reader.

3. Having evolved through tens of thousands of generations of food scarcity. I'm not talking about insecurity in the psychoanalytical/Woodyallenical sense.

4. Which means you have to figure out the rules. You have to find out how the zombies in this world work, every way in which they differ, positively or negatively, from living human beings. What they can do (and how well they can do it) and what they can't do. How and what - nevermind why. You have to get on top of the sitation, survival-wise, before you can try to do something about it.

5. I'm inclined to assume that most people who like fantasy are like me: they enjoyed the first few Discworld novels but then largely lost interest in the series as Pratchett's focus and interests changed drastically. Or to take it from the opposite end: I'm not sure there is much overlap between Discworld fans and fantasy genre fans. The first Discworld novels were fantasy, but after that the series shifted to being stories that takes place in a fantasy world without the stories themselves being fantasy. If that makes sense. Most of the time I think it does.

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