Get Orf My Laaaand! Or, why my genre's better than yours

Category: Writing

The gloves are coming off. The genre authors are fighting back. Take Iain M. Banks’s recent article, which in itself is wounded but ultimately open to inter-genre dialogue. Then regard for a moment, the comments below the article. I appreciate that no-one looks kindly upon people treating their genre with disrespect and thinking they can do it without putting in any work – it’s the same irritation a writer of any kind feels when people think writing itself is easy. I have no wish to start a fight (which I would surely lose), but Banks does – or at least the comments below, do seem to be marking out a territory, which other writers are not permitted to enter. Even if this is an understandable reaction to the constant belittling of genre fiction, I don’t think it’s terribly helpful.

This kind of argument happens throughout the fiction community, just as it does in most other groups of human beings. We are territorial animals, and there is a primal urge to say: ‘this space here is mine, that space there is yours.' Then, it is comforting on many levels to believe that ‘my space is superior to yours.’  The intellectual capacity to discern merit in things is invaluable and not to be dismissed, but it strikes me that the whole argument over genre is perhaps also motivated (on both sides) by the other stuff. 

I am reminded occasionally during the genre debate of the frequent, one-sided literary 'discussions' I used to have with an acquaintance years ago; a person who tended towards the end of the conversational spectrum marked 'intellectual bullying'. We both believed reading to be an important and worthwhile thing to do, but that commonality paled, for him, in comparison to the differences between what we read. I like stories. 'Stories,' he would declaim with righteous and mighty scorn, 'are for children'. And then he would swan off to read some more Georges Bataille.

Worthwhile reading and writing of fiction for adults, he asserted, was about communicating the intensity of intellectual and sensual experience, not about narrative.  Stories were for people who required comfort; for intellectual cowards and slobs. That he approved of Jorge Luis Borges, one of literature’s great lovers of stories, was an irony that escaped him. The conclusion I reached, for the preservation of my sanity, was that it is a matter of taste.  

My own taste, going by some of the books and writers I love, would appear to be sympathetic to Science Fiction: the amazing Transition by Iain Banks himself, (note the lack of the ‘M’ that denotes he is writing Science Fiction); anything by Kurt Vonnegut; Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, to name just a few. But Piercy is perhaps one of the dilettantes that Banks was railing against in his article. When it comes to ‘proper’ Science Fiction, the ring-fenced preserve of those familiar with its conventions, it often leaves me cold. Most of Philip K. Dick (is he ‘proper’ Science Fiction?) – great. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem – heaven. But a great deal of the SF I have tried to read takes for granted that the reader has a whole body of SF reading behind them, and it makes assumptions about knowledge I simply do not have.  I get a sense of someone irritatedly saying: 'Oh, do keep up!' while I whimper into the pages. I appreciate that people who are familiar with a genre may want to see a deepening exploration of it, and it’s great that people are doing that. I’m just not willing to put in the required reading to go with them – there are too many books out there for me to stick with one genre.

Ursula K. LeGuin encapsulates the problem perfectly:

'Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.' 

I have come across too much of this kind of SF, which means that if a book gets tagged as SF, I approach it with a little caution. That is a damn shame, as I am sure I’m missing out on loads of incredible writing. 

What makes it even more difficult to find what might work for me is that Science Fiction, as with all genres, all classifications, has many subdivisions which, to the outsider, give little indication of what one might prefer.  To anyone who considers Science Fiction a coherent set, take a look for starters at this list of subgenres, between whom I would guess there is often as much antipathy as exists between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction.  

Furthermore, lists like this can’t even begin to address the multitude of things we look for in fiction, including the narrative tones of the writers; the way they choose their words and string them together; the strength of characterisation; and an absorbing and unique view of the world. These things and more are eventually what really make me warm (or not) to any book, regardless of subject or theme; a genre tag gives us very little, if any, indication of them.

But it’s useless to fight against genre tagging. The human brain (as well as the marketing department) likes to categorise. It makes things feel more manageable; it makes us feel like we can negotiate the world more effectively. Unfortunately, it also impedes fluidity and aids the arbitrary marking of intellectual territories. So, I’ll let my brain categorise, if that’s what it wants to do. I just won’t let that stop me reading something that may be truly amazing. Neither will I let outraged genre writers stop me writing about whatever I want.



R A Martens

R A Martens received a New Writers Award in 2010.