Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre

Russell Letson

Not to speak for Cecilia or Ellen or other writers-of-fiction, but it seems that there’s genre and then there’s genre. (Where are the Hayakawan subscripts when you need them?) Genre-as-publishing-tool can look like an itchy straitjacket to someone who just wants to get the story out into the air, whatever it turns out to be.

But to return to the example of music, I can testify that one way of keeping track of the range of possibilities to which I have access when I play is also “genre”–a collection of collections of choices I can make, forms and conventions and textures and tempos and time signatures that I can match and mix. I can stay inside one set of conventions and traditions, or I can mix ’em up and surprise the audience (and myself). And I know that while my command of technique limits my choices, there are players who can ignore that kind of limitation and just choose from anything on the menu–or, for the prodigally gifted, they can rewrite the whole cookbook, though after a few millennia of noodling, there’s not much room for absolute novelty that doesn’t wind up sounding like noise.

Genre-sub-1 might be restrictive “rules” about what sells to a target audience, imposed by publishers or agents or producers. Genre-sub-2 is a field of possibilities, with suggestions about how to activate features from a configuration menu–but with a service mode that allows considerable deep reconfiguration–genre-as-toolkit. I suspect that there’s also genre-sub-3, observable in MFA programs, where it means “this instructor doesn’t get/is fed up with/finds too downmarket particular categories of literary production and won’t accept  examples of it for credit.”

The multiplicity of meanings of “genre” also means that the term can conceal a wide range of principles of classification–in some schemes, the novel is a genre (prose narrative, long form) with a lengthy historical footnote to distinguish it from the classical romance and the tale. In others, it’s all about the content or the tone, or even the intended audience response (Gary has pointed out that horror fiction is named for its effects, not how it gets them).

F. Brett Cox

It might be worth considering if there’s a difference between a genre and a tradition.  I think most sf writers do see themselves working either within or against genre, but do writers we would think of as mainstream literary writers see themselves working within a genre called “mainstream literary fiction,” or do they see themselves working within a broader, looser “tradition” of certain approaches to fiction?  Did Walter M. Miller, Jr., see himself writing in the gnere of science fiction, while Cormac McCarthy saw himself writing within the tradition of postapocalyptic literature?  (To be honest, I doubt McCarthy saw himself as writing anything other than a Cormac McCarthy novel, but you get the idea.)

Terry Bisson

Genres are rules. The more rules the better. Art is made by banging against rules. What is a clapper without a  bell?

Cecelia Holland walking naked? Clothed rather, and most magnificently, in the duds of a grand tradition, perhaps the novel’s highest. (Ask Leo!)

I agree with Sterling that genre is “a nearly unalloyed good.” The dude has a way with words.

Ellen: Genre is the part of literature you don’t have to think about. Not if you’re not shopping.  It’s like goldfish thinking about water. It’s thoughts are made out of water.

Speculative fiction is a prissy word.

You’re always conscious in a story when you are crossing that line.

I agree most with Kessel. I think most of us do by now. He’s our prof! But Witcover’s no slouch. And I love Letson. You can fucking jump up and down on it.

Cecelia: You can’t get to the naked part without the clothes to take off. The nicer the better. Read my Playboy stories.

Originality is no virtue. It is. however, a necessity.

Who’s this Clute?

Karen Joy Fowler is not out-of-genre. She’s leaning on the box looking in.  Hey, she’s talking to you.

Are we describing a description, or describing how we work?

Gary’s got it backwards. Horror is horror because of how it gets its effects. Tools.

Larry McMurtry ( no great writer but a serious one) says you don’t write what you know, you write what you read.

10 thoughts on “Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre

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  • February 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    A stimulating discussion. I’m most in agreement with John Kessel, which may be understandable. What hasn’t been discussed here, however, is that identifying the genre is essential for a reader if he/she is to read it properly: each genre (and the original use of the term applied very broadly to fiction, drama, poetry, etc., and SF, Western, Detective,..are sub-genres at best, or categories) has its own reading protocols and if the reader applies the wrong protocols the reading goes awry. See Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Case.” So a writer who wants a reader to arrive at a particular reading response can hardly avoid dealing with a reader’s expectations.

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  • February 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    As a writer (vs. the reviewer/critic that Paul W. distinguishes) I think any time I hit upon an idea for a story, that idea arrives with suggestions of the genre territory it’ll occupy fully intact. What I can and can’t do with it is dependent, among other things, upon the scope of my familiarity with that territory–the better handle I have on it, the more knowledgeable I am about what’s been done already, the more things I can do, and the more things I can upend. (See Terry’s McMurtry quote.) I suppose I stand between Mssrs. Witcover and Kessel in that I think I’m very conscious of the genre the story is aiming at, but that this pointed direction came already embedded within/implied by the idea. I’m not spending much time ruminating upon it. To me that’s all the more reason to be aware of the things that aren’t of that territory, because they offer elements I might want to draw upon that would make the story different, richer, unique. Like hauling some Franz Kafka or Bruno Schulz into my very in-genre fantasy story. And the debate will rage on anyway as to whether the resultant story belongs in “this” category or “that” category. Which is all just fine by me.

  • February 17, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    I don’t like the term “Speculative Fiction” – it sounds so undecided, like we have no idea what we are writing or reading. However, I don’t have any problem with genre labels. I read in a variety of genres, and I don’t feel there is anything wrong in dividing a story in Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror etc. When I am writing, I know what genre I am writing. It’s not a conscious decision to write in particular genre, but each story, just happens to be the right one for one genre more than all the rest.

  • February 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

    Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

  • February 18, 2011 at 12:56 am

    The “what to call this whole umbrella of genre fiction” went a bit outside of the original question, but I found that very interesting.

    Recently, Orson Scott Card, in an interview with John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley on io9’s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, made the case that fantasy is now properly a subset of science fiction, because modern fantasists are just as rigorous in their world-building:!5746150/orson-scott-card-writes-humans-in-episode-29-of-the-geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy

    And even more recently, Scalzi says: To engage in further nitpicking, everything you can possibly label as “science fiction” is in fact just a subset of a larger genre, which is correctly called “fantasy.” This is because science fiction — along with supernatural horror, alternate history, superhero lit, and the elves-and-orcs swashbuckling typically labeled “fantasy” — is fundamentally fantastic. Which is to say, it involves imaginative conceptualizing, does not restrain itself according what is currently known, and speculates about the nature of worlds and conditions that do not exist in reality. It may gall science-fiction fans to think of their genre as a subset of fantasy, but it is, so calling a film “science fantasy” is in most ways redundant.

    It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

    Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

    So I agree with Cheryl Morgan: AAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!

    I do like that the banner ad I see when visiting the roundtable is for Expanded Horizons: speculative fiction for the rest of us.

  • February 18, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Just a quote note: I didn’t complain that Horton said I wrote slipstream, I complained that there was no such thing as slipstream. So far as I can tell, it really means stuff that obviously betrays influences other than the textual hardcore of SF or fantasy influences, which one would hope wouldn’t need another whole subgenre for itself. (Writers should read far more widely than they write, even if they write in several genre traditions.)


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