Cecelia wrote: “As a writer though you aren’t just trying to fit into a megatext. You’re trying to do something original. The concept of genre interferes with this.”
The adverb “just” is crucial here. Even when writers are trying to do something original, they’re often trying to simultaneously engage with a megatext. Peter Straub had written ghost stories before he wrote Ghost Story, but one difference between that novel and the earlier If You Could See Me Now is that Ghost Story, as the title announces, is trying to be the ghost story to end all ghost stories, to find originality in its outrageous fulfillment of every imaginable trope of the megatext. Peter Prescott realized this in his influential full-page review in Newsweek, the review that sent me to the library looking for Straub’s book, back in 1979; the headline was “All but the Clanking Chains.”
Bruce Sterling, whom I invoked earlier, likes to say that genre “is a nearly unalloyed good.” I think this is partially what he means, that it gives us such a wonderful racquetball court where we can bounce our ideas around.
Yes, I certainly bow to this.
I am in complete and enthusiastic agreement here. Genre is one of many tools a writer has at his/her disposal. One of its many uses is to provide the box we try to think outside of.
There are several different issues involved here.
From an academic view, categorization terms are used as a means of explaining, defining and understanding. Many of us have an academic bent and want clarity and precision. We like our critical terms to Mean Something. That’s entirely understandable, but very difficult when dealing with slippery customers like creative writers.
Then we have the marketing issues, which those of us at the business end have to be aware of. Marketers only value categories as ways of getting people to buy more of something. I don’t think we need to go there, beyond noting that it is inevitable and likely to be wholly lacking in rigor.
But it is the social use of categories that is causing all of the fuss. In communities category terms are generally used as a means of exclusion. They define who is “one of us” and who is not. When someone says that they “hate” a term, it is only a small step from there to that term being defined as “offensive”, and from there to going back through already published material and excising every occurrence of it.
In the social arena (and fandom is very much such a place) I prefer to use umbrella terms where possible. The point of an umbrella term is not that it “means something”, but rather that it can mean a whole variety of disparate things, and therefore acts to unite a community rather than to divide it. But finding an umbrella terms for what we do is hard.
SpecFic, for example, is held up by some as being exclusive of fantasy, because it abbreviates to SF. It is held by others as being a term designed to placate outsiders, and therefore insulting to us as an oppressed minority. (A classic example of this is the use of the term Welsh for a cultural group, because it is actually an English word meaning “foreigners”). Because there are plenty of people with reasons to “hate” SpecFic, it isn’t useful as an umbrella term.
Fantastika has a similar problem, in that people will claim that it promotes fantasy to the exclusion of science fiction.
I’d love to find a useable umbrella term. If nothing else it would mean less typing when I’m trying to be inclusive. But I have this awful feeling that I’m going to have to resort to an equivalent of the ever-expanding alphabet soup of the queer community. We’ll have to talk about SFFHAH. And then the fantasy crowd will insist we replace F with EFUFHFPR. And so on.
Or, to use some different letters, AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!