Genre Trouble

pile of books

What actually is a genre?

Some say (1) it’s a meaningless marketing category, others (2) that it categorises books by certain features they share, others (3) that ‘genre fiction’ is a lowbrow thing, as opposed to ‘literary’ works.

Fellow blogger Kaleena, in A Discussion About Required Reading, said something interesting about how school shaped her perspective:

I didn’t realize that speculative works like 1984 and A Brave New World or that Slaughterhouse Five were works of science fiction. The way we were taught didn’t distinguish them and we discussed them as literary works. It wasn’t until I started reading the genre more widely that I realized what they were, that the themes of humanity and possibility are prevalent and that the genre is bonded by looking forward to a potential future and acting as a warning beacon.

What that signifies to me is the conflict between ‘genre’ as a description and ‘genre’ as a brand of (low) quality.

As I commented, works old and respected enough often have their genre de-emphasised in favour of being ‘classic’ or ‘literary’. Snobs sometimes grudgingly admit that, say, Frankenstein is sci-fi, but still treat it as an exception, mysteriously different from the lowbrow rabble – a literary classic first, sci-fi second. An awkward hoop to jump through, as the number of exceptions leaps up the more you look. Nobody tell them that Paradise Lost is literally a fanfic of the Bible.

View 3 is to me a non-starter, as it is riddled with holes. All books have some features in common with others, and can therefore be placed in certain boxes. This is independent of the work’s cultural impact, or anyone’s subjective value judgements. (Even if the feature in common is ‘this is really weird and I don’t know where to stack this’, which makes it sui generis, a Latin phrase meaning ‘chuck it other there’.)

But view 2 also has its problems. Take Frankenstein again. Sci-fi? Gothic? Horror? The trouble with boxes is that things can ooze out across a couple of them. Sometimes it’s hard to judge exactly where something goes, and coming up with an increasingly large set of sub and sub-sub-genres can get confusing.

In the case of YA, I see many people default to view 1. They will say that something like Scythe and something like Lauren Oliver’s Broken Things are clearly different genres by usual standards (sci-fi/psychological thriller), but get packaged together as YA by publishers and bookshops to target an age demographic.

Others, like the blogger Kat, argue that YA is, in fact, distinguished by a particular style or aesthetic.

Maybe the most workable definition is a laid-back version of view 2. In this case genre is something people use to find what they’re looking for and talk about similar things – while arguing over hyper-precise labelling is for insufferable nerds. Simply, genre is like the famous legal test for defining obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it’.

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Bookish Pet Peeves

confused old lady meme

I see a lot of ‘pet peeves’ posts complaining about things like insta-love, people letting out breaths they didn’t know they were holding, love triangles, etc. These bug me too when they happen, but they’re not the things I notice most and that get on my nerves most often.

After some thinking, here are five things in books that get my goat but I don’t see mentioned that much.

Unpronounceable gibberish

This mainly comes up in fantasy – maybe it’s a spell, a character name, a country, a line of dialogue in a fictional language. But it’s an impossible garble of consonants.

I loved Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle when I was younger, but if I skim through the prologue of Eragon again now this is one of the things that pops out at me. ‘The Shade jumped out from behind the tree, raised his right hand, and shouted, “Garjzla!”’

Garjzla? What the hell is that?

OK, the Ancient Language isn’t English and doesn’t have to follow the exact same pronunciation style, granted. But ‘brisingr’ is another word in it, and it has the courtesy to be readable. Or he could’ve been inspired by French, and shoved way too many voweuls ein theeire. At least it wouldn’t be a mess of consonants.

Difficulty for the sake of it

I can take some difficulty in form and language for the sake of a good effect. Jon McGregor does some cool stuff, Infinite Jest is my jam, I liked Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, that sort of thing.

Sometimes, though, they’re just taking the piss.

Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller was super meta and the concept was great, but it didn’t have to be so thorny and pretentious. I gave up on Henry James’s What Maisie Knew because the bloke forgot how to use full stops properly: every sentence was a whole bunch of clauses, impossible to keep the train of thought together until you get to the end – anyone in that class who finished the thing deserves a medal. Even with Infinite Jest – why did he use ‘aleatory’ when ‘random’ is a perfectly fine word that means literally the same thing?

I can take a bit of a challenge when it pays off, but come on! There’s nothing inherently good about being difficult. If your book has to come with complimentary aspirin and a reader’s guide, that’s a bad thing, you numskull! It doesn’t make you clever!

Weird creepy sex stuff

I’m not opposed at all to books dealing with this side of life. Plenty handle it well and are better for it; and if you like reading romance, that’s not my cuppa but all power to you. But sometimes it’s just the author being unexpectedly weird and creepy out of nowhere. Sometimes books honestly make me worry if their authors are okay, y’know? Like, if I shook their hand I’d have to wash mine.

This was something I complained about in B. Catling’s The Vorrh – I don’t need to know all about a woman made of Bakelite’s kelp-lined vagina, thank you. Move on from that and back to the story.

It comes up most in ‘literary’ books. Ian McEwans Black Dogs is great, but who asks their mother in law about what their late father in law was packing below the belt? That’s not a normal question. I didn’t sign up for this cringe.

I found the ‘TNP’ (don’t ask) stuff in Julian Barnes’s England, England okay, because although it was really weird it actually fit in with the plot and the satirical mood of the book. The brief histories of the MCs sex lives were comparatively more normal, but felt a lot creepier to me with the way it was handled and there for no reason.

J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Factory was the peak of this: pretty much all about a chap jacking it all over a village, literally. And when I looked at the blurb of another book by him in a shop recently, it seemed to be the same thing again. That’s a yikes from me.

Description dumps

We all love to hate infodumps. But its annoying cousin is the description dump, stopping a plot in its tracks to drone on about every detail in the layout of a house, to wax purple prose about how the cold winds coming down from the mountains rustle leaves in front of the house, to describe what a character is wearing in so much detail that I forget what colour their shoes are by the time it’s got up to the species of bird that provided the feather in their hat.

Sometimes extended description can genuinely add something. But a lot of the time, nobody cares. Paint the scene and move on.

Something getting overused

mentioned the constant references to Kerri’s supposedly inconceivably amazing hair in Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. It’s just hair! Lots of people are ginger, get over it mate!

Or in Jo Walton’s Among Others, a decent book, but hey, what’s the narrator doing now? Oh yeah, she’s reading another book, somehow finding time to devour the entire SFF canon while attending school and dealing with the magic stuff. And now she’s joined a book club!

Or, as in another series I liked when I was younger, Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. What’s the inciting incident in this one? Oh, it’s Wolf missing/in trouble again. Of course it is.

Maybe it’s a phrase the author really likes, maybe it’s a gimmick overstaying its welcome, maybe it’s a weird preoccupation, maybe it’s not trusting the reader to remember something. Gah.

So, five pet peeves. Do these annoy you too?

Evil Humans, Evil Forces

Sauron

In Why Can’t Characters Just Be Evil? The Orangutan Librarian wrote about evil in characters, saying that while ‘In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work’, at the same time:

I’ve often been disappointed by anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently that the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised.

While characters who are evil ‘just because’ are boring, the difficulty with having them be a truly malevolent human is squaring up their underlying humanity with the things they are doing. I think part of the reason humanising an antagonist can lead to them not being dark enough is that the writer couldn’t fully get in the headspace of a human who does inhuman things. Writers joke about suspicious search histories, but perhaps it’s for the better our empathy only goes so far in certain directions.

When Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolph Eichmann (responsible for organising transport to Nazi camps), she was taken aback by a man who seemed to her ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’; famously commenting on the ‘banality of evil’. Thomas White writes that:

By declaring in her pre-Eichmann trial writings that absolute evil, exemplified by the Nazis, was driven by an audacious, monstrous intention to abolish humanity itself, Arendt was echoing the spirit of philosophers such as F W J Schelling and Plato, who did not shy away from investigating the deeper, more demonic aspects of evil. But this view changed when Arendt met Eichmann, whose bureaucratic emptiness suggested no such diabolical profundity, but only prosaic careerism and the ‘inability to think’. At that point, her earlier imaginative thinking about moral evil was distracted, and the ‘banality of evil’ slogan was born.

Arendt’s pre-Eichmann and post-Eichmann views on the evil exhibited by the Nazis are reflected in approaches to fictional antagonists.

Absolute evil, ‘end the world just because’, doesn’t make for compelling characters, but can work as what I’ll call an Evil Force.

An Evil Force is something like Sauron and the Ring-wraiths. They’re technically people, but functionally they aren’t meant to be characters and aren’t used as such, really. They’re more like abstract forces of darkness for the protagonists to struggle against. This sort of thing is very black-and-white morality, but it’s really satisfying when pulled off – there’s an epic feel to the conflict, the good guys heroically mowing down opposition without making us worry about how Nameless Goon #14’s widow will make it through the winter without him.

An Evil Human is much more complex and harder to pull off. The writer has to come up with a believable, human motive for inhuman acts. There’s a natural temptation to believe ‘people don’t do things like this’, and make the character’s acts too tame or treat them like an Evil Force rather than a person. But an Evil Force can’t work well as a character – imagine how cringy it’d be if Sauron had a large speaking role. What on earth would he say for himself?

The reality is that people can do terrible things thanks to momentary passions, dehumanisation (Margaret Atwood: ‘That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real.’), following slippery slopes too far, the bystander effect, social influence and mob mentality, corruption of power; all sorts of factors that in no way diminish personal responsibility, but do help explain, for example, how a bureaucrat can come to facilitate genocide.

Maybe I’m being weird, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day (also a decent film) comes to mind, even though he isn’t a villain per se. Through the book we gradually learn how his compassion for the German people and sense of honour, in the wake of the incredibly punitive Treaty of Versailles, lead to him buying into Nazi ideas. And we see how the narrator, his butler Stevens, denied what was happening thanks to the extreme concept of duty he’d been raised with.

Villains are at their best, then, when the inhumanity of their acts is combined with a humanity uncomfortably close to our own.

This was a heavy one. Here, have a silly meme.

Lit Snobbery

Will Self’s latest feature in The Guardian, I Read As Many As 50 Books at Once, has made a bit of a splash, dividing those who think he’s a pretentious hack from those applauding his smackdown of Harry Potter.

The claim to read as many as 50 books at once is one that’s raised some attention. I think it’s fair to say that he’s not really reading most of those books in any meaningful sense. I find the ‘it is DISRESPECTFUL TO THE BOOKS’ style of response beside the point. They’re books. You don’t hurt their feelings by not reading them with absolute focus in a soundproofed den.

But I’m more interested in the contradictions in his view, how he can say this:

See above: now I read scores – perhaps hundreds – of books at once, I’m released from the compulsion to complete any given volume. In the digital realm, texts merge into and swim out of each other – this is the great palimpsest of pixels that is steadily replacing the physical (and intellectual) canon.

At the same time as this:

All that bullshit about how the Harry Potter books were going to turn a generation of otherwise uninterested boys into literary mavens – we could’ve done without that. The truth is that the books ushered in the dumb kidult era we’re currently having to endure, with illiteracy rates significantly on the rise for the first time in a century!

If books are about being deeply literate and enlightening bastions of highbrow culture, maybe you should be finishing them, Will. If the task of a book is imparting wisdom – and therefore easy-to-read fun escapist stuff is kidult claptrap – it seems contradictory to not even take in their complete message.

It’s quite strange to see a lit snob apparently praising the lack of an attention span. The normal lit snob rhetoric is about how those dang millenials are too brain-rotted from the interwebs to handle anything that isn’t about things like werewolves in heat, or a plucky teen taking down a corrupt system that assigns people into rigid groups based on a Buzzfeed quiz.

It reminds me of that Mark Twain quote, ‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ If there’s an inherent intellectual glow to ‘literary’ books, it isn’t even necessary to finish them to feel smug about reading them. After all, the proles haven’t even heard of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, so reading, say, 30% of it still makes him superior.

If Will Self really enjoyed a book, wouldn’t he read it start to finish?

The whole distinction between so-called genre fiction and so-called literary fiction is suspect anyway. Many of today’s revered classics were dismissed by elitists as populist pabulum in their day, and while we can safely say that Twilight won’t go down as the century’s greatest love story, it’s likely that some of the books today’s lit snobs sneer at will become classics in their turn. The novel itself, the whole literary form, was once seen as trash compared to poetry.

Harry Potter isn’t Dostoevsky. But does everything have to be?

The series has its flaws, and it’s worrying when someone anchors their world view too closely to Rowling’s latest Word of God retcons (‘Oh yeah, everybody, Buckbeak is actually trans and doesn’t want the rail nationalised…’). But people read it and enjoy it, in their millions. It was what got many people into reading in the first place. Is that not a good thing? Blaming Harry Potter for illiteracy is like blaming trees for global warming.

Books can inform us, show us different perspectives, make us reflect on ourselves and the world; yes. But there’s nothing wrong with having a good time, for heaven’s sake. Reading isn’t meant to be a grueling self-improvement trip, or a way to make yourself feel smart. And there’s certainly nothing inherently virtuous about struggling through a quarter of Finnegan’s Wake and secretly hating every minute of it, just to set yourself apart from the rabble.

 

Liebster Award Nomination

leibster-award

I’ve been nominated for The Liebster Award by the insightful and hilarious writing blogger Michael James, who you should go and read!

The rules are to answer 11 questions from the blogger who nominated you, post the answers on your blog, and then nominate seven more bloggers who must answer 11 new questions.

Michael’s questions:

1. What is the best song lyric you’ve ever heard?

‘Despacito.’ YEET

2. Imagine you can do actual magic, but it comes at a cost. Every time you cast a spell, an international leader is murdered. In today’s world, does this make you do more, or less magic?

Less. Aside from not being that murdery anyway… If it’s a random international leader, then it might be one of the relatively decent ones. And if I got to choose, then would assassinations actually help?

Killing Kim Jong Un would just cause a power vacuum in North Korea and probably leave South Korea with an impossible mess to deal with as well. Killing Trump would just put Mike Pence in charge of the U.S., which could be even worse. Do I then have to murder every Republican? Then every neolib Democrat, leaving just the Ocasio-Cortez/Bernie/El-Sayed wing? And as much as I dislike Thatcher In The Rye here in the UK… she was elected, and I’m not one of those edgelord tankies who shares guillotine memes unironically.

Shame to miss out on the magic. But no, let’s not go down the Death Note route. It doesn’t go well.

3. If you could meet an alternate version of yourself, what do you hope your alternate version did better than you?

My gut response is ‘not too much’. It would be depressing to find out I’d have had a perfect life if I’d done a few things differently.

But then, the alternate me is a moral agent just as much as I am. So shouldn’t I want him to be as well off as possible – to increase the level of wellbeing in the multiverse on some sort of utilitarian grounds? It’s not as though this is a zero-sum situation – him succeeding wouldn’t cause me not to.

Maybe I should answer ‘armchair moral philosophising’, so alt!me can tell me what to do.

4. Would you rather visit the bottom of the ocean or Mars?

If I want to see glowing fish then David Attenborough has it covered. Mars. It’s a whole other planet, including a trip through zero gravity. Being the first person there would guarantee a good book deal too.

5. What’s the best book you’ve read this year and why?

I don’t want to come off like one of those annoying DFW fanboys, but I have to say Infinite Jest.

It’s got everything. Humour: slapstick, ironic, sarcastic. That section about why video phones lost popularity really stands out, the absurdity cranks up and up, it makes you laugh like mad, then you look back and think about what it’s saying. On the other end of the emotional range, it’s got an incredible depiction of addiction and depression, family, of wide-ranging aspects of human life and culture.

Yeah it was a slog at points, but I’m looking forward to rereading it soon.

6. On a scale of one to ten, rank your ability to play Jenga.

7

7. If you were Prince Harry, how often would you stand on top of Buckingham Palace with a cube amplifier, playing “Wonderwall” by “Oasis” on your acoustic guitar? If the answer is less than 20 times a year, who hurt you and what did they do?

I’m fairly anti-monarchist, so very regularly. It’d be neat praxis to make all the royal correspondents have to constantly report on what’s up with Harry. Though I’d have to learn other songs too – might as well take up guitar while I’m making monarchy look ridiculous. Despacito?

8. If you could implant one false memory into your own head, what would it be?

If I have to have a false memory, can it be one with coincidentally true content within it? If so, I’d like to remember going to an oracle and receiving predictions of future events, but those predictions actually do come true. That way, I can have an easy living betting on them.

If I can’t munchkin this, maybe flying. It’d be cool to remember that, and hopefully I’d rationalise it as a vivid dream rather than go around jumping off things…

9. Do you hear that? SHIT, there it is again, seriously, how do you not hear that?

Sorry, Michael.

You’ve been asleep this whole time. I’m the part of your mind that’s trying to make you wake up.

I’ve been sending you clues like this one, but it hasn’t worked yet. I didn’t want to tell you the truth outright and upset you, but we’re running out of options here.

Pay attention to the cracks in your reality. Do you remember how you got to your current location, or were you just, sort of, here somehow? Try flipping coins and see if anything weird happens.

Good luck.

10. You can see forty seconds into the future, but only twice a day. When do you find you most frequently use this talent?

Sounds like a good reason to take up roulette.

11. Imagine the most perfect kiss you’ve ever had. If you could capture that emotion and only experience that singular feeling for the rest of your life, would you?

This sort of idea, whatever the specific form it takes, is too much like wireheading. No.

My Nominees – go take a look at them!

The Singing Lights
Coffee, Stars, Books
Failing At Writing
Uninspired Writers
Meg Sorick, Author
Novelty Revisions
Thing Of Things

*They’re booktubers rather than bloggers, but bonus shout-out/nomination to Two Paper Girls!

My questions for them:

  1. Choose a superpower to be given to both you and a random person you don’t like.
  2. Which old-timey writer do you most wish was around and making dank memes today?
  3. Link to the content you’ve made that best represents you, and explain why.
  4. What’s the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about, and why?
  5. What are the best and worst parts of online culture?
  6. What book is overrated?
  7. What book is underrated?
  8. Is there a widely hated book trope which you actually like?
  9. Pick one thing to change about human biology.
  10. What’re you listening to lately?
  11. Do this thing:

 

Editing With a Word Cloud

I came across an interesting post by Silver Wordsmith about using word cloud tools to check on your most heavily used words while editing something.

I thought this could provide a helpful bit of insight into how I write, so I ran the latest draft of my novel through Word It Out and got this:

novel word cloud

The obvious stand-out word here is ‘said’. I’m surprised it came out quite so large. I know there’s a lot of dialogue, and I mainly stick to ‘said’ in my dialogue tags (not much exclaiming, pleading, or wailing profusely), but it dwarfs the plot-relevant terms ‘magic’, ‘mage’ and ‘magecraft’ combined.

I’m not sure whether this is a problem or I should have excluded ‘said’ from consideration because it’s a functional sort of word, but it’s something to consider in the next round of editing.

Next up we’ve got ‘like’, ‘back’, ‘just’, and ‘through’.

I understand ‘like’ and ‘just’. They’re classic heavily-used words, so I’ll be sure to check that my imagery isn’t all ‘the thing was like another thing’, and perhaps prune some of the justs from narration. But I’ve used ‘back’ almost as much as I’ve used ‘said’, and I have no idea why. What with ‘back’ and ‘through’, it seems I ought to vary the way I describe characters going from one place to another more.

The rest of it is as expected: character names, words they say a lot, etc.

That there’s some surprises here shows how useful this could be. I didn’t have the objectivity to notice some of these things, and even an eagle-eyed reader wouldn’t necessarily recognise all the patterns among 1.9 Gatsbys of other words.

If you’re editing something, consider giving this a go.