What Do You Have Without Genre?

Perhaps this is why Damien Walter has lived for four years on the UK Government dole without producing the novel for which he was fronted. First of all, whether he likes it or not, Science Fiction is a genre.

Here is the definition of genre: “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” From the 19th century French, for ‘a kind.”

Now, what is disagreeable with the idea of Science Fiction as a category of art? It is, most certainly literature. We can debate the quality of each work on its own merits. Are there similarities of form, style, and subject matter? Well yes. Damien Walter could not speak to the return of the space opera (Though Peter Hamilton in particular might ask when it ever went away), if there was not a form Ancilliary Justice was attempting to utilize within the Science Fiction genre. Yes, authors might subvert or turn their forms at places. In fact, I’ve heard some argue that Space Opera is better rightly considered “Fantasy.” And no less an authority than George Lucas considered Star Wars “Space Fantasy.”

This is not a new thing. Nor is it entirely new that it be done solely for the purpose of ideology: C.S. Lewis did this with his Space Trilogy. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, I heartily despise allegory, with its forced symbolism and outside narrative attempting to force the reader to see the world the same way. It’s a cheat, a bore, and an intellectually dishonest approach to writing, IMHO. I find this just as true when the symbolism is one I agree with (Like Lewis), or something I do not. So the attempt to subvert or play with genre norms does not prove something is not that genre. One has to recognize the fact norms exist in order to subvert them. Eric Raymond’s article discusses what they are in some detail.

I would add to his list that typical to science fiction is the question: “What does it mean to be human?” As opposed to Fantasy, where the question is: “What is the cost of Virtue?” Another distinction is that science fiction, as Asimov stated, must both internalize science and form lively prose fiction, or it cannot be both “science” and “fiction.” Fantasy has no external rules on plausibility in its world, only internal coherence matters, both within the worldbuilding proper, and by the characters to the setting. This is true in China Mieville’s steampunk: where Khepri are forced to confront the question of humanity and society as much as the main character. Of course, maybe Walter, considering steampunk the ‘halfwit cousin of cyberpunk,’ couldn’t be bothered to read it, even when the writer is from his own political persuasion, far more clever, and capable of actual character depth in a way Ann Leckie’s work was not. Really, the gender-pronoun confusion issue is hardly new, or innovative, or confrontational. It’s been done. And better.

Unlike some, I do not assume everything at a publishing house can be discounted as if you know what it writes. Nor do I despise any particular house. My favorite current authors are Jim Butcher, Steven Erikson, Ilona Andrews, Larry Correia, Daniel Abraham (and his alternate identities), Sarah Hoyt, and Brandon Sanderson. I used to count Neal Stephenson, but his last two major works (Anathem and Reamde) do not, IMHO, match the standard he wrote from his cyberpunk up through The Baroque Cycle. In that list are authors from Ace, Baen, Orbit, Penguin, and Tor. Given my stance in the Hachette/Amazon controvery, one might assume Orbit doesn’t belong on that list. But there are a number of their authors I enjoy (Gail Carriger is another). And there are Baen authors that do not interest me.

I would also note that I doubt the politics of that group is monolithic, and to say Butcher, Erikson, Andrews, Abraham, or Sanderson have catered ‘to Right-wing’ at any point is ludicrous. Nor did I know Larry Correia’s politics when I started reading him (at the suggestion of fans on both Butcher’s and Erikson’s forums). Stylistically, the prose of these authors range from the minimalist and action oriented of the International Lord of Hate, to the Iowa-trained “literary” flourishes of Erikson. So it’s not the form of prose that catches me either. It is the ability to tell a story, in any genre. Whether playing straight with the conventions, subverting them, or mashing them together (as Urban Fantasy is famous for doing, and I’ve done a bit in my own writing). You have to know what the norms are to use them. Otherwise, you cheat the audience and turn them off.

It’s telling in Damien Walter’s article that he doesn’t consider entertaining the reader, or even keeping their interest, a primary purpose. It also informs me that if, in the next four government-sponsored years, his attempt at science fiction were to actually emerge, I’d be safe to ignore it. Not because of the politics. Only those on his side of the fandom divide care about the politics over the story. No. It’s because he has no respect for the form, the history, or the nature of the art-form. He is not writing to entertain. But to pontificate.

For that, I say the best place to write is in a political blog. I’m sure Huff Post could use another writer.

3 thoughts on “What Do You Have Without Genre?

  1. Part of the problem is, I believe that Damien thinks it is the purpose of fiction to challenge the reader. While this isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, it shouldn’t be the primary purpose of a work of fiction. After all, if that is all you are seeking to do, then people will simply stop reading unless you give them a reason to latch on and actually be challenged.

    Atlas Shrugged is one of my favorite books. Rand definitely challenges the reader. However, she also uses story in various ways to keep the reader from wandering off.

    Does it work for everyone? Absolutely not. After all, some people just don’t want to be challenged. Hell, catch me at the wrong time, and I’m definitely one of them. Challenge those readers and they’ll walk off.

    However, Damien doesn’t get that. He apparently thinks the reader is obligated to read and finish any work that they cross. It doesn’t. He should know that. After all, he clearly reads so little of the genre he seeks to pontificate upon.

    • I’m honestly in the camp that never could see Atlas Shrugged as more than pontification. Now The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson OTOH, I like. But that’s because he can be funny as hell while doing an author tract. Rare trait, that.

      Once upon a time, I felt if I picked up a book, I had to finish it. I don’t feel that way anymore. I paid money to be entertained. If I wanted to be informed, I’d read non-fiction. See, THAT is what he forgets, IMHO. It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged when I read. But that the primary purpose of FICTION is not to inform, it’s to entertain. If he wants to write to inform, then as I said, he needs to be writing non-fiction.

      I spent a decade writing academics. I know the difference. While I use my learning to make a believable world and plot, I don’t see the need to parade it to the reader. Maybe if I was writing Herman Wouk style Historical Fiction. But even then, he knew how to write a good story.

      • Everyone has their own opinion on Atlas Shrugged, and there is an awful lot of pontification (I skip John Galt’s speech every time I read it), and I don’t get bent out of shape when someone disagrees with mine.

        You’re right about Damien missing that non-fiction is where people go who want to be informed. Political non-fiction is generally preaching to the choir. Same as message fiction. It never accomplishes what it’s intended to accomplish because no one who they’re trying to reach has any interest in reading it.

        When you bury everything behind the message, you bury everything the reader actually cares about.

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