Let Me Digress

Kathryn Hore - Writer

Category: PopCulture (page 1 of 3)

Spoiler Alert

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that my social media feeds include a lot of nerdy geeky types. You know, considering I’m one of that particular SFF loving, comic-book reading, pop-culture enjoying, fandom participating, fanfiction obsessing, book nerd crew.

And in case you didn’t notice, the world of geeky fandom has kind of blown up over the last week with the release of the latest Marvel superhero flick which kind of, well –

SPOILER ALERT

– kills everyone in the entire history of the MCU, as last as far as I can tell.

Or not. I haven’t actually seen it as yet. With two kids under 6, a full time info governance career, my own writing pursuits and the usual domestic/life/family things to be done, I don’t get to the movies so much anymore. I’m the type of person who has to schedule in downtime – I’m serious here, 3-4 nights a week between 9.45-10.30pm I have literally calendared “do nothing but stare at a screen playing mindless entertainment”. It’s probably not a good sign when you start scheduling relaxation into your calendar. It’s undoubtedly worse when you regularly skip it to get work done.

Personal life-choices aside, I will eventually get to see the latest Avengers flick in which everyone dies – spoiler alert? – but it won’t be until it turns up on a streaming or download service of some kind, so we’re talking some while away yet.

In the meantime, my social media feeds are filled with friends and acquaintances and those weird randoms I must’ve followed for some reason once, but can’t remember now who they are or why I wanted their trivia in my feed, and who are all currently posting exactly the same thing:

Just seen the Avengers – OMG! NO SPOILERS! DON’T READ ANY SPOILERS!

Because apparently it’s no longer merely a sin to spoil plot twists in pop cultural products for other people, but it’s now some kind of geek-fandom sin to just spoil it for yourself.

Hmmm.

So for all you MCU lovers, and for all you lovers of cinema in general – and books and any other story-telling medium – who like to go in fresh and unspoiled, I wanted to tell you something. Know what I did? Deliberately did within barely a few hours of the latest Avengers flick hitting the worldwide cinemas?

I googled “Infinity War spoilers” and ventured out to the internet to read every damn spoiler for the movie I could lay my hands on.

See, I love a good spoiler. I often enjoy a movie more if I go in prepared for what I’m about to see. Perhaps that’s because I like to think about the pop culture I’m consuming within its broader cultural context – blame that old cultural studies honours year of mine back in the “yay postmodernism!” 90s – or maybe it’s just because I don’t have time to waste on something that doesn’t pay out, so I want to know in advance it’s worth it. But I certainly like to go in knowing what’s going to happen.

It can be a useful thing to be happy with spoilers. I’m one of those Australians who loves Game of Thrones but who’s not prepared to give Bad Old Uncle Murdoch a single red-cent, so I won’t subscribe to his pay TV channel to see it fresh. Instead, I wait until the season ends and buy it to download, after everyone else has already watched it. But as the season plays for the first time I do read all the recaps of each episode and follow what’s happening as it happens. I’m full up with spoilers by the time I get to actually watching it for myself.

And I’ll let you into a wee secret: not once in my entire history of seeking out spoilers have I ever experienced a moment of consuming pop culture where I felt I had a lesser viewing, reading or entertainment experience for knowing what was going to happen. I enjoy it all as equally as if I’d gone in blind. Every second of it. Indeed, I’d argue I enjoy it more.

Maybe it’s just me. Going by the reams of internet “no spoilers!” obsessives cluttering up my feeds at the moment, I’m pretty certain I’m in a minority on this.

As I’m of a generation which grew up without the internet – I didn’t get my first email address until I was a post-graduate student, that’s how old I am – there are movies I have seen where I went in entirely unspoiled, and I’ve tried to recall if it made a difference. I guessed the twist to The Sixth Sense while watching it (I’m a huge fan of ghost stories and the “he’s actually dead the whole time” twist appears in several major ghost tales, so I was actively on the lookout for it), but I loved that film regardless. I grew up watching The Sting, so can’t remember a time when I didn’t know all the twists and turns of that one.

I didn’t know or foresee the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I adore that film, but would I really have loved it any less for knowing? I’ve watched it, just as I have the others above, multiple times since first seeing it, and I love it the same on each repeated viewing.

So does it really spoil anything to know the twist, or plot points, or who dies in advance? I’d argue not.

Now, I’ve been talking mostly about movies here, with a bit of TV thrown in. But when it comes to books, I don’t seek out the spoilers so actively. Someone’s suggested to me in the past that perhaps I don’t invest as much in movies as I do in books, so I’m still going in unspoiled when my fiction is prose and written down on the page. But I’d argue it’s actually because I don’t read that many modern books, especially ones that rely on twists or unexpected plot points. It also takes me longer to commit to a novel than it does to a TV show or film, so I’m not as emotionally engaged when I start a novel and it’s not until I’m well into it that I’ll be interested in finding out spoilers. I also love to re-read novels, and read classic novels, that I already know intimately, so for much of my reading I’m long spoiled already.

So did I really enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo the less for knowing who was behind all those masks and schemes right up front, simply because the book is over 170 years old? (Though I did see a Spoiler Alert posted for it in an online forum once. Seriously people, I think a book dating to the 19th century is probably beyond the spoiler alert requirement.) Do I somehow have less of a reading experience as a twenty-first century reader for knowing ahead of time that Wickham is a cad in Pride and Prejudice, long before Lizzy realises? For knowing that dissolute Sydney Carton gives up his life in heroic sacrifice so Charles and Lucie can be together in A Tale of Two Cities? For knowing that Gatsby dies well before the end?

I’ve never gone into most books fresh and unspoiled. I go in knowing their plots well in advance and loving them for it. And I don’t see how that enjoyment changes just because I’m reading a modern works or watching new films, or TV, or other stories regardless of medium, where it’s technically possible to be unspoiled. I still like to know what I’m in for.

So I’ll say it, loud and proud – I love a good spoiler.

Still, one thoughtful anecdote, to end…

Many years ago, I was going out with a chap who’d grown up loathing Shakespeare. No, I don’t understand it either, and its probably unsurprising our relationship didn’t last the distance, but the fact is he’d actively avoided having anything to do with Shakespeare-related stuff all his life. Until he went out with me and I dragged him to the theatre on a regular basis. For his 30th birthday I took him to see a production of Hamlet. And because of the way he’d grown up, he had no idea what it was about. Not a single clue of any character, plot point or thematic emphasis at all. At the age of 30, this chap was watching Hamlet for the very first time and went in totally cold and unspoiled, if also cynical about the likelihood of enjoyment of it.

I have never in my life seen anyone grip the arms of their chair the way that chap did through the climax of Hamlet. He cried at the death of Ophelia. When Hamlet and Laetres are fighting, and Gertrude picks up the poisoned drink, he literally burst out loud to say “oh god, no, don’t”. This guy was the literal personification of “edge of the seat”. The sheer tension and terror he experienced watching it – and it probably helped it was a very fine production with excellent acting and direction – was amazing for me to witness sitting next to him, and the chance to watch something like Hamlet fresh, without any prior cultural knowledge, as an adult, is an experience I don’t think many in our society have.

So maybe there is something in avoiding spoilers after all.

It still won’t stop me seeking them out at every given opportunity….

So. The female Dr Who thing.

I have opinions on the new Dr Who announcement, specifically on the Dr being a chick, and just because I haven’t watched the show for some years doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to shout my opinions into the cyber-void like the rest of the geek-minded world.

So, here goes. As a feminist and as a proud geek, I have only one thing to say: I don’t give a fuck whether the new Dr Who regenerates as a man or as a woman.

As a storyteller, however, I think Jodie Whittaker’s casting is just fab. 🙂

Let’s just stop and dissect that a little:

As a feminist, I don’t give a fuck

This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but the fact is, hiring a woman as the lead in a long-running television show is not actually going to advance the cause of feminism in any meaningful way. No, seriously. Nobody is going to earn equal pay, break through any glass ceilings, gain respect for unpaid, domestic or caring vocational callings, or suffer less from systematic, structural gendered inequalities, simply because Dr Who now possesses a vag.

And yes, I know, I know, “representation matters”. Sure. It’s nice. We all like it. I just don’t actually think it matters that much. I grew up watching Ripley, Sarah Conner, Buffy, even Leia held her own, despite being like the only woman in the entire damn galaxy.

I don’t think these fictional characters taught me women could kick-arse. I already knew women could kick arse. But I loved seeing it on the screen, I loved seeing me – or an idealised, wannabe, fantasy me, because let’s face it, I was never going to fight terminators or vampires or aliens in reality and if I did, I wouldn’t be the one still standing at the end of the night.

I am really happy there’s another awesome strong female lead on the tele for today’s young girls to watch and cheer for. Woohoo, cool, you go girls. I just don’t think that makes much of a difference when it comes to breaking down the systematic and structural gendered inequalities inherent in our culture, politics and economics.

As a proud geek, I don’t give a fuck

As a geek, all I want is to see someone awesome in the role of the Doctor. Peter Capaldi was perfect. And Jodi Whittaker looks like she’ll be awesome too. Excellent. I think they chose well. But as a geek, I didn’t care right, left or centre if they hired male or female or beyond the binary for the role. There were some excellent male possibilities who, as a geek, I would’ve been quite happy to see in the role of the Doctor. That’s all I have to say on that matter.

As a storyteller, the Dr being a woman is the Best. Thing. Ever.

But as a storyteller now, making Dr Who a woman is a wonderful, long-overdue, awesome move that I am cheering to see.

It’s like this: any fictional character who’s physical presence is not in any way inherent or permanent, does not need to be bound by binary gender concepts, and should absolutely not be tied down to a single gender type. And considering the Doctor’s personality has altered with every regeneration, so his character changes every time, there is absolutely no storytelling reason for the Doctor not to be a woman.

But more – not only does it make storytelling sense for the Doctor to be a woman in some regenerations, by not having a female Doctor at least once or twice in the show’s history, a huge storytelling opportunity is missed.

Why do we tell stories? Why do we consume (watch/read/listen) to them? One of the reasons must be to explore, who we are, individually, collectively, and what makes us so, internally, also externally, our broader context and our self. Subjectivity and objectivity. All that jazz. A character like the Doctor, who is not tied to a specific physical presence, who regenerates into someone new every few years, offers immense scope to explore and investigate such concepts. Indeed, every time the Doctor regenerated back when I watched it, there was always a sense of discovering who this new Doctor was, and him working this out through his interactions with others. It’ll be interesting to see how this is influenced by the change in gender.

It made me think of Richard Morgan‘s Takeshi Kovac’s series, of which I am a huge fan (far more so than I am a Dr Who fan, actually). In Kovac’s world, digitised personalities slip on and off ‘sleeves’ – physical bodies – with startling ease. Only once, in the first book, does he wear a female sleeve, and it’s a pretty brutal end to that physical presence, but I always thought Morgan did that switch in gender exceedingly well, and I always wished he’d have explored this more.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism of that book series. I don’t think it was necessary for Morgan to go down that path and it wasn’t really the point of the books. He chose not to, no problemo. But for me personally, I would have found it interesting to explore Kovacs as a female. To explore, too, gender post the binary in a world where physical presence is fleeting and sexuality potentially fluid. It’s fleetingly touched on, when Kovacs pretends to be a hetero woman in a male sleeve, but he chooses not to go there in any major way. For me, that leaves a whole host of storytelling territory untouched that would have been fascinating.

Anyhoo, there’s no law that says an author must explore the storytelling territory I personally find interesting, and maybe that’s why I’m a writer, because I have interests and areas I want to explore in fiction, so I write the stuff myself. And I will always, *always* adore one of Morgan’s other books, Black Man, (Thirteen in the US) for it’s final few pages (well, for lots of reasons, but its ending too), when the hyper-masculine 13 meets a female 13 and is totally thrown to understand that his gender perhaps does not necessarily make much difference.

Anyway. I’ve digressed. Again.

In short, I love that the new Doctor is female, but not for the reasons you might think. Or maybe they are. Either way, I might just give it a watch again.

Or I might just go read Morgan’s books again.

Or maybe go write something of my own to explore issues of gender and sexuality when not tied to a single physical presence.

 

 

Reading post-kids

When I was preggo for the first time, I got a lot of tips and warnings and advice on what my life would be like after the baby came along. None of which prepared me in the slightest, by the way. Anyway, the one thing nobody actually bothered to warn me about, but which I could have used the warnings for, was just how dramatically having kids would impact on my reading choices.

Seriously, it’s like I’ve done a complete 180 here. I’ve always been a lover of dark fiction, right? Horror, noir, the uncanny. Now I head into such reads with significant trepidation, because there be monsters, you know… But not just any monsters. Very particular monsters. Narrowly defined, tightly specific monsters.

I’m talking about the “hurt children” monsters.

And I can no longer cope with them.

It’s not an uncommon thing, so I’m told. The inability to read about or watch anything that involves children being hurt, or in my case, children being hurt or missing or damaged or vaguely anguished or mildly disappointed or occasionally distracted from perfect blissful peace, because ffffffffuck me if I haven’t become a sensitive soul in my middle-aged motherhood.

You might think this is a small thing. And it is. It’s not exactly geo-political-cold-war-negotiations level significance in the world. But it’s also the thing I was least ready for from motherhood and considering the dark and horror fiction is supposed to delve into uneasy, disturbing and confronting subject matter, then dear innocent children are often excellent subject matter for creators of such fictions to use as story fodder, and suddenly I find myself cut out of a good many reading experiences.

It’s driving me more than a bit batty.

Like the other day. There I was, trawling audible.com – as one with a significant driving commute tends to do – and coming across a rather well-reviewed horror novel with an interesting premise. Goodo, just let me download that and try it out.

So I start listening to Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and by about half a dozen chapters in I can say the premise remains interesting, even if the execution thus far isn’t entirely to my taste. But that’s okay, not everything is, and the reviews are pretty good, so it’s the kind of thing I’d probably keep reading (or listening to, as is the case) and I suspect after getting a bit further in I’d forget about the fact the prose style doesn’t really do it for me and just be caught up in the story.

All good. Except. The very early chapters set up a premise that’s clearly intended for pay off later in the novel – teenagers teasing their parents with rhetorical/philosophical questions over which one of them they’d save and which one they’d let die if forced to such an awful choice. And one of the spoiler-free reviews I stumbled across happened to mention that the 300 year old evil witch haunting figure in the novel cursed the town after being forced to make just such a choice, kill one child to save another. And…

Nope. Sorry. Not going there. Won’t do it to myself. Six very short chapters in and I’m done.

This is no reflection on this particular book. While the prose style didn’t grab me, the story may well have if I’d given it longer, and it’s not the fault of the book I can’t cope with the idea of children being hurt by their parents, or parents forced to such horrific choices. It’s horror, people. It’s meant to disturb and upset in a safe, fictional kind of way. That’s the point of the genre.

But that’s the thing about this kind of subject matter. Since I had kids of my own it’s no longer so safe, or even so fictional. The real world intrudes of the fictional one for me now, to the point where I can’t read about a family in a small town with a  300 year old ghost that hangs about and everybody is just used to, without thinking about my own kids. And as soon as that happens, bam. It’s not fictional upset anymore, it’s genuine, real-world anxiety.

And I am not likely to deliberately up my real-life anxiety levels just for the sake of finishing a novel that didn’t really grab me to begin with, know what I mean?

All of which makes me a pretty selective horror-genre reader these days. My social media feeds went a bit nuts when the teaser trailer for the remake of It hit, because apparently it looks like a good adaptation of the book. Not that I’d know, because I’m not going to watch it. I’m not even watching the trailer. The inciting incident of that novel is the death of the protagonist’s younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, so no, not for me, not anymore. Despite the fact I loved that novel back when I was fifteen and based an entire Genre vs LitFic debate with my far more literary English teacher around it.

The acclaimed new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which all of my feminist friends are going nuts over? Yeah, I’m not watching that either. You do know they steal her kid off her, right?

I have made myself read through this block, when the book is good enough. David Mitchell’s Slade House opens with a doomed child. His The Bone Clocks also involves the disappearance of a child. I’m a fan of Mitchell from way back and I wanted to read both those books and I did. I am glad I did. I loved both of them. But it took some dogged determination to work through the hurt-kids bits.

I still haven’t read Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. I adore Garner’s non-fiction work. I’ve been a huge fan since first reading The First Stone back int he 90s, and not just because I was at Melbourne Uni through that entire period and lost track of the number of arts-undergrad arguments I got into because I agreed with Garner’s take on things at the time. But I can not read her take on the Farquharson murders. I can’t bring myself to do so.

Oh, and I’m so glad I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved all those years ago, because no way could I cope with it now, and it’s just one of those books that should be read.

So what’s the point of all this?

The point is that I don’t just read for escapism. If you do, that’s cool, more power to you. Sometimes escapism is what I want, and if that’s all I was after, all the time, then no probs. I’d just read that which doesn’t challenge me too much and relax into it and have a good time.

But I also read – or watch narrative screen stories – because I want to be challenged and provoked and unsettled. I want to be made to think in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before. I want to engage intellectually and emotionally with the fictional narratives I’m consuming. And horror and dark fiction is meant to turn our common fears upside down and shake them around, pull them apart, dissect, slash, tear and ground them into pieces, then stick those pieces back together in a grotesque imitation of truth.

Fiction is meant to confront and challenge and provoke. I read it for those reasons. But now I’m finding myself actively avoiding the most confronting variations of it.

Which annoys the hell out of me, because I’m not the kind of reader to avoid confronting fiction. Or at least I wasn’t before. But post-parenthood me turns out to be quite the sook when it comes to selecting reading matter.

And that is probably the most unexpected change becoming a parent has brought to my life. Just how big a sook I can now be.

 

Game of Definitions

So I’ve begun 2017 by trying to define what I mean when I think “literary fiction”.

Well actually, I’ve begun 2017 by railing on social media against the state of modern global politics and sobbing into my coffee every time I open up the news media of a morning, but that aside, for the purposes of this site, let’s just say I’ve begun by considering definitions of otherwise ill-defined genres.

As must be obvious with barely a cursory glance at this site, I’ve got an interest in genre, genre theory, and the intersections of genres that might otherwise not be considered natural bond-mates. I’m particularly interested in the hierarchies of genre and cultural assumptions that go along with that, you know, what’s supposedly good, bad or a likely to turn up on the Bad Sex award nomination list. Plus, why they’re considered such, who gets to make such judgements (the cultural assumptions, I mean, not the literary bad sex awards) and why broad-based attitudes towards certain genres prevail.

It’s probably a hangover of my undergrad uni days back in the 90s, when the idea of the Dead White Male canon was being constantly critiqued in literary theory circles and there was me, a bright and innocent new undergrad, going totally wide-eyed and gaping at this thing called Deconstruction. Wow. Or maybe it’s just because reading genre has always been my first passion and even when I pick up something undoubtedly literary, it’s for reasons usually more associated with genre reading – the plot sounds good, the story is interesting, a couple of the characters seem pretty badass. Not because it’s been critically acclaimed as a fine piece of high quality literary writing, because frankly nothing sounds more dull than a book that has fine prose but bugger all else to recommend it. You’ve got to do something with all that quality writing on the line. Make it count with some equally quality story, you know?

So. Anyway. All that said, where was my point again? I think I dropped it down the back of the couch, or perhaps lost it amid three billion angry-crying political retweets that currently suffices as my twitter feed.

Literary fiction: define. Sounds like a VCE English exam question, but I was starting to put together a slab of text about fiction that crosses the literary-horror divide and realised that as much as I like to rabbit on about this stuff, I really don’t have that firm a working definition of ‘literary fiction’ as I perhaps should. So I did what any modern chick with an education and an established career in systematic research and information management does when faced with a point of personal ignorance: I googled it.

Turns out there’s a lot out there in the writing-commentary-o’sphere that don’t have a decent working definition of literary fiction either. At least going by the blogs I cyber-meandered around, I didn’t exactly get to the academic journals yet. But in my initial googling, I did find myself reading the same thing over and over again:

“Lit-Fic: it’s kind of hard to define exactly, but I know it when I see it.”

Yeah, sure you do, champ. And ain’t that just the problem?

I’ve argued many a time that quality – a subjective measure at the best of times – cannot work as a legitimate defining characteristic of literary fiction because it is simply not unique to literary fiction. Quality writing exists across all genres, from erotica to hard SciFi (or should that be the other way around?), from body horror to psychological thriller, from historical romance to swords-and-sorcery grand epic fantasy. I know there’s a contingent out there in the literary commentary world that like to tut-tut about the restraining, confining nature of genre fiction when quality writers try their hand at it (I’m looking at you, certain regular New Yorker contributors), but sorry, that’s basic prejudice from those who don’t actually read the stuff. Genre fiction is filled with writing of all qualities, from the truly exquisite and superb, to the pedestrian and mediocre, to the schlocky train-wreck, I-need-to-stop-reading-this-awful-tripe-but-can’t-look-away dreadful stuff.

What I mean is, no genre can be defined by quality or lack thereof, because there’s quality writing in all genres. There’s awful writing in all genres too. And yes, I do include Literary Fiction in that, so stop swooning and admit some LitFic is pretty damn trite at times.

Hmmm. I supposed I should give some examples. Genre fiction that is high quality. China Mieville, for starters. There’s not a genre he hasn’t ventured into so far, I don’t think. David Mitchell. Yes he bloody does write genre fic, thanks, what you think Slade House somehow wasn’t a haunted house story? Richard Price, for you crime lovers out there. Ann Leckie for some modern SciFi that examines broader questions of gender and humanity while giving us some really rip-roaring space-ship action. Or lets go back a bit in the day. Jane Austen. You don’t get to modern romance without her. Mary Shelley. Kicked off modern horror and modern scifi and the gothic. Charles Dickens. Loved to tell a good scary story, did Dickens. Ursula LeGuin. Gender and politics in space, I’ll always love her for that. Toni Morrison. Beloved was absolutely a horror novel in every way, all the more horrifying because the real horror came from what human beings did to each other, not the ghosts haunting the place. Talking of ghosts, Henry James. MR James. Or let’s get new age. Samuel R. Delany. Want some modernism with your science fiction? Hell, want some gay porn with your science fiction (and who doesn’t?), go read Delaney. Now try Octavia Butler. James Tiptree Jnr. Joanna Russ. Yeah, I’m heading into my early feminist reading lists now, so lets switch back a few centuries again. Victor Hugo. Notre Dame is a monster story, isn’t it? Alexandre Dumas. Matthew Lewis, because The Monk has some of the most gruesome body horror my undergraduate mind had ever encountered and it’s considered the height of the literary gothic. Christos Tsiolkas even. Dead Europe was a horror story, wasn’t it? Kazuo Ishiguro. Cixin Liu. Cormac McCarthy. Margo Lanagan. Shakespeare. Don’t forget him, now.

I could keep going, of course. These are just the books and authors that popped up on my kindle when I browsed it for examples. Some of these writers are unequivocally literary. Tony Morrison, for starters, is almost never described as a genre writer, she is firmly in the LitFic camp, even if Beloved is so obviously a horror story to those of us who study the genre of horror. Cormac McCarthy wrote one of the most recognised (and devastating) post-apocalyptic fictions of the last half century – The Road – and yet he’s considered a literary writer, not a speculative fiction one. Others are commonly placed more firmly in the genre camp; I’ve only ever seen Ann Leckie described as a science fiction writer, perhaps a Lit SciFi writer, or a feminist SciFi writer, but still, she’s science fiction all over. But every writer I mention, and a million more that keep popping into my head, have all written books or stories that can very firmly be placed in well-defined genre categories. And they are all fine, fine writers.

Yet when it comes to some of the older ones, Hugo, Dumas, Lewis, even Austen or Dickens, I’m never actually sure whether they count as Literary Fiction. Literature, yes. One of the commonly accepted defining characteristics of capital-L Literature is that it has “stood the test of time”, and these guys are old, right? Hugo, Dumas, Austen, Dickens and their ilk, they’ve all been remembered, are studied, are considered classics by virtue of their age (but not only due to their age, I should hope). Hundreds of years after they were written we read and admire them still. Yet all of them were writing popular fiction in their day. All of them were writing commercial fiction in their day.

While we have no idea whether today’s LitFic will be remembered in a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years’ time. I rather suspect a good chunk of it won’t. What will be remembered might be… well, we don’t know. That’s the point. Though it does beg the question of just how much cultural production has been lost to time, fine achievements of great worth that simply didn’t hit the right cultural note at the right moment, that didn’t get seen by the right set of eyes to find its way onto a curriculum or into the review pages of a broadsheet, or onto some political banned list somewhere.

And sure, you could say that’s just what happens, not everything gets remembered. But that eclipses the arguments about who gets remembered and why, and whether marginalised voices get appropriate representation or instead it’s only the dominant hegemony which prevails and…

And that’s a whole other essay. One I probably wrote as a baby third year sometime around 1995. You know, Dead White Male canon and all that stuff.

Anyway, longevity only works as a defining characteristic when something’s already been around long enough to prove it’s going to be remembered. Like that Shakespeare fellow. It doesn’t help with defining Literary Fiction right now, or even if there is any connection between “Literature” and modern Literary Fiction. Because I’m conflating two separate categories there, aren’t I? Which is what happens when you start looking too closely at genre. On the one hand, genre is a marketing tool, basic general categories that help bookshops figure out how to arrange their shelving. That give us ways of searching for books online. On the other hand, genre is a way to interpret meaning within a morphing cultural-historical context, and that’s quite a different beast in comparison to deciding where to stick the latest David Mitchell when stocking the bookshelves.

Which means any attempt to define Literary Fiction in negatives – LitFic is not genre fic and that’s its primary definition – get complicated up by the fact that defining hard boundaries for any genre is problematic. So is Frankenstein science fiction, or horror, or gothic fiction, or literature? Is Jane Eyre romance, or gothic fiction, or women’s drama, or social commentary, or a pseudo-erotic fantasy that couldn’t get any sexier if it had actual nude scenes?

(Seriously, people. Go read Jane Eyre with your adult eyes on. Charlotte Bronte would be writing the best slash fic on AO3 if she were around today and I will always love her for it.)

I’m getting off point, so let’s just steer back a bit. Literary Fiction. Let’s recap: we can’t define it by measures of quality, because quality occurs across all genres. You could perhaps argue that quality writing is more consistent in LitFic, while other genres contain a greater percentage of works that are just, well, crap, and I might even buy that argument, but it’s still not enough. LitFic is mostly good, genre fic is good in patches. It just feels like you’re stretching there, if we’re talking definitions.

And it can’t be defined by longevity, except for those books that actually have been around for aeons, and even then we have to ask why they were remembered while others, perhaps written by more marginalised voices, were not. It can’t even be defined by what it’s not, because understanding genre and the meaning derived from genre is not as straight forward even in stories that are filled with spaceships and set in a galaxy far, far away.

So what else? Purpose? Genre fiction is written with a specifically commercial intent, to sell as much as possible, while Literary Fiction somehow has higher aims? Maybe… not.

I’m sure LitFic authors would love to be best sellers. Some of them are. David Foster Wallace, anyone? (Oh and  Infinite Jest is a SpecFic novel too, in case you’d forgotten.) But we’re talking intent, so maybe LitFic authors don’t write with a commercial intent in mind, they write to create art or meaning or some such, and publishers publish them because they’re high quality works that deserve to be published, not necessarily because they’re going to sell lots.

Only as an emerging genre writer, the most common piece of advice out there is to write the story you want to tell, that has meaning for you, and not what you think will be popular, not what you think will sell. Stephen King – as successful a genre writer as they come, lets face it –in his very well received memoir/writing manual On Writing, describes in detail how the first draft is always between him and the page only. He writes it with only one audience in mind, himself, and no other. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen from many writers and one that applies very much to myself as well. Its only in the redrafting process that the first draft is turned into something readable by others, and then it’s all about craft, elaborating and emphasising story structure and character and theme and symbolism as needed.

What I’m saying is that genre writers don’t sit down to write with purely commercial intent any more than LitFic writers do.

Which brings me to one last point. The ‘E’ word: escapism.

One of the most common ways I’ve seen of distinguishing Genre fiction from Literary fiction is by the weight of its content. Literary fiction is somehow supposed to equal deep thinking, complex concerns, introspection, characters driven by internal concerns, journeys that are more metaphorical than actual. While genre fiction is all about great big space battles in the sky with laser beams and badass action.

To which I say only this:

Bollocks.

First things first. There is nothing freakin’ wrong with reading for a bit of escapism. What with global politics as it is today, I’m tempted to go lose myself in fictional worlds on a daily basis and the only thing keeping me from doing so is because resistance is necessary.

Secondly, there might be some escapism in Genre Fic, I’ve also little doubt there is in the LitFic world too. And if you think Literary Fiction has the monopoly on writing with serious concern, you’ve clearly not read much genre fiction.

You cannot tell me the great science fiction and speculative works on our collective genre fiction bookshelves are somehow not concerned with the great questions of life and humanity. You cannot tell me that genres like cyberpunk and trans-humanism aren’t actively engaging with what it means to be human in a world where technology has come to dominate all aspects of life, when that is the very thing that defines them as genres in the first place. That the big epic fantasy novels of war and struggle between nations aren’t actively considering notions of power-politics, classism and the intersection between church and state. That horror novels aren’t bothered with examining our base fears as primal emotions driving humanity. That historical romance novels don’t give a damn about what it means to be in love at certain points in our history where gender roles and sexuality are strictly ascribed.

These stories examine all such concepts, they just do it set in the future, or the past, or other worlds, or with monsters, and use those settings and the tropes of the genres they are situated within to comment upon our current, real-life present.

Or, what, we’ll just write all that off as “high concept” and head straight into that other common LitFic definition: it’s all about character, the small introspections, while GenreFic is only interested in big externalities? Like McCarthy’s The Road was not concerned with the external world and how that impacted character? Or Morrison’s Beloved didn’t have characters situated within a very specific, very big-picture external environment, that of slavery and its lingering influence.

Plot versus character. False dichotomies don’t come any falser. Character drives all fiction. The protagonist makes choices or behaves in ways as determined by his or her character. Those choices and behaviours drive the plot. Sometime the plot is big, huge, we’re saving the world, the spaceships are blowing up, the war is global. Sometimes the plot is small and internal, the need to rekindle hope inside ourselves against the setting of a ruined world, the importance of love and friendship even in lives fated to be short. Such plots can be found across genre fiction and literary fiction both.

The characters always drive the plot. Yes, sometimes the writer gets lazy, or isn’t particularly good, and starts forcing the character into decisions or situations because they want the plot to go a certain way, but that brings us back to questions of writing quality, not distinctions of genre definition.

So where does this bring us? Two and a half thousand words of me going on about the ways literary fiction is defined in contrast to genre fiction and exactly what conclusion can I come to? I still don’t have a decent working definition of LitFic, except maybe that it’s more consistently better quality than genre fic, and even that’s questionable at best. I still can’t articulate in a couple of sentences exactly what LitFic is in the same way I can define Science Fiction or Horror or Fantasy or Crime or Romance, and I’m just as aware that those apparently easy definitions of genres can be just as problematic, the borders and boundaries between them just as murky, once you start examining in more detail, with a socio-cultural-historical eye.

In short, I have no definitive answer. LitFic is just kind of hard to define. Though I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it.

 

Genre Wars

When I say I’m a genre nerd, I don’t just mean I love reading, writing and obsessing over genre fiction. Of course I love all those things, I’m a Geek Girl from way back. But I also mean I love the concept of genre, the mutations of its meaning, the academic study of it, and, you may have noticed, the debates surrounding it.

So I rather enjoyed Sarah Fallon’s piece over in Overland recently, “why does everyone hate speculative fiction?”

As one who enjoys a good LitFic v SpecFic cage match, it got me thinking about the framing of these kind of debates. I’m drawn to these genre war arguments because, firstly, I love genre fic, especially speculative fiction in all its forms. But I also equally love academic literary studies steeped in dense literary and cultural theory, and have long been a student of creative writing.

So between studying the literary canon, and studying the craft of writing, and reading/writing genres often denigrated, at least by those with closed-gatekeeper views of what ‘quality writing’ actually is, I usually come at these debates as a defender of genre fiction. I like to rail against genre’s position as a perceived outsider to an accepted literary canon. Or in other words, if I like a good scary horror tale, don’t you judge me, you LitFic types. Not unless you’re prepared to judge Mary Shelley and Henry James and Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison too, because as has been recently pointed out by Grady Hendrix over at Tor, Beloved is a horror novel in every single sense, except for its lack of traditional horror audience.

Now, the title of Fallon’s piece, “Why Does Everyone Hate SpecFic?” does its job and pulls in interested parties like myself to read the full article. Yet when asking questions like that, when framing the debate in such a way, Fallon – and myself, and any others who take a similar approach in defending the right of genre to be taken seriously along side “real literature” – is really just shoring up the literary hierarchy we’re supposedly wanting to dismantle.

“Everybody” does not hate Speculative Fiction, for starters. Going by sheer sales numbers, I’d hazard the love for speculative fiction well eclipses the hate for it in rather significant numbers. Damien Walter in the Guardian isn’t the only one to have noted the market for high end literature isn’t exactly rolling in cash and that it’s the mass genres where people are buying, well, in mass. It’s the GRRM’s, the Stephen King’s, the Dan Brown’s, the EL James’s, the Tolkein’s, the Rowling’s who are beloved by huge audiences willing to shell out lots of dosh to buy what they love.

And sure, David Foster Wallace sold a bunch too, back in the day, but can anybody outside the narrow confines of the literary establishment actually name more than one of his books? Oh, and by the way, Infinite Jest well and truly qualifies as speculative fiction.

Far be it from me to make spurious arguments by cherry picking examples, but isn’t one of the reasons SpecFic and other popular genres have long been denigrated is due to their commercial nature and mass audience appeal? That was at the heart of the whole mass culture/high culture debate in academic circles which I remember pouring over in my uni days. (Hmmm, and wasn’t that academic debate concluded when I did my highly influential honours thesis in the mid-90s? You know the one, read by a huge audience of my supervisor and whichever poor sod they got to mark the thing).

It’s the very popularity of genre fiction which is at the heart of much of the tut-tutting against it, for how can it be true art with all the associated in-depth artistic integrity if someone’s trying to make money by appealing to a mass market? Or so goes the argument.

This has real-world correlations. As a writer trying to sell short fiction to magazines, it’s the SpecFic magazines which pay. Literary Fiction mags, not so much. As in, not at all, really, not unless you’re hitting the New Yorker or something, in which case you’ve obviously already made it. But for us emerging writer types trying to make a name for ourselves, the literary fiction world does not generally bring cash – often because they don’t have any – while the SpecFic world uses payment rates as a measure of professionalism. Markets are defined as Pro, Semi-Pro or Low-paying/Token based around their pay rates: often above 6c/word for Pro, between 2-6c/word for semi-pro, and so forth. This then becomes a measure of career progression, whether or not you’ve “cracked the pro markets”, where you’re selling. How much you’re earning.

It’s a different world, a different mindset. Do we write for cash or does that constitute some kind of artistic selling-out? Does this impact quality or is fine writing possible when trying to make a buck at the same time?

It’s a false dichotomy, of course. A hierarchy of literary-ness with fine literature on top and the genre plebs at the bottom which we all know is bollocks, but which, when we pose questions like “why does everybody hate SpecFic?” and go on to defend the genre and spruik it’s literary merits, we actually just end up supporting. When we ask why does everybody hate SpecFic, we’re actually asking why do some voices in the literary establishment dismiss it as commercial crap without real literary quality, and by framing the debate in such a way we elevate those voices as the ones to take seriously. The ones we need to argue with, to convince, to change their minds and have them accept genre as artistically valid. We’re trying to persuade them what we love is as important and as ‘quality’ as what they love.

It goes both ways. Look at the Hugo Awards dramas of the last couple of years, with the various Puppies factions doing their best to co-opt the voting slate in the name of promoting “real” science fiction and fantasy, as opposed to the perceived pretentions to literature they didn’t like. It certainly started a war-of-words across my social media feeds, all boiling down to the same argument: has Speculative Fiction forgotten its roots, stopped being about good fun spaceships and inter-galactic battles, and started taking itself way too seriously?

Specifically, has it become “too literary”?

The hating on Literary Fiction is, of course, as ridiculous as the hating on Genre Fiction. As if SpecFic had never been literary, pfft. It started literary. It’s always been literary, from Shelley to Morrison and beyond. You think Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren isn’t literary? Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series? The woman won a Nobel Prize for Literature, and that’s before writing her Canopus series, so it’s not like she was just starting out writing dodgy stuff before finding her literary stride. There’s always been high literature within Speculative Fiction, just as there’s always been good, fun, pulpy, schlocky stuff too.

Genre is many things. A set of marketing labels, a series of buckets in which to group like works, a useful way in which to analyse the meaning of works. But what it’s not is an indicator of quality. Writer, teacher, SFF author, Brian Sanderson, has noted that SFF genres utilise a lot of tropes, but the tropes do not equal the genre. In his view, those most often dismissive of SFF are so because they see only the tropes and not the genre. Maybe it’s the same the other way. Maybe the LitFic haters see only the literary tropes. Or maybe they just have a chip on their shoulder.

When arguing for genre fiction to be taken seriously, we perhaps need to remember it already is taken seriously by those who read it and love it and watch it and write it. By those who study it and review it. I started university in the 90s and studied a great deal of science fiction and fantasy during my time back then. The academic world does take it seriously, right alongside the classic dead-white-male literary canon, even if there are individuals who might not like it.

But when we frame debates by setting up genres like Speculative Fiction up as an underdog against a High Literature canon, all we end up doing is engaging with and thus supporting the existence of an illusory literary hierarchy which places our favoured genres at the bottom. A hierarchy which doesn’t actually exist outside of the minds of those who want to keep genre at the bottom of it, and those of us who can’t help but rail against that.

It’s something I’ve long been guilty of because, well, I love a good underdog. And I get my back up when my favourite genres are dismissed by those who consider their taste so much the finer. But maybe it’s time to back away from the debate and just let the work stand on its own. There’s a lot of crap in the SpecFic world. There’s a lot of crap in the LitFic one too. Quality writing is quality writing and that’s not defined by a book’s genre, or its commercial potential, or indeed, even by its cover.

But hey, all that said, I’m not likely to stop reading about, or debating, or arguing genre any time soon, either. It’s way too much fun.

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