Is There Such A Thing As A Book That Belongs To Only One Genre?
My reading hinterland is haunted by lost genres. Kinds of book I once loved to read, whose memory is still warm, but whose moment has passed. The young adult space opera. The Cold War spy story. The epic adventure quest with a largely adult readership where all the characters are talking animals. They sold in millions once, and not so long ago, but they’ve largely fallen out of print. You can still write books like that but publishers rarely touch them. Their time has gone.
When a genre becomes massively popular it seems to prepare the way for its own demise. It booms and multiplies for a while because the unique pleasure it gives strikes a chord at a moment in history. It works again and again, and people go back for more and more of the same, until the formula becomes so well defined, so clear-cut and repeatable, so good at delivering one particular kind of pleasure, that you look for nothing else there. Read one, you’ve read them all. And then the world moves on and readers look for new pleasures.
I wish this didn’t happen, this tendency to put stories into genre boxes which then get more and more constrained until the pleasure they give is suffocated. For me, books aren’t like that, not really. For me, fiction isn’t fractal.
A fractal pattern is always the same: look at it whole, and it’s one thing; magnify a tiny part, and it’s still the same thing. But the way I see it, books aren’t like this: no book belongs so thoroughly to one genre that it’s the same all through and doesn’t draw in other genres as well. Look inside any work of fiction and you'll find lots of genres, shifting and shimmering, nested one inside another, claiming your attention, now one, now another.
Ambitious writers have come back to this idea from time to time ever since. T S Eliot in The Waste Land. James Joyce in Ulysses. But now more than ever, in our age of democritized reading and writing, it’s true of all books, not just the ones that overtly make a point of being genre mixes. Stories move from genre to genre, often within a chapter, even within a paragraph, even within a sentence.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean:
A year past her emergence into society, with no suitors in sight, Alise had resigned herself for the role of maiden aunt. She played the harp, tatted excellent lace, was very good at puddings, and even had selected a suitably whimsical hobby.
This reads like something you might find in a 19th century novel. Not Jane Austen – Jane Austen characters aren’t good at puddings – but Little Women, maybe. Yet here’s the next sentence:
Long before Tintaglia had jolted her dreams, she’d become a student of dragon lore, with a strong secondary knowledge of Elderlings.
It’s from Chapter 3 of Robin Hobb’s The Dragon Keeper: Book One of The Rain Wild Chronicles. Alise belongs to a family of Rain Wild Traders: second or third generation pioneers, living on a frontier they’ve only partially made their own, but they’ve been there long enough, and they’ve become secure and prosperous enough, to absorb themselves in petty social hierarchies. By dipping into the language and conventions of a 19th century genre, Robin Hobb brings in a whole set of intuitions about the Rain Wild Traders that she doesn’t need to spend time explaining, because we already understand them. But The Dragon Keeper doesn’t pause long in Alcott land. The dragon is coming.
This is great non-fractal genre writing, but I think all books live like this. In Ark, Stephen Baxter kicks a slow time on the generation starship into new life by shifting into murder mystery mode for a while. In The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch deepens her picture of an isolated aging man’s bizarre rekindling love story by bringing in poltergeists and glimpses of UFOs.
Characters that breathe the air of only one genre struggle to come alive, but let them open windows into other genres - even one-phrase micro-genres - and they're the more vivid for it. If a genre gives a unique pleasure, a unique insight, then letting in other genres enriches the mix. That way, genres can morph and grow, absorbing other ways of writing and new ideas. Robin Hobb takes epic fantasy in one direction, other writers take it into harsher, grittier territories. And when a popular genre’s moment in the sun passes, it gets absorbed back into the inexhaustible well of story possibility, with all the promise and potential it ever had, waiting to be used again.
I think this process of absorption, morphing and re-use is at work everywhere in works of fiction, at every level. I’d go so far as to say that, though some books foreground the technique and others don’t, it’s universal. Look at a page, a paragraph, in any book and, if you want to, you can see flashes of other genres living there: as a turn of phrase, a way of handling point of view, an echo, a single word. They’re open windows. Breaths of different air.
And maybe someone’s out there now, breathing dark and gritty new life into a book with talking animals. Maybe it already exists and I haven’t found it yet. I hope so.