The OF Blog: Sometimes, "non-genre" does "genre" well, or at least differently

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Sometimes, "non-genre" does "genre" well, or at least differently

All paradigm shifts answer the amoral craving for novelty.  Obama's election victory did it.  So did the Auschwitz footage in its day.  Good and evil are irrelevant.  Show us the world's not the way we thought it was and a part of us rejoices.  Nothing's exempt.  One's own death-sentence elicits a mad little hallelujah, and mine's egregiously overdue.  For ten, twenty, thirty years now I've been dragging myself through the motions.  How long do werewolves live?  Madeline asked recently.  According to WOCOP around four hundred years.  I don't know how.  Naturally one sets oneself challenges - Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi – but that only addresses the problem of Time.  The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger.  (Vampires, not surprisingly, have an on-off love affair with catatonia.)  One by one I've exhausted the modes:  hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig.  My mechanism's worn out.  I don't have what it takes.  I still have feelings but I'm sick of having them.  Which is another feeling I'm sick of having.  I just...I just don't want any more life. (p. 7)

This quote, taken from Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf (released last month), underscores something that I've noticed from some so-called non-genre writers when they utilize SF/F genre staples such as a werewolf.  Whereas the werewolf in say something influenced (derived) from Stephanie Meyers' Twilight Saga might represent a conflicted, brooding, emo-inspired youth or where it might be a vicious, animalistic force depicting carnal lust and violence, here in Duncan's book (the opener of an apparent trilogy) the purported "last" werewolf  is shown going through a mid-life crisis of self-doubt and ennui.  For someone like myself who is entering mid-life, something rings truer in Duncan's werewolf than in others that I've read over the years.  Perhaps it's that sense of been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

Whatever it might be, I have noticed that some of the more recent "genre novels" by "non-genre" novelists have brought something to the table that made me pay closer attention to their own works.  Take for instance Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  When it was published five years ago, several SF/F fans derided it for being (to them a post-apocalyptic novel) a genre trope-laden novel in denial.  True, there is the post-apocalyptic setting, but what made McCarthy's take on it more powerful was not its similarities to 1950s-1960s post-nuclear event SF stories, but rather its core of the father/son dynamic and their search for peaceful refuge in a world seemingly devoid of peace or rest.  It wasn't a matter of what McCarthy "borrowed" or "stole" but rather what he added.  It doesn't matter as much if it's viewed as a genre novel that contains a strong commentary on familial bonding and hope or if it's seen as a social commentary that utilizes post-apocalyptic SF imagery to make its point.  What does matter is if McCarthy achieved something memorable and by and large he has done so with The Road.

Next week will see the American publication of Lev Grossman's The Magician King, the sequel to his 2009 novel, The Magicians.  Two years ago, a lot of the controversy revolved around the "ripping-off" of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series in the form of the Brakebills magical academy and C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia for the setting (and many of the mechanics) of the fantasy portal world of Fillory.  Others did not like Grossman's novel because of the upper-middle class youth and their open insecurities and confused relationships; it read too much like an 1980s social commentary novel the likes of Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney might write.  There is something to that charge, something that appeals to me.  Perhaps it is Grossman's tackling of the consequences of escapist dreams co-existing with those capable of wielding magical forces.  Maybe it is the ripping away of aspirations to lay bare some rather brutal truths about the unfairness of life.  Possibly it is the traumas that make the fantasy world feel hollow and self-serving rather than something bigger, brighter, and better than "real life."  These things together make Grossman's last two novels refreshing reads.

Then there are authors who are doing weird fictions outside of genre imprints.  Jesse Ball's latest novel, The Curfew, tackles a dystopic future of a controlling government a bit differently than most dystopic fictions:

Who had overthrown it?  Why?  Such things weren't clear at all, just as it wasn't entirely clear that anything had been overthrown.  It was as if a curtain had been drawn and one could see to that curtain but not beyond.  One remembered that the world had been different, and not long ago.  But how?  This was the question that nagged at those who could not avoid asking questions.

The nothing that had changed at all was really beyond bearing.  Houses and buildings were full of desperate people who deeply misunderstood their desperation. This was due to artful explanation on the part of the government.  It is impossible to tell, many said out of the corners of their mouths, if the ministry is thinking well of us – if they are acting on our behalf.  Yet still there were acorns falling from trees, fish breaking the surfaces of ponds, etc.  In a long life, said many an old man, this is but one more thing.  Yet there were others who were young and knew nothing about the helplessness of life's condition.  Did they glow with light?  They did, but of course, it could not be seen.  And all the while, the grinding of bones like machinery, and the light step of tightrope walkers out beyond the windows. (p. 8-9)

The Curfew was an entertaining, thought-provoking novel not because it tackled the issue of a totalitarian novel head-on, but rather because it was obliquely referred to through metaphor and poetic turns of expression (Ball is a poet by trade).  The horror of the "curfew" builds slowly; we know there is something nefarious about the government, but seeing it through the eyes of its citizens makes it more monstrous because of how uncomfortably close it gets to describing a plutocratic republic.  By the time we get to the following dialogue, the action is more palpable because it is more implied than acted out directly:

Molly tugs on William's sleeve.

*Do you think that the world can be saved?

– The world saved?

William smiles.

– From what?

*Those people.  That, and, and Mother dying.

– That is part of our world, and can't be changed.  I don't know that I would want to live in a world where things had become better, but your mother was gone.  She always dreamed about that place, and I don't think I could go there without her.

Molly looks at her feet.  Then she looks out into the audience.  She appears to be looking right at them, one by one.

William draws in a deep breath.  He continues.

– But, for you, I want it to change.  One day you will be the only one of us three remaining, and then the world that includes us will be inside of you and nowhere else. (p. 185-186)

Ball's narrative works well because he hints at revolt and revolution against a repressive regime and he "shows" this through how furtive the opposition is to the "curfew" imposed upon them.   I especially enjoyed the subtle jabs employed by some of the characters because this felt more "real" to me than any imagined sudden open defiance to an insidious, established, totalitarian regime.

Perhaps this is where many people discover the appeal in these works noted above.  For some, the fantastical or SFnal are but window dressing for the spectacle that is human drama.  We can appreciate a good monster, but monsters as monstrums that evoke fear and wonder not because they are grotesque, but because they warn us through illumination of something within us.  These authors, in their own ways, do this through the use of genre elements to convey a sense of human curiosity and fallibility that is found more often in other literary branches than the purely speculative.  Sometimes, it does take an "outsider" to "steal" something to make something that if not quite sui generis, at least authentic to those readers who love a mixture of real-world concerns with the fantastic.


Crotchety Old Fan said...

"Sometimes". Perhaps. Judging by the one example you listed that I've actually read (The Road), I'd have to say - stop being an apologist for literary writers who think they can steal tropes and magically know how to use them without being familiar with the genre they're ripping off.

I found nothing in The Road that was "additory" in nature, unless you want to count the pointless and absolutely not disturbing "uncertain" ending. (Any genre novel that tried to end without resolution like the road does would never get published. That's not a clever literary-ending there folks, its a writer giving up when his story ended up going nowhere and a publisher too afraid of a name to say "no"). While it is true that high art is often initially received as crap because no one yet recognizes the paradigm shift, sometimes crap successfully masquerades as high art.
I'm not saying it isn't possible for non-genre to "do genre well", but I've not seen it yet and it's a very difficult task - like having a carpenter doing your plumbing - competent, professional, but just nor right.

Daniel S said...

I disagree. I'm a huge fan of authors writing different in different genres and using genre tropes. I think it creates something different, and can (possibly) expands very closed off circles (genre, lit).

But that's another topic. I think if a literary author intends to write a genre book that is idea heavy, then a knowledge of what has come before is important. If one wants to write a unique time travel story, one should be familiar with previous stories so they can be original. If they want to use the trope to explore other things (character, usually), then I don't think they need to be familiar with the genre. So McCarthy's post-apocalyptic landscape wasn't dazzlingly original; that wasn't the point of it.

Literature is a gigantic field. We can't ask every writer who wants to use a genre trope to be familiar with its entire history.

And carpenters and plumbers have different trades. Literary and genre writers have the same trade, they just do things a bit differently.

That's just my opinion, of course.

Hal Duncan said...

Mongrels are healthier and better looking for it. The absence of Kennel Club standardised features of what makes a "proper" example of a breed -- like an ugly-ass pug-nose that means the poor bastard can't breathe, or a tail docked to a stump -- this is not a flaw.

The Road is a dingo at Crufts.

Ben Godby said...

I would say that non-genre usually does genre better than genre (although at the point we start saying things like this, things are getting a little silly). For example, Margaret Atwood's "The Flood" (or was it "After the Flood?" You know the one) was really great, and even though when I read it I boiled with rage that I'd found it in the "General Literature" section (because it contained so many of the tropes of the post-apocalyptico-pseudo-scientifico tradition), in retrospect it was about oh just a billion times better than the actual examples of that genre, and I think perhaps partly because it was not written in the same way as most genre novels are. The Crotchety Old Fan is angry that "The Road" ended vaguely, but it is precisely the definite endings of most genre fiction that make most of it trivial (Atwood's book ended vaguely, also, and was, yes, untrivial). The fact of plotting makes books not necessarily "bad" or "good," but, I am now usually finding, incredibly tedious to read; "plotless" books tend to be more enjoyable because you're not really building up to anything, you're just reading, and you know the ending will just be that, an ending, not an explosion &c. Genre very rarely operates on the plotless level (and, yes, I know it's a misnomer, but you still know what I mean), and this is the reason why, more and more, though I love deathrays and alien babes, I am utterly incapable of reading science fiction or fantasy... despite calling myself a fan and writer of said genres.

Larry said...

Several good points raised since my early morning point.


I am first and foremost a general literature reader who happens to enjoy quite a bit of speculative fiction, so there's nothing "pure" about my habits. When I think about this particular McCarthy novel, I place it in context with his earlier works, especially Child of God, which in several ways is the thematic antithesis of The Road. The point of The Road has nothing to do with the setting and quite a bit to do with McCarthy's frequent explorations of the darker depths of human thought. Yet in The Road, the horrors of man-made disaster serve to underscore the human dignity present in the father and son, even as depravity after depravity occurs around them. Such things do not need a conclusion; the thematic exploration is the raison d'être of novels such as The Road.

In that sense, it would be foolhardy to judge it along the same lines as say Walter M. Miller, Jr. or Nevil Shute's post-apocalyptic novels; some of the landscape might seem to be similar, but the purposes, tones, and executions follow vastly different paths.

I agree with Hal's referencing of dog breeds (in fact, it is a metaphor that has occurred to me on several occasions, considering I've had pure-bred Labs and mixed-breeds and the mixed-breeds' hybridity made for healthier, longer-living dogs) as a comparison for literary genres. Daniel S. and Ben's points are also worthy of consideration because they allow for a wider range of reader reactions and expectations for whenever authors from different traditions test out approaches.

This is not to say, of course, that if someone sets out to write "firmly in the tradition of ____" that they should not be cognizant of what has been written before. No, what this post was referencing were those authors who melded disparate elements/influences together to create a hybrid creature that might appeal best to those readers such as myself who read broadly and don't care overmuch for genre conventions.

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