The OF Blog: How readily can you discern a literary "genre" from samples?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How readily can you discern a literary "genre" from samples?

Yet another "literary"/"genre" herpes outbreak has occurred, this time with pieces posted on The Millions and The New Yorker's "Page-Turner" column.  After reading the two pieces, shrugging, and then glancing at books nearby, I thought a more productive exercise would be to test the "generic" qualities of the debated "genres" by posting a few excerpts from books and letting readers here guess which genre(s) the passages belong.  This way, perhaps the arguments presented, whether facetious or serious, in the two linked articles can be tested.  So here goes:

1.  But it's easy to judge, we're born to judge; we live for it, really.  It's the way we decide that we are the self we are instead of all the other selves we might have been.  And I judged enthusiastically, mirthfully, even him, the man whose disaster was the perfect template for my own – maybe I judged him especially.  I thought when I was young that I would have the certainty to do it, that prevailing ethics and aesthetics would win the day, and that as long as suicide could be chosen rationally, thoughtfully, then the catastrophe was only the universal one, nothing more or less – as long as agency could be maintained, as long as the conscience could have the last word, then there was nothing more for a human being to ask from a lifetime.  I judged him for not doing.  I resented him for not doing it once he'd disappeared entirely and no longer had to deal with it, and I saw it as a failure of sympathetic imagination on his part, a failure of honor – not the only failure, most likely, nor possibly the biggest one, but the one we'd had to live with longest and thus the one we would always remember.  The failure was the legacy.  The failure was the only thing left.
2.  So when all this happened I reckon it was late March, when the snowdrops start to wilt and crocus stick their buds out of the ground, when gravel and salt still litter the streets.  It was dusk, and the first blackbird warbled in the pine next to the building.  You opened the balcony door to let some air in, and you wouldn't have looked down at the sleeping flower pots if it weren't for that scraping noise.  There was a very small creature between two of the pots, trying to escape attention by standing very still.  It was shivering from the cold.

It was knotted and dusted with soil, knees and elbows worn shiny.  It was perhaps four inches tall.  It made no resistance as you bent down and picked it up, lifted it into the kitchen and put it down on the table.  You looked at each other for a while.

3.  Already late.  I'd been wading all afternoon and the current was cold where it pushed up against my knees and thighs but my feet were long numb with that kind of dead warmth.  Starting to get chilled.  I caught a fifth fish, smaller, cleaned it and pushed the butt end of a hooked stick through its gills and slid it down to the others on the stringer.  Lay it in the sled.  Rubbed my naked legs to get the blood going.  The sun was gone, the creek now luminous in early dusk.  I felt what?  Happy.  We were thinking of nothing but the creek, but dinner, but making a camp just upstream on a sandy bar I liked to visit.  I slipped my pants back on, sat on a rock and put on my boots.  Jasper was revived after the fish, watching me with his mouth open, smiling because he knew we weren't going far and there would be another fish or two, this time cooked and salted.
4.  But I never end up keeping these white secrets from Mama, because their light shines up all my other ones, shows how dirty the ones I keep, the ones I swear I'll keep, really are.  It starts with the gray one about not telling Mama that Carol leaves me alone with the Hardware Man so that she can be alone with Tony, and they just get darker from there.  I can't keep this little pretty lie for my own, I blurt it out the next morning, "I-stayed-up-past-bedtime," and she's not ever mad because when I say this then she can believe that's it.  I've told all there is to tell.  Mama needs to believe in my truth-telling.  That's her little lie, that it's possible to raise a child clean and safe without rows of secrets somewhere, shelved like the boxes of fuses and circuit breakers at the back of the Hardware Store, coiled like garden hoses forgotten until inventory time.  And I need her to believe in this too so she won't start doing an inventory of her own and ask about the places my bathing suit does or doesn't go, the skin that burns pale underneath the Hardware Man's hands.

5.  Edie Banister is feeling like a cow.  More, she is conscious of sin.  Not in any fleshy way, alas, but in her heart.  She has transgressed against Joshua Joseph Spork.  She has, in fact, stitched him up like a kipper, albeit for the good of mankind and the betterment of the human race.  She persuaded herself that it was not personal.  That this was the best way.  Now, gazing at the little toy soldier he repaired so deftly, and recalling the stifled disappointment on his face when he saw that that was all she proposed to show him, she feels wicked.  She is increasingly certain that some part of her has borne a grudge for longer than J. Joseph Spork has been alive, and has chosen this method to revenge itself.  Duty, love, idealism and spite all discharged at once.  She contemplates her soul, and finds it wanting.
6.  Because she did not love them!  Because she was lonely in the dark-brick house on Mt. Laurel Street despite the efforts of Agatha, and Konrad, and Puddin' – despite the shelves of books beckoning to her like shut-up little souls, as in some kind of mausoleum, inviting her Open me!  See what I am! 

Because–maybe–the woman who'd been Momma–the woman who was still Momma– had burrowed into her heart like a mean little worm that could not so easily be extricated.  Just when she believed that Momma was faded and left behind that very night a dream would come to her leaving her sweaty and shivering for it was clear to her – it was meant ot be clear to her – that her new mother and her new father were not Christians but emissaries of Satan like all city-people and courthouse people who had stolen Marit Kraeck's children from her forcing her to drastic measures to protect their souls.  So very different from the Neukirchens who had not an idea what life is

7.  Outside on Sinuiju Street, even in the dark, I could see that troops of Juche girls had chalked the sidewalks and walls with revolutionary slogans.  I heard a rumor that one night an entire troop fell into an unmarked construction pit on Tongol Road, but who knows if that's true.  I headed for the Ragwon-dong district, where long ago the Japanese built slums to house the most defiant Koreans.  That's where there's an illegal night market at the base of the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel.  Even in the darkness, the outline of the hotel's rocket-shaped tower stands black against the stars.  As I crossed the Palgol Bridge, pipes were dumping sewage from the backs of pastel housing blocks.  Like gray lily pads, shit-streaked pages of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper slowly spread across the water.

8.  Then, one at either end, Dynamite and Eric carried the re-boxed Bowflex into the house, Eric going backwards, Dynamite going forward and giving grinning grunts:  "Left–no, right!" (The first two confused Eric, since they were Dynamite's right and left, not his – but then he switched them in his mind.)  Eric backed along the hall, and onto the porch.  As Dynamite's side bumped a doorframe, and he moved over to get it past, with a smile on his unshaven face as though he were inquiring about the operation of an eccentric sex toy, he asked, head cocked and looking lackadaisically at Eric, "What the fuck is this goddam thing, anyway?"

9.  He could replay with such precision and intensity what he had seen, heard, or felt that these things simply did not lapse from existence and pass on.  Though his exactitude in summoning texture, feel, and details could have been bent to parlor games or academics, and in the war had been made to serve reconnaissance, he had realized from very early on that it was a gift for an overriding purpose and this alone.  For by recalling the past and freezing the present he could open the gates of time and through them see all allegedly sequential things as a single masterwork with neither boundaries nor divisions.  And though he did not know the why or wherefore of this, he did know, beginning long before he could express it, that when the gates of time were thrown open, the world was saturated with love.  This was not the speculation of an aesthete, or a theory of the seminar room, for this he had seen with his own eyes even amid war, darkness, and death.
 10.  Farukhuaz he could sense.  She – or it, the primordial thingness of her, invented yet eternal – lurked at the edge of his perception like a cautious predator waiting for its prey to tire.  Of Farukhuaz he was most afraid, certain now of what she truly was, and when he could remember, while he could remember, he recited holy verses under his breath.  He felt like a charlatan; he knew it could see the indifference of his faith.  As his verbal self declined, he felt it getting closer, a fetid presence that stalked his shrinking perimeter of sanity.

NB:  All ten passages are from works released in the US in 2012.  In addition, five are from works written by women, five others were written by men.


James said...

1) Maybe I just think poorly of genre, but the use of "angency" swayed me toward lit. Then it moves into honor and legacy and it feels like it switches back to genre again.

2) I am going to go against the obvious choice and say lit.

3) Genre, but it is not likely to have been taken in by or marketed to genre readers. Lit by way of marketing.

4) Subject matter and tone screams lit.

5) Genre, but again it seems to fall on deaf ears for most genre readers. Accessability seems an issue with this author.

6) Lit.

7) Lit.

8) Lit.

9) Want to say genre, but this could be a fanciful exaggeration. Eh, genre it is.

10) Genre.

Larry Nolen said...

You were off on about half of them ;)

Liviu said...

1. pretentious junk irrelevant of genre/lit

2. a squirrel on the balcony - lit

3. post-apocalyptic so genre/lit split irrelevant

4. ya

5. Nick Harkaway

6. another ya

7. this reads like the escape from N Korea book of this year but not sure

8. genre

9. this reads like Michael Cisco so genre

10. Alif the Unseen which i have no idea where it fits

Larry Nolen said...

Good guesses on most of those, except #1 isn't pretentious, at least what I've read so far, #4 and #6 aren't YA (although they have child PoVs/flashbacks), and #9 is from a very well-known writer.

As for the squirrel, alas, I didn't find a suitable squirrel passage to quote from any of these :(

Larry Nolen said...

Oh, and you're right on #5, #7, and #10 in terms of the books/authors involved.

Liviu said...

For 5 and 10 I know as I read those paragraphs (or something very similar...); for 7, there are two Korean subject books I know of this year, one Black Flower which I read from and it is not that, so I guesses the other which i did not open yet...

Now that you mentioned it, I read through book 9 as I have a Net galley arc but for some reason it did not work for me, nor did his earlier works I tried like the one on the Italian front in WW1- the author is one of the more famous conservative novelists and yes the book is not genre and takes place in NY after the war

have to look again at 4 and 6 - 4 sounds familiar but i opened so many books this year that it is easy to miss or confuse stuff

Liviu said...

I meant I read like 50 pages from both books 5 and 10 and both are on my "to read eventually", while book 9 I browsed through (read maybe the first 50 pages carefully) and put aside...

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, #9 is well-known for his conservative views, but he writes very well and his latest, 1/3 into it, is reading very well (and apparently is based heavily on his parents' lives from what he said at a reading I attended).

#4 I also heard read recently; debut novelist. #6 just received a lifetime achievement award.

Several of the authors have written what might be considered to be "genre" (more than just SF/F; #7 contains elements of a thriller, what I've read of it so far), while some that might be assumed to be "genre" writers have also written "lit" pieces.

Liviu said...

The irony is that I actually looked through book 1 a while ago (but I realized it only now thinking why it sounds familiar) as it intrigued me, so again on further thought I kind of regret my hast words earlier about it; another book that I may want to read...

Anyway based on these extracts books 4 and 7 are the ones I would definitely want to read and I plan to take a look at them assuming I figure out what is 4 - cannot remember if I saw it or just I imagine, but it is an early 12 book if I looked through it...

And of course I found another very fascinating book that seems to want to take over my reading, a translation called Where Tigers are at Home by Jean Marie Blas de Robles (11 UK, 13 US so not quite 12) with a dual story about Athanasius Kircher's life and some present day stories in Brazil and standing at 700+ pages

And one of my huge (non-sff) favorite authors just published his first fantasy which is another 700 page or so monster

Heloise said...

1) Tries so very hard, it just has to be genre

2) Does not appear to try at all, hence probably litfic

3) From the excess of precision, I'd guess genre

4) Seems to have a well-developed sense of prose rhythm, hence most likely litfic

5) Harkaway, Angelmaker

6) Like Liviu, I'd have guessed YA on that one, so I'll say genre

7) No genre author I'd think capable of coming up with that last image in this passage has released anything in 2012, so probably litfic

8) Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

9) For the trite sentimentality at the end of this passage, my vote goes to genre. Or maybe bad litfic

10) Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Larry Nolen said...

Since I'm going to be mostly offline for the next few hours, I'm going to go ahead and list here the titles/authors and perhaps give a few statements on them:

1. Jennifer duBois, A Partial History of Lost Causes. Debut novel. Author cites Nabokov as one of her literary influences. Perhaps the closest "literary" title of the ten.

2. Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath: Stories. Just published by Cheeky Frawg. Short story collection translated (with at least one originally written in English) from Swedish. Closer to weird fiction than anything else, but there is some crossover into other literary genres.

3. Peter Heller, The Dog Stars. Debut novel (but not his first book; he's written several non-fictions). Marketed as post-apocalyptic. Author stated that several poets (he's also a poet) and Borges, among others, have been literary influences.

4. Tupelo Hassman, Girlchild. Debut novel. Story is told by a young protagonist, yet is not "YA" in its language, although some of its themes can be seen as such (dealing with the trauma darkly hinted at in the quoted passage, growing up in a "trailer park" environment, etc.)

5. Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker. Straddles a few lines in his fiction. Haven't read enough of it to say much more than that.

6. Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman. Oates writes short fiction and novels in a variety of genres. This one, not one of my favorites by hers, appears to be that of the clichéd professor having mid-life crisis/adultery, yet there are certain elements in the novel that some might take as being akin to supernatural phenomena.

7. Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son. Pitched as being both "literary" and a "thriller." Haven't read enough to make up my mind on the matter.

8. Samuel Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Delany has written in several genres, but this perhaps could be viewed first as "gay fiction," and then the "literary" and "genre" arguments would be secondary to that.

9. Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow. Although this just-released book is solidly-grounded in post-WWII New York City, Helprin has written at least one novel, Winter's Tale, that contains speculative elements.

10. G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. Will be reading this in the next 1-3 weeks. She started out writing graphic novels/comics and her stories then (and apparently here) have SF/F genre elements, but there are also hints of other elements as well.

Needless to say, this snatching of books I've either read earlier this year or am in various stages of reading right now muddy the waters that some seem to believe are a bit pristine in their division of "literary" and "genre" (keep in mind that "genre" for some refers to mysteries or romance novels and not necessarily to SF/Fantasy).

Liviu said...

This was a great post and I shamelessly copied the idea though with straighter sff titles so to speak, but with lines that made me pick up the books in cause in quite a few times - the non-sff is very international (3 Fr, 2 Jpn, 1 Ger, 1 US and the one match with here)

The duBois book is one I looked at as the Russian and chess angles intrigued me, while the Heller book immediately jumped as post-apocalytpic to me for the simple reason that I read again a few pages from a NR earc and decided to add it to my "to read" pile, though I did not make the connection until you named the title

I also read a little from Jagganath somewhere related to the Weird anthology but it seems it did not stick to my mind as even when you named it, it did not click so to speak...

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