I did say before that this was, intellectually speaking, a work in progress.
In thinking about genre, the thing I struggle with the most is that it doesn’t exist. Genre can’t exist within any given project or any given author. To the degree that it’s anything at all, it’s a relationship between individual projects, individual authors, and individual books. When I say China Mieville is New Weird rather than Urban Fantasy, I’m not actually saying anything about Perdido Street Station or The City & the City as books. I’m talking about a taxonomy that exists entirely in my head (and the heads of the fine marketing folks at the publishers and bookstores who want to make sure I’m happy with my purchase).
What we really have is a huge count of individual books, all different from each other, but with some sharing certain characteristics. Most of these books fall into the marketplace like a stone in the ocean, barely leaving a ripple. A few bec0me massive cultural phenomena — often for no obvious reason. But then there’s this bit in between. When we look at the patterns of what achieves commercial success, we see pools of books that seem related. These authors are working on similar projects, and the percentages of successful books with similar characteristics is high. So, for instance, books with a female protagonist, a plot that revolves around heterosexual romance , a resolution that relies on the successful love relationship being formed between the protagonist and the object of her desire, and with a theme or moral that argues that romantic love will conquer all obstacles appear more likely to find commercial success than some other books with different characteristics.
Those sets of “winning” attributes begin to define a genre. Romance for that, but we could build a different set of attributes for fantasy or mystery or whatever.
Evolution is often misunderstood as a continual process of refinement toward excellence. It isn’t. It is a desperate, generational struggle to adapt to a changing environment. An organism that was the top predator at a pH of 6.8 may be free biomass for other organisms to eat and use at a pH of 6. The relationship between organisms and their environment (and so also with other organisms) is in constant flux, and a winning strategy in the Pleistocene may or may not be a winning strategy now. Species flourish, and become extinct. Ecological niches open, and they also close.
And so it is with genres.
I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time. When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers. You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.
And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty. (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)
But what we’re anxious about changes over time, and it doesn’t always change back. If I’m right, then I’d expect to see new genres being born as books struggle to address the landscape of the time. And also dead genres whose stories spoke to a moment that has in some way passed. And that’s exactly what I see.
The problem I’m sitting with right now is that I have some sense of what function present genres have. Urban Fantasy seems to me to revolve around the uncomfortable relationship between gender and power. Romance seems to take its power from our (very legitimate) fears about romantic and sexual isolation. Mystery — did you ever notice that the detective story didn’t really exist before urban anonymity? — is about the maintenance of moral order. But these are all things I’ve read since becoming an adult.
When I turn to the dead genres — True Confessions, Western, Nurse novels — I can sometimes see glimmers of what was going on there, but I just don’t have the cultural background that would give them power. I have theories, of course. Westerns (or the one’s I’ve read, which are mostly Elmore Leonard) seem to be about masculine stoicism. No matter how broken or compromised a man’s emotional life is, he still does what needs to be done. Why would that have been an especially powerful message in the 1950s and 60s when Westerns were at their most popular? No idea.
True Confession? Well, voyeurism certainly hasn’t changed, but the literature of it has moved on. My guess is that it got edged out by a better predator. Something — tabloid media, for instance — found a better way to address those cultural needs, and the market for true confession stories dried up like Playboy subscriptions in the age of free Internet porn.
But the test of a theory is predictive ability. So let’s turn to the reputed hospice care genre of our present age: the constantly dying and never dead science fiction.
I grew up when science fiction was already on the cusp between serious work and solemn. I grew up on Star Trek. Which is to say the first great pulp flourishing was behind me, and the New Wave was over my seven-year-old head. The theory that I’ve been given by them as knows better is this: science fiction first became a genre in the 1930s — after the first great war, before the second, during the Depression — and fed off the fear that things would never change. That this, to riff on the movie, was as good as it gets.
It fed an optimism, and a view of the future that’s gone now in part because our relationship to change is different. I would suggest that in the 1930s, our anxiety about the troubles and issues of the day landed on the surprising power and novelty of the industrial revolution and drove a literature in which novelty and change knew no limits. And boy howdy (as Uncle Elmore might say), did that work well. Apart from the exploration of space, the window dressing of science fiction is where we now live. Stories about raising clones for spare parts are now literary.
But with that, the fears that the world wouldn’t change have faded, replaced by the sense that the world is changing too much. Is out of control. And with that, we’ve seen science fiction begin to fracture into:
1) hard science fiction — the true heir of the 1930s scientifiction of Hugo Gernsback,
2) dystopian science fiction — the new flourishing of what were once just cautionary tales, now growing into the role of cathartic horror, and
3) nostalgic science fiction — revisiting the literature of our (by which I mean my generation and older) childhood. The futures of Larry Niven and Gene Roddenberry remade without any attempt to connect them to our present situation.
So, after wandering the wilderness for something more like 40 days than years, maybe I’ve happened upon a thesis of sorts.
If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.
Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.
If it doesn’t, I’m wrong. Right?