Sunday, August 28, 2011

Within the Genre of No Genres

It wasn't Tulkinghorn, or the New York Times Bestseller List, or even HBO that finally convinced me to read A Game of Thrones. It was Poppy Z. Brite.

I began reading Brite's "Lost Souls" almost by accident: Trolling for known associates of Christa Faust; impulse-clicking for a one cent copy on Amazon; receiving it just as The Good Soldier was winding down; figuring what the hell.

A couple of days later I posted this as a comment on HG: "Not ready to get up a post about her quite yet, but I am enjoying Poppy Z. Brite's "Lost Souls" a great deal more than expected. The goth elements should have been enough to put me off, and at this stage in pop cultural history sexy vampires are not a commodity in short supply. But in this first novel Brite is clearly a natural born and compelling writer; barrelling narrative drive in spite of the pea-soup-humid atmosphere."

The lightbulb effect this produced was directly proportional to how diametrically unlikely the subject matter of this novel was for me: self-mutilating druggy goth teenagers menaced by a clan of incestuous gay vampires. (Blood mixes with other bodily fluids.) Brite, however, has a gift similar to Stephen King's for maintaining a sense of rolling forward momentum as plot threads intertwine and then converge in the kind operatic cresendos that people who like stories cherish.

Are the movements of these narrative waves examples of what we've been calling  "patterns"? They certainly are pretty. And is their prettiness enough to compensate for the frequent ugliness of the content -- which, to be fair, is not much stronger than the stuff you can see in a hundred horror films, or every week on True Blood? Put that one aside for another time. Right now (to paraphrase Elvis Dostoevsky) I've got bigger fish to fry.

What emerged was how meaningless it is to declare that such and such a type of story is "not my genre." Heroic fantasy epics, perhaps, or laconic crime stories set in Miami. The only "genres" that matter are the well-written and the badly written. I think we knew this when we first fell in love with storytelling in books and/or movies. I read The Hardy Boys and The Lone Ranger and Freddie the Pig and YA science fiction novels from the Auburn, Maine, public library almost interchangeably. I didn't draw as many distinctions at -- or choose sides based on the kinds of stories we liked. We loved it all.

One of the merits of literary fiction is supposedly that it can't be subdivided into genres. Serious writers tell the stories that occur to them and ignore what are essentially marketing catgoies. Claiming that lit-fic is itself a genre is a sympathetic rhetorical move that is only about half convincing. Those of us who bristle at the marginalization of genre stories should consider whether we. too, by declaring favorites, embrace some genres and marginalize others.

So I stand corrected: If Mr. Martin wrote a A Game of Thrones as well as a great many reliable people have been saying he did, it is in "my genre" in the only sense that matters.

I ALSO WANT TO DRAW YOUR ATTENTION to a cool post by Adam Thornton, who is pulling an Adam Roberts, reading through and blogging about the works of Robert Coover. As Thornton describes it, the novel Ghost Town would likely drive the anti-meta contingent batty. Nominally a Western, it is a "trapped in genre" tale that also sounds a bit like a Philip K. Dick acid dream in which the landscape is constantly melting and being re-shaped.
The townsfolk are a constantly shifting mish-mash of characteristics; they swap injuries, hairstyles, and body types as the book goes on, particularly the town's deputy, who undergoes a steady transformation from one page to the next. The buildings in the town shift in a similar way, with buildings moving from place to place as the plot requires.
A Ghost Town commenter on Amazon argues that when the devices of the genre themselves become the subject of the story, the result amounts to "genreless genre fiction." It's a nice thought, anyway.

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