Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Literature, Genre, and Expectation: A Tale of Two Authors

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In fiction, as in film and television, there are two quite broad categories. First, there are those works that are “serious”, that are considered worthy of analysis and discussion. These are the works that people often say will last, that will still be discussed many years later. In contrast there is the stuff that’s “just for entertainment”: those movies that are fine, but you forget about as soon as you leave the theatre; that show that makes you laugh on Thursday nights, but is so generic that you can watch the episodes in any order.

There tends to be very different expectations about these two categories. “Serious Literature” is expected to have something to say about society and the human condition, rather than just being enjoyable. In fact, it can even be rather unenjoyable. It can expose you to uncomfortable things about yourself and the world you live in; it might require you to use a dictionary or to stop and think every once in awhile. And this is alright, literature can be work, because there is something about it that is worth it.

People also expect it to not be focused on plot, but rather on the characters and the themes of the story. These are the things that are supposed to give it meaning. So is the structure of the work, and things like word choice and character voice. Not a lot of things necessarily have to happen in literature. Harold Bloom can just walk around Dublin all day, it’s fine, because it’s his thoughts that matter.

This is in contrast to stories that are about the “stuff that happens”. The plots are often predictable, although enjoyable, and the characters are often more archetypes than multi-layered human beings. These kinds of stories are often divided into “genres”: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Westerns, Adventure. When you pick up one of these books, you know what to expect. And working hard is not it.

Many of you are probably getting ready to yell at me right now. Don’t I know that genre works, Science Fiction and Fantasy especially, is almost tailor made to say meaningful things about society and the human condition, since they’re just removed enough from our own context to really shine a light on all of our cultural and social assumptions? Well, yes, I do know that, and honestly, the association of Science Fiction with shlok has always quite upset me. All the stories that meant a lot to me growing up were Science Fiction or Fantasy and when someone belittled them, I took it personally. But the association in the mind of non-nerds is quite undeniable.

I think there’s two reasons for this. Firstly, Science Fiction and Fantasy films tend to be action film that need to appeal to a very wide audience, because they’re often very expensive to make. Secondly, for a very long time, Science Fiction especially was mostly produced in short story form in magazines with names like ”Astounding Science Fiction”. The writers for these magazines were expected to produced an astonishing amount of text very quickly. Ray Bradbury rather famously wrote a story every week for almost his entire career. And while his 27 novels and more than 600 published short stories may contain some very great work, most of his stuff is entirely forgettable. Of course it is.

But there’s another very odd thing: “serious” writers who write Science Fiction and then refuse to call it that. Granted, Science Fiction is rather difficult to define. The best that writer Damon Knight could do was say: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” But there is a general understanding that it’s about speculating on what could happen if trends in technology or society continue as they are. These can be hopeful stories of exploration, or they can be cautionary tales.

Works like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley are clearly Science Fiction, at least they are to me. But they’re seldom called that. Instead they’re put in this sub-category of literary fiction call “dystopian”. That’s what English professors call science fiction that they like when they don’t want to be associated with laser guns and lizard people.

This brings me to Margaret Atwood, Canadian treasure and author of stuff that is totally Science Fiction. Even if you can shy away from that label for A Haidmaiden’s Tale, her story about a Christian theocracy in the wake of a nuclear war, you would have to be a little obtuse to deny it for Oryx and Crake and its sequels The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, in which a super villain causes the end of the world with a genetically engineered virus. Seriously. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and it deserved it.

But it’s not Science Fiction, Ms. Atwood insisted:

Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” And one more time: on BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by “talking squids in outer space.” (x)

“Speculative fiction” is the new “dystopian” I suppose.

It’s only fair of me to point out that she has since amended her position, and discussed this very issue in some detail:

I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. (x)

Yes, you did. But the point remains, Science Fiction is not “serious”. When you use that term to describe a work that attempts to be serious, it’s an insult. When you read it, you expect to be entertained, but not really challenged. Maybe this tendency is finally being challenged in some circles, but it has a long way to go among general readers.

And so we come to our second author; George R.R. Martin. Unlike, Ms. Atwood, Mr. Martin has never shied away from the idea that he’s a genre author. Even a “Fantasy” author. But if we Sci-Fi fans think we have it tough, the Fantasy people have it worse. There is no Fantasy Orwell. The closest is probably Tolkien, and he is firmly in the Genre Ghetto, even if he is the only Fantasy author many muggles read.

In fact, it’s so bad for Fantasy that they call it Science Fiction if they possibly can. Like Star Wars. Star Wars is Fantasy, except it’s in space.   

So it goes without saying, then, that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of Fantasy. The traditional Fantasy aspects; magic, dragons, other fantastical creatures, are rather judiciously used, but even so, it’s not in dispute. So people expect “genre” things from it. Plot things mostly.

But the problem is that Mr. Martin has never been a writer to stay in that box. A Song of Ice and Fire has literary pretensions, and it has since the beginning. If you want exploration of the human conditions, he is your man and he always has been. These elements are gotten more and more prominent as the series goes on, but I would argue that Eddard’s arc in A Game of Thrones is just as character driven as Theon’s in A Dance with Dragons.

This was beginning to get Mr. Martin in trouble by the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, even among his own fans. The common criticism of that book in particular is that “nothing happens” and that there’s too much focus on previously minor characters.

My argument had always been that these criticism come from the fact that people’s expectations have been disappointed. It’s Fantasy, so it can’t be mostly taking place inside of the character’s heads. Brienne is not allowed to meander all over the riverlands like Harold Bloom all over Dublin, an attempted coup isn’t allowed to be just backdrop for an in-depth exploration of a character’s personal failings, and you can’t have entire chapters that focus entirely on tone and atmosphere, because that’s literature, and this is supposed to be Fantasy.

Bringing this story to an even wider audience in the form of a high-budget television program caused these problems to get a lot worse. Summarizing the average viewer’s expectations of this show is not hard: shock, blood, boobs. The fact that the people behind the show seem to share this expectation of the books as well is hardly helpful. Nor are their systematic alterations to the plot to remove anything but shocks, blood, and boobs.

These low expectations sometimes serve them well. I sometimes suspect that the free pass Game of Thrones often gets from critics, despite poor plotting and erratic characterization, among other problems, has something to do with the attitude that it’s “just fantasy”, so can’t be expected to uphold the same standard as the Mad Men or Breaking Bads of the world. “It’s just shlock, so who cares if it makes sense?” And every tiny thing that manages to achieve more than these rock bottom expectations is praised as visionary, even if it’s still a pale shadow of the source material.

So the Genre Ghetto ends up being this soul crushing place that is stigmatized for its mediocrity yet punishes anyone for trying to escape by daring to write something with literary merit AND dragons. Poor Mr. Martin can’t win; he’s too good for genre. Poor Ms. Atwood can’t win; genre isn’t good enough for her.

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