The Problem of Genre

I just read this post and the comments (omg comments that are actual discussion and not trolling! Weird!) on Pamela Regis’ The Natural History of the Romance Novel. It’s a book I have yet to get, but have been recommended it for my thesis because of its importance in romance scholarship. Since I haven’t read it, I can’t comment much on the book in general, but the author of the blog, Noah Berlatsky, brings up something of great interest to me: the problem of genre and its definitions and tropes.

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Regis refers to romance as having eight essential elements, which according to some, at once restricts the definition of romance to a set formula and chokes the potential for originality in the genre. Berlatsky is particularly critical of people who enforce the genre boundaries. He uses the example of an editor who sticks by the Essential Elements list to make authors change their stories to “better fit” the romance genre, thus influencing directly the limitations of how the genre is presented. Great literature is built on change, so he asks – do we actually need definitions?

Genres (and categories) are redefined all the time – they are “fuzzy and socially determined and always negotiated” (Berlatsky). Regis admitted in 2009 that her original definition including specific gender terms was excluding gay and bisexual romances, so the gendered terms turned into the neutral “protagonists”. There is also a problem in WHO defines the genre – genre is used most usefully by the publishing industry/process itself (including self-publishers). But readers are also important in the process (after all, that’s the whole point of publishing – to get the product to the consumers). The whole system of defining genres depends on each type of person invested in the genre. Look at the creation of the New Adult category.

Definitions are sort of useful in some ways. YA (a category, not a genre) is defined (by some) as “fictive texts which have an implied teenage audience; that is, books which either feature protagonists of a secondary school age (twelve to eighteen years), or, it is reasonable to suppose, would be read by those in this age group”. This is a rather loose descriptor, but fits quite well as it doesn’t impose rules. YA can be any genre. While YA is considered largely to be written in first person present tense, there is no rule saying it can’t be otherwise. There are trends and tropes, but they vary as well. Could a loose descriptor rather than a strict definition be the way to go?

IMHO, Genres (and categories) shouldn’t be used to limit new creations – society itself depends on creativity and change to grow (and society is always in a state of flux). As much as I’m not a fan of Deleuze, he referred to art as being its own form of philosophy, capable of true freedom from the strict rules of reality and able to bend the laws of time and space. I rather like that!

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Various Examples & Random Thoughts

  • Does romance require a Happily Ever After (HEA)? Where is the line between a Romance or a book containing romantic elements? (I’m having this very problem in creating criteria for my thesis)
  • Does the reliance of some fantasy writers on Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey restrict creativity? (E.g. This is not only used in writing books, it’s also used in analysing movies (thanks Ross for reminding me!). I have also read somewhere that George Lucas relied on it heavily for Star Wars.)
  • Some criticise YA for being too bleak and state that children’s/YA literature should always have a happy, or at least an ambiguous, ending, to inspire hope in the young readers – should this be an excuse?
  • Sometimes with popular books, they can cross genres/categories. If particularly popular, this will require a change in marketing and cover design (e.g. Harry Potter as the most obvious, Allison Croggon’s Pellinor). Some books might not be found if categorised in the wrong genre (meta-data=super important!).

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*Note: Funnily enough on the same day, I saw a link to an article about someone who went through and analysed the genres/categories on Netflix.

** Urge to go on about narrow definitions of monsters that lead to exclusion, but I’ll leave that for another blog. Until then, there is this blog about why sparkly vampires don’t suck as much as you think

Respect for the undead = respect for the living?

We’ve all seen it. The longer the zompocalypse goes on, humanity’s humanity withers away – no longer caring for the living, even though that is all they have left.

One part of my job at the uni entitles me to sit around and listen to students talk. In the philosophy capstone unit, a lot seemed beyond my current knowledge until they got to the application of theory in tutorials. Lots of talk of physical versus inner self, minimal or extended self, narrative self – all ideas which led to can robots experience? Does that make them living? Are we all just really robots? What got to me was the question ‘is it wrong to hit a robot?’

I was shocked to hear them justify how it would be okay. I was raised on speculative fiction, and in particular Star Trek: think about Data, Seven, The Doctor (although Seven was about remembering her humanness and being re-taught, her cyber implants and wide knowledge from the Borg kept her separate from the rest of the crew a lot). The Doctor was nothing but a hologram, why bother turning him off when leaving the sickbay, or why ask him if it’s convenient to turn him off when he has samples to run. Data was merely a robot – why should it bother us if he can vocalise a desire to not be torn apart by someone.

So this discussion disturbed me a fair bit. Robots can’t feel, and even if they can, it’s because they’ve been programmed to, where we have evolved to feel. What’s the difference?

One of my mates wrote a paper on this exploration of humanity (David-Jack Fletcher ‘Recalibrating the ‘Human’.) In it, he discusses the idea of what makes a human special, the ‘human essence’, and the perception of how post-humanism, including cyber-technologies, changes what it means to be human. I loved this (and I’m only slightly biased, because he’s awesome). Can’t we take control of our own evolution?

This is something I really want to investigate more – what separation is there? If all humans are animals, then why would zombies be bad? If animals are different to humans, then are animals and robots more alike? Where’s the line in all this? We consider ourselves the top of hierarchy, but what right does that give us to abuse robots?  And what happens when we can’t tell the difference?

Around the Interwebz: Literary Horror and the Price of Books

Oh you just know how I’ll react to this. Another literary bash-up of a genre much deeper than the critiquers seem to read into it (if at all, I grump). Every genre and style has it’s fair share of flunks. But don’t knock off my genre. Not even a mention of Colson Whitehead? (Shout out to @pnpbookseller, off whom I won a copy :D. Support the indies and shop local!)

It seems to be widely acknowledged in horror academia (from the books I’ve read anyway) that horror is a reflection of society, wrapped in demons and monsters to make the everyday horror just a little bit more distant so we don’t lose our minds from the freakishness that is humans and human society. It’s more than just primal fear, more than ‘we just want to be scared’. Horror is philosophical and psychological, it goes deeper than people are prepared to face.

People – why you no read the genre you are commenting on?

Big surprise: books cost a lot in Australia. There are a variety of reasons for this, not all understood or accepted. If we bought books from overseas, it would be cheaper, but we would likely lose Australian writers (while parallel important in NZ hasn’t killed the industry entirely, there are reports that there are less NZ writers – particularly children’s books). So I thought I’d pick on one of the reasons and explain it.

Parallel importation restrictions were introduced in 1991 for books (Productivity Commission Report, pg 57). The main aspect of parallel importation restrictions is the 30/90 day rule which allows for Australian publishers to have 30 days in which to produce and publish a book that is published overseas, and that they must be able to resupply it within 90 days, or else booksellers can purchase books from overseas publishing houses (a 14/14 day voluntary rule has been introduced since). This is also known as territorial copyright. The parallel importation restrictions of DVD’s and music have already been removed in Australia.

This is different from ebooks!

Geo-restrictions for ebooks are not set by government, but by publishers (with the author’s contract!). They (and the author’s! People sometimes forget this, so I’ll repeat it) determine the regions in which an e-book is available. Not every book is available in every region. The US, UK, and Australia and New Zealand are three separate regions. The publisher who publishes any book in Australia and New Zealand could also have the right to turn it into an e-book, available only by Australian or New Zealand consumers. An online retailer, like Amazon (with their e-reader, the Kindle), must have permission to allow their UK customers only the ebooks that the UK publishers allow them to sell, and so on for other regions.

For the rest of the cost, there is 10% GST tax on books, we have a higher minimum wage than most places, we have high rents …

Human cruelty

One of the clearest themes in horror, and other genres besides, is pointing out human cruelty. The desire to stay alive in a zombie apocalypse leads some people to sacrifice others so they can live (usually rich and rude jerks we don’t care about living anyway). One of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes is The Shelter, where people do ask ‘Why should your family live while mine dies?’

In Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy, Leah Murray refers to Thomas Hobbes claim that life in a “state of nature”, without government or authority, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” . Murray extends this to the zombie apocalypse, looking at Romero’s Dead series. In thinking about recent battlegrounds, you could go further and apply this to jerks on the inernet – with anonymity and seeming no authority or law, people are free to call you whatever negative terms they can think of (although I do think ‘baddie’ is a stupid term).

Hiding away food, weapons, information is fairly common – especially outside of horror. But there are other examples of human cruelty that is not against each other. Cruelty against weak/helpless zombies is common, usually red necks picking them off, blowing them up, stringing them up and using them as target practise. Admittedly, this could just be a reflection of what could be our cruelty to each other if we had anarchy.

There’s nothing in the world I love like a person who likes and is kind to animals, especially my cat. There are quite a few heroes in the zombpocalypse who still look after animals and share meager stores with them (non-zombiepocalypses too!). Human cruelty is seen in so many ways and with varying levels of severity. Some see horse jumping as cruelty. Dog fights are definitely cruel. I forget where it’s from, whether academic or fiction, but I remember a saying that our civilisations worth is based upon how we treat our smallest, our weakest.

The future for humanity

Much like the Doomsday Clock, fiction is indicator of the future. Think of all the inventions that were created or are currently being developed after being shown on Star Trek, or the Invisibility Cloak from Harry Potter.

But a lot of modern fiction doesn’t show the utopia that Star Trek did, much more like Battlestar Galactica (and Caprica, which was killed too soon!). Two non-zombie books are particularly prominent for me, The Human Rites trilogy by Ian Irvine and The End Specialist by Drew Magary.

A million lifetimes at your disposal: what would you do with them?  

What good is an eternal life if everyone you care about is dead?

The End Specialist shows a world where a cure is created that has the side effect of pausing the ageing process. While you can still die from a gun shot or cancer, you will never die of old age. Think of what that means where nature has been tamed. More people will live on. In a world already overpopulated, what does it mean when death becomes rare?

From bestselling Australian author and environmental scientist Ian Irvine comes a chillingly realistic thriller that will have you asking:
Is there life after global warming?

The Human Rites trilogy by Ian Irvine (The Last Albatross, Terminator Gene, The Life Lottery) is a story that is much closer to home. There is no magical scientific discovery, but it shows a cruel, twisted world that has developed from what we have now. Global warming, the drying up of natural resources, over-population, and still humanity is in denial of how royally screwed up the world is.

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Both books deal with issues that you see often in zombie texts. Humans consuming, not producing. Human greed. Human comfort above all else. Humans in vast amounts of denial. There are more than just these two books, but these I have and really enjoy. They show a truly screwed up world.

What will happen when over-population goes too far? Will politicians let it go, or institute some sort of one-child policy or eugenics? Or will the earth/spiritual blob create an ice age, plague or meteor to thin us out?

What will happen when everyone wants to be a lawyer and no one wants to be a farmer? There’s already a shortage of production jobs, and waves of rural students who go to the city.

What about when our technology outstrips us and goes all Terminator/Cylon/Robopocalyse (Daniel H Wilson) on us and our creations become our doom?

What does love and marriage mean when your life is forever at risk, or what does ‘until death do us part’ mean when you are expected to live for centuries?

What point is there in school and education when you will either live millennia or barely decades? When death is staved off, or always around the corner.

Why live when life is so limited that you can’t make a difference? Or why make a difference now when life is eternal?

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Recommended Reading

  • I Shopped with a Zombie by Philip Horne in Critical Quarterly vol 24, no 4
  • The Idle Proletariat: Dawn of the Dead, Consumer Ideology an the Loss of Production Labor by Kyle William Bishop in the Journal of Popular Culture, vol 43, no 2 2010
  • Eating Dawn in the Dark: Zombie desire and commodified identity in George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead  by A Loudermilk in Journal of Consumer Culture vol 3 (1)