Because We Can Never Talk About Genre Enough

So I just came across Joshua Rothman’s really wonderful New Yorker article about genre (in the Tweeter feed of Sequoia Nagamatsu who edits the really lovely Psychopomp, go investigate all that), and you should read it. I’ll give you a minute.

I’m not going to get into the whole thing here — it’s a great article and I love what it has to say about genre — but I did want to write down something it helped clarify for me. Our current conceptions of “genre” are highly problematic; I’ve previously talked about how their increasing granularity is bad for writers.What Rothman does so nicely in his article is briefly explain Northrop Frye’s genre system…I’m not going to explain it again here, because you should have just read Rothman’s article.

One of the key differences between the way publishing constructs genre and the way Frye does is what “cross-genre” comes to mean. Essentially, today’s publishing-oriented genre system means “cross-genre” is a mixing of tropes. Cowboys vs. Aliens is perhaps the most ad absurdum way to think about it. Cross-genre to Frye is a blending of approaches, a blending of systems.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about “great” works of literature, the works that have stuck with us, stood the test of time, informed generations of writers…you know the drill. What they have in common, at least to my mind, is that they provide their readers with new tools — mechanisms for addressing reality, for writing new stories, etc. The problem with our current system of genre classification is that it doesn’t allow space for creating new tools. The most innovative tool it allows is genre crossing, and that limits authors to existing tropes. “Innovation” in this context becomes the rote work of finding unused combinations.

Blending systems, as Frye would have us do, changes the equation. Anatomy and confession (you read the damn article, right?) are necessarily progressive affairs. By which I mean, where the recombination of tropes roots the author in the past, the recombination of systems requires the author to address the present, the ongoing. The former rejects new tools, the latter practically requires their invention.

I know I’m being a little obscure, but to hell with you. I have two graduate degrees in English, I’m supposed to be obscure.

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: