Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A genre-defying blog

Reality is above all else a variable and nobody is qualified to say that he or she knows exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, with a firm enough commitment, you can sometimes create a reality which did not exist before. —Margaret Halsey

The hardest thing I've found is trying to classify my writing. I'm not sure it matters to me that it is but when you're trying to sell something to someone else they usually have a few questions. I've tried describing it as a cross between Kafka and Douglas Adams, I've tried describing my first novel as The Cat in the Hat for grownups but neither really hits the spot; besides even if I could find a suitable ism, that's not how bookshops organise their stock.

So, let's consider my options:

Genre Fiction

Walk through any bookstore and you'll see the same ol' headings:

Children's fiction
Literary fiction
Science fiction

Actually I'm not sure the last time I did see 'Western' in a bookshop but I've certainly seen it in libraries.

We do love our labels don't we, but not everything is easily classifiable. If you don't fit into the big genres, where do you go? What if you dare to cross the line?

Example: On what shelf would you put Asimov's The Caves of Steel? Most likely you'd find it under Science Fiction but it's essentially a detective story.

What I'm leading up to here is cross-genre, slipstream, speculative and genre straddling fiction. Strangely enough the first two are generally negative terms but the third, especially if declaimed in a loud, enthusiastic baritone, somehow manages to get the thumbs up. Genre-defying fiction is even more enthusiastically received as if it was some kind of trapeze act.

Cross-genre fiction

Back in 2006 The Guardian listed author Kit Whitfield's top ten genre-defying novels:

Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Frost in May by Antonia White
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
Under The Skin by Michel Faber
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw

I like the introduction to the article by Whitfield who is the author of Bareback, a whodunit-cum-science fiction fantasy-cum-love story:

Genre is all very well, but it's a cage as much as a support. Who knows how many books a person who won't touch women's fiction or only reads sci-fi is missing out on that they'd otherwise love? But for a writer, the effect is more insidious. A work of art needs to be complete on its own terms: it needs to ring with internal rightness, never mind whether it makes sense in terms of genre. A writer who forces a trope in or leaves an idea out because they're worried about genre categories has mutilated their book. The best novels are those that are so effective in themselves that they let genre go hang: use what works, leave out what doesn't, and come up with whatever's fresh and vivid that serves the story you're trying to tell.

Now that's all fine and good but on what shelf would you put Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson which is "a vision, a fable, a satire, a love story [and] a ghost story" according to his publisher? Maybe on the Horror shelf?

Slipstream fiction

Bruce Sterling coined the term with Richard Dorsett and popularised it in his 1989 essay of the same name. He didn't really expect it to stick but it's amazing what the public latches onto, isn't it? The thing is, he didn't clearly define the term – not clearly enough in any case – and it has been floating around for a while waiting on a definitive drawing of lines.

In an article in The Guardian novelist Christopher Priest has this to say about it:

I'm often told I write "slipstream" fiction, a fairly recent coinage. Although I seek to avoid categorisation of my books, slipstream can be a useful identifier. It is the literature of strangeness, but not necessarily in its subjects. Slipstream is about attitude, or a different way of inquiring into the familiar. It includes rather than categorises – while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.

It can also be without any fantastic element at all. Most readers who connect with slipstream know it when they see it, even if they don't recognise the name. In literature you might include Angela Carter, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, J G Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, some of John Fowles. In films, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Intacto are recent examples of pure slipstream

You can find a master list of so-called slipstream novels compiled by Bruce Sterling and Lawrence Person here.

A list doesn't really prove anything, especially one as long and diverse as this one. In this essay, On Slipstream, a couple of important points are made:

The reader doesn't know if the fantastic elements in a slipstream story are real or simply a figment of the viewpoint character's skewed perceptions and is not meant to ask.

Is slipstream a "real" genre? From a postmodernist point of view, that question is irrelevant – slipstream is as real as it's treated. Since more writers are self-identifying as slipstream, more zines declaring that they publish slipstream, and more academics digging through history to identify this novel or that story as slipstream, it is apparently real enough.

One of the novels in Sterling and Person's list is: Rupert Thomson's Dreams of Leaving which is an acutely realistic novel wrapped around a fantastic premise. The plot concerns the infant Moses who is placed in a basket of rushes and is the only person to have left the English village of New Egypt. Grown up and now living in London he begins his search for his parents. In other words, a "what if" scenario. But wouldn't that come under the heading Speculative Fiction?

Speculative Fiction

Simply put, speculative fiction asks, "What if…?" The term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein. It was coined in his 1947 essay 'On Writing of Speculative Fiction,' where Heinlein used it specifically as a synonym for "science fiction" but, as happened with all the other terms in this post, the definition has broadened over the years. It fell out of use in the seventies but has been resurrected. Good examples would be Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Vita Sackville-West's Grand Canyon, Robert Harris' Fatherland and Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night in all of which World War II doesn't run according to the history books.

To my mind all fiction is speculative since every book, every story ever written, starts off with a "what if" scenario: what if I put a man and a woman in a bed and what if he picked her up in a pub the night before and what if I only record their thoughts? That would be the starting point of my short story, 'Just Thinking'.

There is a lengthy article by D D Shade at Lost Book Archives which is worth a read and saved me a lot of research.

In his article he mentions an interesting point about "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which was marketed as plain vanilla or straight fiction." Now, why would they do that? Why not play the "genre-defying" card? Because Margaret Atwood is a real author and real author's write literary fiction. Of course they do.

Magic(al) Realism

In his newspaper article Christopher Priest mentioned magic realism. The first time I came across the term was in connection with the film, Northfork which I saw in the cinema a few years back and I've since bought the DVD. In the film the characters are presented with fantastic things, a guy living in a Noah's Ark and a church with an entire wall missing, and no one bats an eye; we also have a quartet of the most unusual-looking angels searching for a missing fifth. There was actually no magic in the film that I can remember.

You can find a dizzying array of definitions of the subject by Alberto Ríos here which shows how the definition is in flux but in the most simplistic terms magic realism is a fantastic situation treated realistically. It’s a term originally coined by art historian Franz Roh in 1925 to describe a visual arts movement emerging throughout Europe, but it only took a couple of years for the term to begin being used with reference to literary works.

A broader definition is given by "Mr. Magic Realism" himself, Bruce Taylor:

Briefly, the concept of Magic Realism has to do with the concept of "heightened reality" or the addition of another dimension of reality through a symbolic or metaphoric structure. It gives us a new way of perceiving the world, as if through a child looking at the world for the first time. (Italics mine)

Children are great at suspending disbelief. They watch shows like The Muppets and accept the "reality" they're presented with. I think the key here is explanation. In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. It's like the TV show Greg the Bunny where humans and puppets live side by side or the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit where we have a similar scenario only it's humans and cartoon characters this time. In both situations none of the characters questions the world they are in, however in a novel like K-PAX the true identity of the alien visitor "prot" is the focus of the whole book; K-PAX is science fiction.

Like most terms it has become debased over the year but to suggest something like Greg the Bunny is a magic realist work would have purists up in arms. They would argue that magic realism is always serious and would point you, I'm sure, to great literary works like Gabriel García Márquez's novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude and I'm not one to argue with that, but the essential element is unarguably there.

What is different is intent.

In Greg the Bunny and Who Framed Roger Rabbit the intent is to entertain. The literary equivalent would be escapist fiction. Which brings me to my problem.

My dilemma

Okay, so a guy wakes up one Tuesday morning and Truth is knocking on his door, not some long-lost parent or a kid he never knew he had, but the truth in human form. That's the premise of my novel, Living with the Truth. (Yup, that's a plug for my book but bear with me, I have a point to make). Truth appears on Jonathan's doorstep in exactly the same way as the cat in the hat appears: unexpected, uninvited and unwanted. He's like a superhero, he has one unique ability – he knows the truth about everything that's happened everywhere, everywhen – but that's it; he can't fly, he doesn't have x-ray vision and he doesn't wear Spandex.

What kind of novel is this? I could suggest Fantasy:

Fantasy … doesn't seek to ground its speculative elements in this world, but takes as granted either the existence of alternative worlds wherein the natural laws differ, or the existence of natural laws not yet discovered, such as "laws of magic." - Ashen Wings

but I'm not sure about the "takes as granted" bit because Jonathan was oblivious to the existence of Truth as anything other than an abstract concept; meeting him makes him question his whole understanding of the world especially when Truth confirms things like the existence of God and extra-terrestrials.

Or it could be Science Fiction:

Science fiction seeks to explain its speculative elements by extrapolating from science (mechanical, biological, cognitive). Science fiction is often plausible, if far-fetched or dependent on innovations and discoveries that have not yet been made and may be impossible. - Ashen Wings

because nothing Truth tells him is magical. He explains himself in terms of the physical universe.

Or it could be any one of the others. Does the fact that Jonathan needs to be convinced that Truth is who he says he is mean it isn't magical realism? Or how about the fact he's so easily convinced? I don't know and I'm not sure I care any more than Kafka did when he wrote 'The Metamorphosis', where a guy turns into a dung beetle and no one questions it; they accept that Gregor is now a beetle and don't call the police, the priest or the exterminators.

So what is my book? Slipstream? Cross-genre? Magical realist?

I would be interested in hearing what shelf you'd put it on.


Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting piece, Jim. I much prefer the use of SF to mean speculative rather than science fiction, as my bloke's got me into reading a lot of 'alt-history' novels (and why is it that so many of there /are/ about what happened if WWII went differently? Pick another subject!) - the 'what if?' definition can be used in so many different ways.

I've also become a fan of the 'magic realism' tag lately, in preference to 'fantasy' - as you said, the situation for a magic realist novel is generally one in which things that seem fantastic to us are treated as everyday occurences (mostly) by the story's characters.

As such, although 'magic realism' would be the genre I'd be inclined to put 'Living with the Truth' under (and probably will do when I tag my overdue review), I'm not sure that it really is. Jonathan doesn't treat Truth's arrival as something commonplace, at least not at first, and none of the other characters are aware of Truth's nature... Although that perhaps does imply the 'realism' tag again!

I'm not sure that it fits into any particular genre, to be honest - which often leaves a publishing company with problems. At least bookshops and libraries can just slot it into 'general fiction'!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Catherine, and I tend to agree with you. Only Jonathan is privy to Truth's true identity and he is very easily persuaded. My daughter was over today and we all had a good discussion about this. I cited all the films where Santa Claus appears and is accepted under similar circumstances. I really don't think labels are important. People prejudge enough.

Anonymous said...

I've got a soft spot for those alternate reality stories. I read a great one about US Navy warships going back in time and bumping into a WW2 era battlegroup. It brilliantly highlighted the shifts in US culture.

In terms of doing 'cross genre', Hollywood is ahead of the book world. The standard Hollywood movie *is* cross genre. 'It's like ______ meets ______. Many of them play with multiple genres, three or four at a time.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, you have a point, Adrian, and they do use that as a positive thing when marketing them too.

Rachel Fox said...

On literary fiction...why does a book get labelled thus? Is it because of its publisher? The language it uses? The reputation of the author? An accepted...feeling...from newspaper editors that X is a serious book and therefore literary? Is it kind of a load of nonsense perhaps?
I sometimes read books which are 'unquestionably' LitFic (doesn't sound so good does it?) and think..'that was just a posh romance or a posh crime novel (never mind posh porn)'...
I think your book could be LitFic if you got that kind of reputation (get thee to the Groucho club or some other horror, play thee tennis with Martin Amis and Julian Barnes...). Your book is certainly erudite enough in places - it asks big questions, as you say, bring on the Kafka comparsions - but then that might lose you some readers who find the very idea of LitFic a bit tranquillising (oh no, not the Booker Prize nominees..).
You have highlighted a very real problem - genres cause as many problems as they solve! I've never heard of Slipstream...that's an intriguing one...

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, I used to be a bookseller for Waterstones a few years ago. The publisher (I'm guessing, the marketing department) decides what section it's going in by stating it on the back cover, usually somewhere near the barcode or RRP ... Short Stories, Crime, General Fiction, Science Fiction, etc.

So I guess you decide what it is ... and you have to sell it as that. Being 'cross genre' you could sell it as science fiction or literary fiction, it's up to you. I guess there are good reasons for both. You might consider selling it as a satirical novel?

I think it can be quite damaging to get too hung up on what 'genre' it would be. It's probably best to just call it general fiction or literary fiction or 'non-genre'. If you choose a specific genre it will create expectations of what your next work should be. I hope this helps.

Conda Douglas said...

Jim, people war about genre labels. I think that's why bookstores are so general--they don't want to deal. And I love what Donald Maass said: "If you can't figure out your genre" (for a query letter) "just say 'novel'."

However, I believe your novel may be magic realism, because it possesses one and only one magical element and the rest is "real." If I read your synopsis correctly? Also a fascinating premise for a book!

Unknown said...

When I started reading this post, I thought, 'Well said, Mr Author, I have the same sort of problem with my writing, though it's not novels as yet.' Reading on, I realise you've actually taught me quite a lot I didn't know before. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I have to say I've always been a bit puzzled where the distinction lies between General Fiction and Literary Fiction. I think the main difference really is accessibility. I like your idea, Adrian, calling my book a satirical novel – never thought of that – but I don't see me as a Swift or anything. To my mind, Conda, you have the simplest answer – it's a novel, that's all it is. And, Jean, I'm glad I've made you think.

The bottom line I suppose is that every novel should be something new; every time we sit down we should be wanting to reinvent the thing. Who wants to write the same novel over and over again?

Tam said...

Magical realism sounds good to me.

As far as where to pop it in the bookstore, I am pretty sure there is not a magical realism shelf (although what if there was, and every other shelf remained the same?)

I'd be tempted not to stick it in with the sci-fi, but just lump in with the general literature. I think it's appeal is wider than just sci-fi fans.

Also, speaking as someone who used to buy a lot of sci-fi when he was younger. I expected all the books I bought to be set in the future and contain at least half a dozen robots/computers and/or aliens. If I went home with LWTT I might end up a little disillusioned.

Jim Murdoch said...

Tam, I must be tired or something but when I read 'LWTT' all I could think of was 'London Weekend Television' and I couldn't figure out the other 'T'.

Dominic Rivron said...

I found this post really interesting and it prompted me to one or two thoughts.
I've recently been reading the new-ish "The Best of Best SF" anthology and was struck by how broad a genre "SF" is these days: a story like Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" (a good example, as the title doubles as a synopsis!) could fall into just about any of the genres you discuss, if you wanted it to. And not a robot in sight.
Thinking about genres always gets me thinking about Moby Dick. The way it invites us to speculate about the nature of the White Whale's consciousness is almost SF (it could also qualify for other genres too). It has never been categorised as such - I suspect because there is so much else in it too.
And perhaps that's an important point - what is most important about a book? It's futuristic/fantastic/magical elements - or, to put it crudely, its "human interest"? I'm thinking on my feet here, but if the answer is the latter, then perhaps it's just "a novel". Perhaps a "magical realist" one, but then that has always been more of a tag than a genre.

Jim Murdoch said...

Very good point, Dominic, just because a fruit cake has icing on it doesn't stop it being a fruit cake. Okay, so it's an iced fruit cake but it's still fundamentally a fruit cake. If a person doesn't like fruit cake they're not going to find it more palatable simply because it's been topped with icing.

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