For as long as I have been writing I have liked to mix genres. Genre-blending and ‘villain as protagonist’ are the two of the most common elements you’ll find in my work. This is one of the qualities that drew me to comics, initially–the willingness of writers to engage with many genres at once. So you’d think I’d be happy to see so many new books, comics and movies being described as ‘genre-bending’, wouldn’t you? So, why does this sudden surfeit of multi-genre works make me want to light my hair on fire?
Because these stories are often less than the sum of their parts. A zombie meets a robot ninja is not much of a story. Maybe it’s a comedy routine or a fight scene but… come on. No wonder the literary establishment looks down its collective nose at the subset of genres* that constitute ‘genre fiction’.
Literature illuminates something about the world we live in and I believe that a large part of the critical stigma upon ‘the genres’ stems from the fact that they remove us from our immediately-recognizable habitat. Many critics simply cannot handle the indirection through fantastical scenarios–that’s been abundantly clear for nearly a hundred years. What’s disappointing to me is that many writers of genre fiction cannot make the leap, either. We seem to revel in producing these very slight stories which are little more than a mishmash of cliches, delivered with the sort of desperate nudge in the ribs that passes for irony these days. Knowledge of pop culture is no substitute for writing chops, nor is it an excuse for recycling plots or stereotypical characters.
It’s hard to know who to blame for this, but one of the most visible culprits is one of my personal heroes–Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino has a history of playing with genres that goes back to his 1996 collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. But now that his place in the canon has been cemented QT’s movies have become… indulgent. I enjoyed DJANGO UNCHAINED, but the film is top-heavy with references to other works. Still, at least it’s about something more than those just those references.
In many ways you could look at David Mamet as Tarantino’s polar opposite. When I first heard Mamet talking about purity of genre I admit that my first reaction was to scoff… but Mamet is no fool. A lot of his work does fall very precisely into particular genres, in the same way that his writing very precisely demonstrates the Hollywood school of screenwriting. Tarantino’s work is indulgent; Mamet’s work is perhaps the opposite: too rigidly constructed. But whether or not you are a fan of his work, you have to admit that Mamet has chops. He does an incredible job of staying true to the tropes of genre without ever delivering something that seems tired, rehashed or cliched. Mamet demonstrates that you can deliver well-crafted and original stories from within the confines of the hoariest of genres–so why is it we, who are proudly writers of the genres, are failing to do this?
It’s because we are not telling stories about people. We have become fixated on writing about the genre tropes themselves.
I have nothing against metafiction–as you’ll know if you’ve read any issue of McBlack–but I have a problem with stories whose sole intent is to be ‘meta’. Metafiction still needs to deliver a story. Good metafiction uses genre tropes and narrative reflexivity to reveal character in interesting ways, or to mutate plots into forms that require knowledge of the old for maximum impact. Bad metafiction regurgitates stock plots and characters and while sniggering “it’s a formula. Geddit? Geddit?”
There are many authors who do mash up genres well. Here are the first two examples that come to mind, both of them dyed-in-the-wool genre ghetto warriors:
Roger Zelazny has been one of my favourite writers since childhood and his ability to mix genres is the chief reason for this. In his seminal novel LORD OF LIGHT he uses a common science fiction plot (a feudal society on a colonized planet is tyrannised by a small caste who still have access to the original colonists’ technology) to build a fantasy world from which he can explore the entanglement of different Eastern religious systems. This gives Zelazny a rich hierarchy of symbols and archetypes to play his characters off and a plot that is layered with myth and history.
China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION gives us the most convincing blend of magic and science I’ve yet read. In Mieville’s industrialized city of New Crobuzon, scientific devices can help magicians to work their arts and scientists are able to incorporate thaumaturgical energies into their experiments as routinely as they use electricity. During the story, the one of the protagonists (a scientist) hires a trio of adventurers to help him with some dirty business. These adventurers are a standard Dungeons and Dragons ‘party’; a group of badasses with a mix of specialist skills who will do more or less anything ‘for gold and experience’. But the adventurers are quickly revealed to be more than just their archetypes–they have inner lives as rich as those of the actual protagonists of the book. Despite the monumental feat of worldbuilding that is the most usual talking point of this book, the story is powerful because it’s about convincing characters who are placed in physical and moral jeopardy. Despite all of the genre-play and the clever references, PERDIDO STREET STATION does not follow a by-the-numbers plot to a predictable outcome and its true intent is the revelation of character.
Genre-blending and metafictive byplay do not by themselves make for good stories. No matter what kind of tools you use to build them, good stories are about characters.
*A discussion for another time. I have a book collection UNGENRED coming out in the next couple of weeks so you know the topic has been on my mind.