Readercon was fun and very intense. This isn't a report on that experience--it's an essay I started to prepare for the event. I was on one panel, entitled Traditional Genre Boundries are Melting, and I wanted to clarify my own thoughts on genre as preparation. I'm not sure I actually achieved all that much clarity, but I did manage to bring together some thoughts worth sharing.
This writing is very much in the shadow of con attendee Samuel Delany, whose book of critical essays Shorter Views galvanized my thinking about genre and writing. I met him briefly this weekend, and managed to stammer out a couple of sentences of admiration before slinking off to feel stupid in the lobby for a while.
I love categories; categories are useful, categories are fun, categories are enormously convenient. Categories support community. The question, as Humpty-Dumpty said, is who's to be master?
Rather than "What is science fiction? What is fantasy? What is literary fiction?" I've spent most of my brainpower and pixels on the related questions, "What is erotica? What is pornography?" My short answer to that one is that marking a distinction between those two categories is useless at best and harmful at worst. Strikingly, much of the response I've gotten to my essays on the topic has been people not addressing the arguments I made, but taking their own stabs at defining that dividing line.
One can compare a description of a word's meaning to a map. It attempts to show how a word is used--to reproduce what it describes faithfully--but it is always a reduction and simplification of the original. A definition strives not to be a map but a blueprint--a full description of how the word must be used--to be definitive.
Now, some of the people who want to define pornography and erotica say, I belong to this established school, or that established school. But more interestingly, many offer a fresh definition of their own.
This is weirder than it looks.
These terms--erotica and pornography--at the risk of belaboring the obvious, are human terms. They were devised by humans, and have been used by millions of humans, in something like their current senses, for something like a century (the words themselves are much older, of course. Meanings do evolve). When you propose a new definition, either you are proposing that your own new meaning replace the old one, or you are arguing that your definition was the one that everyone, unknowingly, was meaning or trying to mean all along. You have accessed intellectually what everyone else had only known instinctively.
I hope this underscores how futile attempting to make definitions of most human terms is. But if we let go of definitions, especially of trying to find fresh definitions of established experiences, how can we talk about categories?
In terms of experience and expectations.
Lets take "That's not science fiction!" a popular complaint leveled against The Time-Traveller's Wife, Dhalgren, The City and the City, and many other books. The person with that complaint picked the book up in the SF section of the bookstore, expecting that shelving decision to guarantee a certain sort of experience, and then was disappointed. It's easy to sneer here at that reader for being an old stick-in-the-mud, but the discomfort and disappointment were real and legitimate, and worth complaining about. If you order a cheeseburger and get an ice cream sundae, you have a right to complain, no matter how good a sundae the sundae was. And although novels are art, buying novels is commerce.
The problem with "that isn't science fiction!" is the terms in which it was cast. The speaker has made it a debate on the absolute meaning of science fiction. Either the book is outside that immutable definitition, in which case it was mis-shelved, or it's inside, in which case the complaint was just wrong. The speaker has framed SF as something impersonal and immutable.
A more accurate and productive complaint would be, "That's not what I look for when I buy an SF novel."
Delany argues, persuasively, that literary experience depends on the play of expectations fulfilled and expectations violated. A work that violates all the reader's expectations registers not as a story but as white noise--a random scattering of words on the page, or a roast beef sandwich, or a punch in the nose. A work that fulfills all expectations cannot make an impression beyond vague and tepid satisfaction.
One of the ways to look at a genre is as a particular body of expectations.
The experience of drinking milk when you were expecting orange juice, or vice versa, is notoriously jarring. The taste, pleasant in itself, is rendered uncomforable by clashing so strongly with your expectations.
Many of the negative reviews of The Prestige (the movie) on Amazon.com are from viewers who objected not to its SF elements, but for the fact that they didn't feel adequately prepared for those elements. They felt that they had been lead to believe that there would be some naturalistic explanation for the movie's events, and felt betrayed by the revelations at the end.
The first time I read (Readercon attendee) John Crowley's Ægypt (now retitled The Solitudes), I was fresh off of Little, Big, had bought the book in the SF section of the bookstore, and thought I was reading a fantasy novel. The tone of the book did nothing to dissuade me. I made it to the last page still holding out hope that the narrative was about tho shift into the fantastic. This didn't mean that all the pleasures of the book were closed to me, but it did mean that I was badly positioned to receive what Crowley was trying to transmit.
The City and The City was also sold to me as a fantasy novel, and likewise endlessly deferred the resolution into clearly fantastic events. The effect, however, was intentional, and Mieville uses it to play with the reader in a way that felt entertainingly tantalizing rather than frustrating. That pleasure may have something to do with the reader being two decades older, but I also think it has a lot to do with control. Is the author in control of the effect he's having, or is it n accident?
When we assume categories to be immutable and rigid, we relinquish the freedom to play with them. When we pretend that they don't exist--that we should approach each work as blank slates, empty of expectations or desires, we're perpetrating an even bigger fiction, and we're again reqlinquishing control over the effects that those expectatons--both fulfilled and denied--will have.