Thursday, February 22, 2007

More on Genre


My interest was sparked by the discussion of genre on this blog and a comment I read in a LOCUS interview a few weeks ago. The earlier posts about genre have discussed it mainly in the marketing sense, the labels that publishers and bookstores place on books. To scholars of literary criticism, "genre" means something much broader—novel, drama, lyric, epic, etc. Most writers and readers of popular fiction, on the other hand, think of genre in terms of content and plot conventions, and more genres exist in this sense than in the marketing sense, especially when we count the emerging "cross-genre" blends that have established themselves as recognized categories, such as paranormal romance. One type of fiction, which calls itself "mainstream" and gets shelved by default in "Fiction and Literature," is in fact also a genre (just as "standard English" is in fact a dialect like any other)—actually a pair of genres invented in the nineteenth century, "realism" and the "novel of manners" (which overlap, of course). It has claimed dominance over all other genres and labeled itself as "real" literature with all the others relegated to the status of popular entertainment, even though the vast majority of classic literature created before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contains fantastic elements and/or larger-than-life characters.

Marketing department genres and bookshop genres aren't even necessarily the same. Fantasy and science fiction are considered different categories by authors and publishers but are almost always shelved together in the store. Writers' contests subdivide genres to a much finer degree than any brick-and-mortar bookstore could handle (one advantage of an online bookstore with a good search engine). Should erotic romance share space with "mainstream" romance or be sequestered in a separate corner with non-romance erotica? Booksellers differ on this question. Horror may or may not have its own shelf space; many stores lump it with general fiction.

Is horror a "genre" in the same sense as the others? Some writers in the field think not. It's often said that horror is a mood, not a genre. Books classified as horror can be found in science fiction (e.g., Stephen King's CARRIE and FIRESTARTER, Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND) and mystery (e.g., Robert Bloch's PSYCHO, Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD) as well as the more familiar territory of supernatural fantasy. Stephen King suggests that all horror serves the purpose of helping us to deal with the inevitability of death. In a recent issue of LOCUS, China Mieville says (paraphrasing John Clute), "horror has to do with the numinous, the uncovering of the terrible truth that is there under the everyday. That is only another articulation of uncovering the *transcendent* truth under the everyday." This comment supports what I've long believed about the ghost story or traditional vampire story as a spiritual experience. The effectiveness of a cross against a traditional vampire gives us a clue to this truth. The phenomena in a novel of supernatural horror (or "dark fantasy," to use a currently popular genre label) hint that something beyond the purely material world exists. If supernatural evil exists, supernatural good may also be real.

When I first started writing stories at the age of thirteen, I was an avid horror fan and thought of myself as a budding horror writer because of my fascination with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, even though one of my first tales was a tragic romance between a man and a ghost. Eventually the publishing industry woke up to what I'd gradually become aware of over the intervening decades—a story isn't necessarily horror just because it contains one of the classic horror motifs. My first published vampire novel is marketed as horror, yet its romance content—the central relationship between the half-vampire protagonist and his human lover—is equally important. Nowadays vampire detective novels, romances, SF, and humorous chick lit thrive alongside old-style (or familiar yet with a postmodern twist) vampire horror fiction. Decades ago, publishers, readers, and audiences didn't have a distinctly identified genre category for such works as: DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY; THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR; BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE; and Thorne Smith's THE PASSIONATE WITCH. Happily, now we do.

2 comments:

  1. I searched for the book you were talking about...was it Shadow of the Beast?

    I put that one on my list to buy from amazon.com today.

    Just wondering.

    ~Lady Valmar

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  2. Thanks very much for ordering SHADOW OF THE BEAST! That's my werewolf novel, which was written after several of the books published after it. DARK CHANGELING was my first published vampire novel and the true "book of my heart." You see a cover and blurb at the "Books" link on my site, www.margaretlcarter.com, and the complete list of vampire fiction at the "Vanishing Breed Vampire Universe" link.

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