Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gaiman on Genre

The new issue of the JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS includes Neil Gaiman's guest of honor speech from the 2013 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Having been enthralled by the talk when I heard it in person, I'm delighted to have the printed version to remind me of so many great lines I'd recalled only vaguely.

Gaiman's main topic is genre, but he begins by discussing the interaction between author and reader. As authors, he says, "What we give the reader is a raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they use the build the book themselves. No two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author." Reminds me of Jacqueline's Tailored Effect! Gaiman mentions the not uncommon experience of returning to a beloved childhood story and rereading a scene that you remember "so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it" and discovering that the rain, wind, sounds of horses, etc. that you remember so clearly aren't on the page—"you realize you did it all." Something like this experience probably inspires a lot of fanfic: We're driven to articulate what we saw in the original work that was implied but not openly expressed there.

Gaiman takes a stab at defining genre, after briefly discussing the pragmatic market definition of it as a heuristic device for enabling readers to find the kinds of stories they like on bookstore shelves. Some comments:

"Genre, it had always seemed to me, was a set of assumptions, a loose contract between the creator and the audience."

He compares porn movies to musicals by drawing an analogy between the sex scenes and the songs. "In a musical the plot exists to allow you to get from song to song and to stop all the songs from happening at once. So with a porn film. . . . If you've gone to a musical and there are no songs, you are going to walk out feeling that you did not get your musical money's worth."

"If you take them out—the songs from a musical, the sex acts from a porn film, the gunfights from a Western—then they no longer have the thing that the person came to see. . . . If the plot is a machine that allows you to get from set piece to set piece, and the set pieces are things without which the reader or the viewer would feel cheated, then, whatever it is, it's genre. . . . Subject matter does not make genre."

I'm not sure this statement doesn't minimize the importance of plot a bit too much. Still, it blew me away when I heard it. Each genre has its defining elements. A romance reader expects a love story at the center of the plot and a happily-ever-after (or happily-for-now, at least) at the conclusion. It has been quite rightly said that GONE WITH THE WIND and Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER aren't romances, because they don't conform to these "rules"; they are better described as "novels with romantic elements" (a category, incidentally, that the RWA has deleted from its RITA contest on the grounds that the category dilutes the organization's focus on romance). Genre fiction even has its "obligatory scenes," without which the reader will feel cheated out of the anticipated reading experience. For example, in the original STAR WARS, it seemed obvious that Luke Skywalker would have to face Darth Vader in combat, since at that point all we knew about Vader was that he'd allegedly killed Luke's father. The absence of that confrontation at the end of the first movie came as a disappointment—but a clear set-up for a sequel. We knew the story wasn't "finished."

Gaiman again: "Now the advantage of genre as a creator is it gives you something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. . . . Another advantage of genre for me is that it privileges story."

Do science fiction and fantasy, being broader genres than the romance or the Western, have certain defining "set pieces" without which we aren't in the genre anymore? Or, more narrowly, do certain subgenres, such as the quest fantasy, possess these elements?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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