Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Toohey on Transcending Genre

Clare Toohey of CriminalElement.com discusses why she gets irked when critics talk about transcending genre. Excerpt:
At its heart, lasagna is a simple dish in concept. But if you have a version you love -- your grandma's or uncle's, favorite checked-tablecloth joint's, even favorite freezer box's -- you can taste the differences. Subtleties come alive in the taster's experience, appreciable, even if not specifically definable. Crime stories across all subgenres (heck genre fiction in general) get castigated for being "formulaic." But many of us fans view each subgenre as a beloved basic recipe, one that invites endless tinkering among aficionados.

That's why "transcending lasagna" is how I think of the persistently irritating tendency of non-genre readers and writers to bestow “It transcends genre!” as a compliment.

I've actually come to think of that phrase as a Big. Red. Flag.
Read the whole thing. Toohey offers a number of worthwhile observations, such as how good genre tales need strong, recognizable structures; that many so-called "transcendent" entries in a genre miss the very elements that delight its fans; and that a goodly number of critics don't know enough about popular fiction to recognize the difference. These points have merits. But I'd argue Toohey has missed something salient: Literary fiction (the category to which most of these transcendent titles really belong) is itself a genre. In passing out left-handed compliments, tastemakers are really revealing their own their own preferences.

(Picture: CC 2011 by gingero.us)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I don't think things have to "transcend" into literary fiction; nor are the literary side of genre fiction necessarily labelled "transcendent."

I'm just about to finish Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It is obviously one of his most "literary" works--I can tell because at some point it involves divorce proceedings. (Divorce is the marker of contemporary literary fiction, or at least the most cliched variety, par excellance.)

Yet for me, Murakami's latest work "transcended" literary fiction. It gave me fascinating characters who take drastic action. It gave me graphic depictions of WWII violence that rang true with both historical situations and noir's well-polished skill at presenting human characters in fascinatingly inhumane situations. It gave me a hero to root for and a villain who really is rather villainous. It gave me magical dreamscapes and slipstream realities that wouldn't be out of place in the works of fantasy-fiction award-winners such as China Mieville, Gene Wolfe, Jeff VanderMeer, or Cat Valente.

In short, we need a tag for works that provide the pleasure of more than one genre. "Transcendent" may be the best, but I don't see it as a bad thing, either.

Regarding the snobbery, I think it is certainly apparent (and ties in with Toohey's claim that literary fiction readers don't read other genres carefully.) Film has, I think, much to do with this--since genre-fiction translates great to special effects, but its subtleties often get left behind. It takes a lot less time for critics to judge a genre by its films, leaving more time for chewing thoughtfully on the latest elaborate literary creation.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Ha! Divorce as the hallmark of literary fiction. I think he has something there. I can hardly think of a literary novel without it.

Loren Eaton said...

In short, we need a tag for works that provide the pleasure of more than one genre.

Bingo. Great point.

I think Toohey's frustration stems from the implicit idea (which you mention in your final paragraph) that tastemakers see genre fiction as something to be surmount, while literary fiction is simply good in and of itself.

Loren Eaton said...


You're absolutely right. Also, don't they normally need to involve a sexually conflicted university professor at some point?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Loren and Patti,

No, literary fiction is still literary fiction if it looks at "other people" (i.e. inferior non-university professors.) As long as they get divorces.

Unknown said...

Since, we're using food descriptions here I think I will continue them ;P

I bake Fritz Bread. Effectively, something that has become a new genre. This was evident one time when I brought a loaf of bread to an event where the group I was in performed. They fed us after we performed and had a table with loaves of fresh breads. One of the dancers stated she didn't eat bread.

When I offered my Fritz Bread around the table, she accepted. For Fritz Bread isn't bread.

In some ways, I see this as books that push in new directions, perhaps even allowing a current genre to grow. Examples of this could be Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling's cyberpunk; and Paolo Bacigalupi, et al. climatepunk).

Loren Eaton said...

Now I really want some Fritz bread!

Funny you should mention Bacigalupi. I've been thinking of him for a while. His writing seems to be genepunk to me, maintaining the cyberpunk ethos while changing the speculative premise. Makes me wonder how many kinds of "punk" there could be. Radpunk (radiation punk) might be fun to experiment with.