Three Genres to Rile Them All

Ah genre, how I loathe thee. First we have to understand that the majority of subgenres, those hair-splitting, anal-retentive, formulaic, bollock-fests, are marketing tools. They should have no bearing at all on what you write or how you write it. You really shouldn’t write to a market, because the market is a moving target and your aim should be to hit the story not a demographic.

I think there are only three actual Genres.

  • Historical  — set in the past.
  • Mimetic* — set in the present.
  • Speculative — set in a world that does not exist.

Because the term genre has been muddied by marketing speak let us call them Super Genres (or Über if you prefer — I don’t). These are genres that hold all other genres within them. If you can think of a genre that doesn’t fit into one of these groups, don’t hesitate to tell me. I doubt you will, but if you do manage it I would be ecstatic — I did mention that I am not actually a fan of genres, didn’t I? Yup, there it is…loathe.

Historical Fiction is fiction set in the past. It is not fiction written in the past. Dickens did not write Historical Fiction (in much the same way that Jules Vern did not write Steampunk — he just didn’t so get over it. What’s that? He wrote about airships and steam-engines? Yes he did, but they were cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, technological wonders when he wrote about them. To a Steampunker, they are retro, nostalgic, technological curiosities. Spot the difference. Or can’t steampunk, which is a wonderful sub-genre in its own right, stand on it’s own two feet and instead needs to big itself up with great novels from the past. Throw off that inferiority complex, it makes your arse look so big it covers your mouth.)

Where was I? Oh right, yeah, Dickens didn’t write Historical Fiction (Okay, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  was set in his past and I’m sure there are others, just like ‘A Christmas Carol’, which could be called Speculative Fiction…it’s got ghosts in it. What? How stupid… look do ghosts exist? Well? I don’t care about the grey blob you saw in a forest once while mushroom hunting, are ghosts a scientific certainty?…sigh…Yes, and the moon landings were faked too.)

Anyway…um…oh yeah. Most of Dickens’s stories were set in his present. They were Mimetic, not Historical, Fiction. Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ (which is brilliant by the way) is Historical Fiction because it is set during the French Revolution…yes, just like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What can I say? If you are inclined towards writing books set in the past then the French Revolution must be almost irresistible. All that lovely reportage, pamphlets, documentation, all that stuff you can use, plus beheadings, betrayal, and people who think cake is a substitute for bread (yeah, I’m aware she didn’t actually say that but it’s a good shorthand for the rich and powerful muppets without a clue. The 1% should take note.)

I quite like reading well-written Historical Fiction, but I’m not sure I’d actually want to try to write it. The constraints must be a nightmare. The writer is (IMHO) psychoanalysing figures out of history from their laundry bills. I think I’d rather sit in the corner going blah blah blah, but I am very glad that others don’t feel the same way.

Mimetic Fiction is fiction set in the present day. It is fiction that tries to imitate reality in prose. Some people seem to think that this is a higher calling and some writers (like Dickens) answer the call with powerful stories that help to change public opinion. Other writers however seem to think that readers are interested in a 2000 word scene about doing the washing-up, or the writer’s (barely-hidden) autobiographical, self-justifying, non-stories about their last divorce, or the writer’s pontificating drivel about a third-world country they visited once on a school trip.

It’s a difficult thing writing something set in your present, particularly when technology is advancing so quickly. The writer is plundering their own life for material (we all do that of course, but the rest of us can hide it a bit better — a Tudor baker or a green-skinned future-human automatically makes the character less like ourselves). If a mimetic writer needs to write about a character with the latest bit of technological kit they simply go out and buy it.

(BTW..Can you write that sort of stuff off against tax as research? If you can, then I may well write a techno-thriller set in the present that uses all sorts of technological wonders, and travels between all sorts of really cool places in the world that I have always wanted to visit. ‘It’s research, guv. Yeah, well the character stayed in a seven star hotel for four weeks so I had no choice but to do the same. Mimetic innit, guv?’ )

Mimetic Fiction can be wonderful and glorious but it is not inherently superior to the other Super Genres. That is where the trouble lies. People who, for whatever reason, have no sense of wonder, who think fiction should be a variation on a newspaper column, who, essentially, having no imagination, spout balderdash about the other super genres (usually Speculative Fiction if we’re honest. Historical Fiction allows them to nit-pick about the length of the teeth on a Victorian nit-picking comb, so they tolerate its imaginative use of historical fact in the pursuit of their insipid exercise in onanist one-upmanship. Whereas Speculative Fiction brings them out in apoplectic rage, and snobby sneering (they think it makes them cool — it doesn’t) about how none of this can really have happened. These creatures don’t exist. Those places don’t exist. This technology doesn’t exist. Strangely, most of these people seem to have studied classics at university.)

Speculative Fiction (Full disclosure: this is my genre, this is where I live, breathe, and exist. I read it, I write it, and I would roll around in it naked if I could) is fiction set in a place that doesn’t exist. That sounds simple doesn’t it?

But

Does the place not exist, because it is in the future and therefore it doesn’t exist…yet? Or does the place not exist, because it is set on an alternate (secondary) world and therefore it doesn’t exist…at all? Or does the place not exist, because it places things in our reality that don’t actually exist in our reality and therefore it might exist…if the world is really really crazy.  

Or to put it another way is it Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror?

None of this matters when defining the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, what matters is the non-existence of the universe.

Ah yes I used the term defining in relation to genre, which is always a call for a flame war on Speculative Fiction sites. You can quite easily make yourself troll-bait by engaging in the deviant behaviour known as “Is this Science Fiction or Fantasy?” To which the only sane answer is “Dunno, bruv, is it any good?”

Yes, Science Fiction has to be scientifically plausible, absolutely (though the dogma style mania for Mundane Science Fiction is a little OTT. It is a lovely writing challenge to write something where all the science is theoretically possible at our present level of scientific knowledge (No FTL [Faster than Light] drives for instance) but it is not inherently better than some mad-arse Space Opera with galaxy spanning empires crumbling slowly away at the edges. If you think it is then you are, not to put to fine a point on it, no better than the other fashionistas who witter on about Literary Fiction all the time. You are putting limits on the imagination of authors because of your fetishist tendencies. Do you really want to be classed alongside the dinner-party set who think reading should be a difficult thing only to be undertaken by trained professionals? Seriously? So Mundane SF is a cracker of an idea, but it is not the only form of SF that deserves to use the name).

And yes, in Fantasy anything goes, but it kinda has to be consistent. (Non-consistent fantasy novels are called magic realism and written by literary writers slumming. That is a bit harsh on Magic Realism of course, but don’t blame me I didn’t nick the entire genre for the purposes of strip-mining Carroll, Blake, and Milton. Blame the literary establishment’s snobbery towards Speculative Fiction in general and Fantasy in particular. (They dismiss the Fantasy elements of Pratchett’s work with a sneer and a snigger then go all “So is this werewolf motif a reference to the beast that lies within all men.” “Um…She’s a woman.” “So it’s about the feminising of the male psyche then? Or are you references Medea? Or…” “It’s fantasy, pal.” (I doubt the good Terry, says pal much, but he should.) So when a writer they admire (for his magnum opus on fairy liquid) writes Fantasy badly, they call it Magic Realism, which is a shame because that is a grand genre now ruined by stupid white males educated past their level of intelligence.)

I find Horror the most difficult part of this triumvirate, mainly because I can never quite make up my mind if Horror is a stylistic genre rather than a setting genre. Horror can take place anywhere, it can cross all the boundaries (Yes, all genres can mash with all others, Mimetic and Historical is a stretch but it can be done with parallel storylines) and still remain Horror first and foremost. Horror is about dread, which does not rely on setting — which is my main point of reference to defining Super Genres. But hark what light of wisdom falls soft upon this aged pate? Oh yeah, I forgot, Horror is part of the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, therefore it doesn’t matter if it is a setting based genre or a stylistic one. Problem solved.

*Mimetic is a way around using the word ‘Contemporary’, which is a little too ambiguous; contemporary could mean ‘written in the last ten years’ as well as ‘set in the present’. Mimesis means imitation, which in literature is used to mean a ‘representation of reality’. Not a great fan of the term because it is something the literati probably debate on the dinner party circuit** but there no real way around it. Clarity is all; which is why vocabulary is really quite important to a writer.

** Dinner party circuit, where the pretentious go to use their expensive education to hide their limited intellect.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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