Last night was The Kitschies, the award for the most intelligent, entertaining and progressive speculative fiction of the year. A marvellous time was had by all. Awards were given to A Tale for the Time Being, Ancillary Justice, the cover of The Age Atomic and Malorie Freaking Blackman who was right there.
Also, I somehow managed to tell one of my favourite authors that he looked like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, but ‘a Wonka, not a Twit.’ This was meant as a compliment. Clearly I am the EMPEROR of smooth.
I love the Kitschies. I love the criteria, I love that they bother to have criteria, rather than relying on some amorphous notion of ‘best’ which provides no basis for discussion. I also really like their mission statement: ‘elevating the tone of the discussion of genre literature in its many forms.’
That word genre, though, conveys a slippery concept at the best of times. I was chatting to a friend at the end of the night, and she said that in her dealings with the industry, she still encountered a certain condescension towards genre fiction. A slight, unspoken scepticism that it could be proper art. Now, being in the speculative fiction community, of course this irritated me, but equally - being in the speculative fiction community, – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen an equal and opposite reaction from certain quarters, with people saying that so called ‘literary fiction’ is dull, pretentious and empty of story.
Is it just me, or are both of these positions nonsense? I don’t just mean wrong, I mean literally devoid of sense, impossible to parse. Why?
Because the distinction between genre and literary fiction is a literal category mistake.
To paraphrase Hank Green. “Dear people who complain about the genres they’re exposed to: EVERYTHING IS GENRE.”
What are genres? They’re categories, branches on a taxonomic tree. They let us group stories together based on qualities (rayguns say, or cowboys, or ‘orrible murders) that those stories share.
But surely, if we’re going use a genre taxonomy to help us understand our stories (and I see no reason we shouldn’t), it makes no sense at all to then turn around and say some of our stories aren’t in a genre. I mean, what puts these stories off the map? Don’t they have qualities we could use to sort them? Of course they do, we just haven’t bothered.
Does any other field of intellectual endeavour do this? You don’t get zoologists saying ‘Platypus, you TRANSCEND genus. You are just a general animal, because frankly with the whole duck-bill, beaver-tail thing we got really confused.’
He is an enigma, isn’t he?
It’s not that the divisions between genres don’t hold – fuzzy and vague though they necessarily are. Some people like books with spaceships, and some like books with cowboys, and it can make sense to group stories that way*. But what makes as much sense as lead-based toothpaste is to say certain books fall outside genre all together.
It’s as though the Sorting Hat were to think really hard before telling Harry Potter, “You transcend Houses! Congratulations, you’ll have to eat your dinner on your own in the floor. Also, no fancy coloured scarf for you. ’ Harry would say Hogwarts needed a new hat, and I’d be inclined to agree.
When we call a book literary as a synonym for ‘non-genre’, we aren’t saying anything significant about the qualities of the book, all we’re saying is that our taxonomy is incomplete. We’re pointing to the gaps in our genre periodic table. The difference with the actual periodic table is that they knew they were missing elements, and when they found an example of one, they put it in. But the Waterstones general fiction departments are heaving with examples of genres we’ve missed, and are we busy painting ‘21st C. Family Drama’ signs for bookshop shelves? Well, are we?
*Sound of crickets*
And that’s another reason I love the Kitschies, because by shortlisting Thomas Pynchon and Ruth Ozeki next to Ann Leckie and Ramez Naam, they collapse the distinction between literary and genre. A far more interesting question is which genre(s) is the work in, and what literary effects are those tropes being used to achieve?
In other words, is it progressive? Is it intelligent? is it entertaining?
Personally, think we need a new Sorting Hat.
*So long as we’re willing to allow stories that contain both spaceships and cowboys to be in both. Ah, Firefly. Seriously, I think this is another thing we sometimes mean when we say a book transcends genre, like people have recently been saying about M.R. Carey’s The Girl With all the Gifts. They mean it will appeal to fans of lots of different genres, which is just another way of saying it’s in lots of different genres, and not outside genre at all.