Genre is the bogeyman.

I have a single blaring problem with the way in which I was educated as an English Writing major in college: genre. Now, genre was taught poorly because of a bigger problem, that of the concept and definition of art in general, but the miseducation and lack of exposure to narrative genre in college I think was the most harmful thing our professors did to my peers and me.

genre: a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

: an agency or means of doing something.

My first memory of genre in college was the first day of Intro to Creative Writing. The professor read through the syllabus, talked about the class, and, upon dismissal, said in an offhand way that there was to be no genre-writing. He gave examples: horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, &c.
My last memory was four or five years later, in my Writing Capstone class, where my peers were arguing over whether or not a certain piece was a prose-poem or flash-fiction. I chimed in, saying genre-labeling was silly, and that it was enough to call the piece prose, since it was a narrative story told without specific metrical pattern. The class laughed, said I was genre-labeling. Now, it happens that I wasn't; I was observing the medium the author chose to employ, not the genre, but the class didn't know the difference. A group of 11 senior English Writing majors, my peers, lots of them better artists than me, didn't know the difference between a medium and a genre.

That's probably not a big deal if you're a doctor, or a mechanic, or a tech consultant. But it should be important if you're a creative writer, or have any creative writing aspirations. It should be important because a basic understanding of artistic categorization, silly as it may usually be, is essential to understanding what art is and how it functions in the modern world--it's as essential as knowing what a simile is, or iambic pentameter, or a paragraph. Medium and genre aren't grammatical terms, but they're just as important to know for a writer as the speed limit is for a mechanic.

Here's why:

I think genre's a silly old thing. It's helpful with regards to essays, or general discussion about related topics, but sometime in the 19th century, some bloke decided that with the influx of ye olde average citizen customers, he had to come up with a quick and simple way to appealingly categorize his bookstock. Thus was invented the modern genre (probably): it has led to a common knowledge of what horror stories are, what sci-fi/fantasy is, what stories you might find in the Graphic Novels section, the Western section, or the Fiction/Literature section. But there's a big problem here, ain't there? According to the definitions above, Graphic Novels are a medium, not a genre; Sci-Fi and Fantasy aren't nearly the same thing, so why are they shelved together; why does Western have its own shelf label and Cyberpunk doesn't; and what in God's green name gives Fiction/Literature such prestigious placement when it's really nothing but a catch-all category?

Of course there are spacing issues. No normal bookstore can own enough books to give a shelf to every genre, subgenre, or quasigenre invented in the past decades. So let's not blame bookstores here. But do those questions up there seem ridiculous? I don't think they do; lots of people have talked to me about that sort of stuff before, and I've talked about it to lots of people. My problem is that not enough of the folks I graduated with could answer why genre is different from medium, the answer being the first sentence of this paragraph. And if they don't know the difference between genre and medium--or why genre exists in the first place, or why it's good to understand what different mediums can do for art--then they're being held back from some integral understanding of art. And if you're an artist, that's no good.

Here's the horror: I've known people to not read anything written outside the 19th century; I've known people (Hemingway, for one) who say talking about writing is bad luck; I've known people who consider writing a mystical experience that should never be questioned or scientifically explored; and I've known tons and tons of people who don't write outside of the Fiction/Literature genre--and I'm pretty sure 95% of them don't have a specific reason why.

I'm not arguing that writers should give genre another chance. Lots of people have read non-realistic fiction and they don't like it, or they do but they don't like writing it themselves. That's cool. Do what you love. Write what you know. But my argument is that to be an artist--writer, drawler, singer, whatever--you should damn well know art. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, mechanics--these guys have to go to school for a long time and know shit they'll never have to imagine applying, but they're professionals, so they know it. Artists are professionals too. In fact, art, in my opinion, is the greatest human endeavor. It'll be that which outlasts us that can still communicate with the universe: pots, paintings, and poetry. So why on Earth would a typical higher education institution like Pitt-Greensburg teach me a ton of useful stuff--grammar, lit history, how to find an agent, how to prep a manuscript, how to push yourself creatively, how to read in public, what bars are good for what writers--and not think to touch on the essence of art itself? To teach us what art is--even if only writing--and to teach us what the media of prose and poetry can do for us as artists, and what genres are, and why they're silly and why they're useful?

I don't know. But I'm saying that understanding everything about writing behind-the-scenes, like getting an agent, trying to publish, signing a contract, etc., won't be terribly helpful if your impression of the market is false or based off of the genre-labeled codswallop and a general impression of what the population is reading. You still might get published, but I can guarantee you that no matter how much you're doing it for the money, you're also doing it to write a good book, and without a full understanding of art in this day and age with 250,000 new books published per year, you can be sure your creation's going to be lost to time before the next holiday season.

I don't mean to come off as a Nazi (in fulfillment of Godwin's Law), and I'm absolutely not suggesting that every artist needs to go to school, or read books, to understand the craft. But I do stand behind the notion that considering the creative process a mystical magical experience during which sometimes you produce genius and sometimes you sit and stare at a blank page for hours is crazy as hell, because it doesn't need to be that way. Spend some time thinking about your process--what you do, how you do it, why that is--and you'll be ultimately better off when you break down on the side of an imaginary highway, wondering how in the hell you're going to meet your personal deadline on time. Plus, doctors, lawyers, and mechanics will respect your work ethic, since you'll be more akin to an ever-contemplating philosopher than a recklessly experimenting mad scientist.

--- -- --

So the point of all this was that the 360 is coming out with a game soon called Eternal Sonata. Click for the trailer. It's so great, because it takes genre and kicks it in the nuts with the defiant glare of a 5 year old girl. The game, get this, is an RPG about Chopin, the composer. Here's a lifted quote: "Eternal Sonata follows the adventures of famed composer Frederic Chopin as he travels through his own dream world filled with colorful characters and stunning locales. In a land where music influences both combat and exploration, Chopin sets out on a journey not only of self-discovery, but also one of redemption."

You can argue that it's not really genre-bending, as much as a typical RPG with Chopin squeezed in, but I disagree. If the plot has been carefully hammered out (which I imagine it has), then we have a story that has strong elements of historical fiction (genre), Japanese RPG (subgenre), Japanese popular animation (which I'm classing as a quasigenre, since it's such a visual staple with its own pros and cons) and classical music (genre) all in one. That's pretty rad, and pretty ballsy for a videogame company. Thaine, I want you to buy it and rock it out for me.


Tia said...

I took one writing class at UPG, and I know lots of transfers and graduates who all have varying problems with UPG's writing department. You shouldn't let it represent all college writing programs.

Pitt Main is in the process of revamping the writing department. A few instructors have been working on integrating genre into their classroom, and the senior seminars have been seeing more and more genre novels. I was assisting one instructor with graphic novels a year or two ago, actually, and now it's a class.

The difference in pieces that my senior seminar produced was astounding. We had two satirists, a chick fic writer, and a borderline sci-fi writer. The rest of us were pumping out the Zen Moment story collection or novel. The thing is that many schools are seeing that their students' voices aren't being nurtured because they're forcing the New Yorker Short Story on them.

On a side note, as far as the bookstores are concerned, it doesn't make any sense. Books aren't categorized by genre, authors are. After a large amount of publications, they are moved out of their respective genre section and into the literature section. It's all based on what people will see or think to look in first; it's definitely not based on a logical classification.

Anonymous said...

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