Genre, Part II

After a brief break to discuss some dudes who may or may not be made of iron, more on genre!

This is the touchier bit, so I should note beforehand that I’ll be away for the weekend. If I don’t respond, it’s not because I hate you and your cat, but rather because I’m in New Hampshire being attacked by friends of mine dressed up as zombies–yes, I LARP, I’m a geek like that–and also by some truly frightening mosquitoes. (Last time, I lost three pounds, and I think it was all blood.) I mean, hopefully I will handle this with tact and diplomacy, but you never know, with me.

The thing is, I find genre pretty damn useful, because I know my tastes and will cheerfully indulge them. I like some sort of fantasy or supernatural element; I like historical settings; I do not like Downer Endings (thank you, TV Tropes).  Sometimes, I can go off of already existing authors or friends’ recommendations to get all of the above*, but I read fast, people only publish so many books a year, and sometimes I’m standing in a train station looking for reading material and need some guidelines.

Yes, sometimes a recommendation or whatever will take me outside my preferences*, and that’s good. But Earth really is full of things, as the King of All Cosmos reminds us, life is short, and the MBTA is not known for its patience, so having a smaller category in which to look is a good thing. Honestly, so is anything that increases the chances of me reading more of what I like.

Except, and here’s the touchy part, that genre as a concept carries with it a lot of baggage, particularly certain genres. Which is not to say that life as a genre reader or writer is sooo hard and nobody understands me, blah blah annoying use of the word “mundanes” blah blah, because that sort of thing also bugs me, but I do write for two categories–romance and fantasy–that get a fair amount of sniffiness from time to time, and it bugs, and I have at times responded to “Why don’t you try writing something that’s not fantasy?” with “Why don’t you try BITING ME? It’s fun!”** So I am not exactly a detached and impartial observer here.

I’m more cranky, honestly. Because genre does not and never has correlated to quality, and people have all kinds of different factors involved in their choices of media, and much as I’m actually quite judgmental personally, I think that we could all do with a little less conflation of “stuff I like” with “stuff that’s good”. (And even of “stuff that’s good” with “stuff that people ‘should’ be reading”: there is a place in life for the mental equivalent of circus peanuts.) And yes, there are books with let-us-say-“problematic”-because-this-is-my-tactful-blog approaches to race, sex, sexuality, etc, and there are or were standards in the industry that did not help in that regard, and these are topics that can and should be discussed and acknowledged. It’s also fine to think and say that a work is bad, of course***, or to not personally care for a particular style of music or literature or TV.

However, genres–of music, of books, of whatever–are great big categories, they say nothing about the writing or composing ability of someone working in them or the mental state of someone who prefers them, and making statements like “meh, rap sucks” or “horror is not good literature” shows the person behind them in a worse light than whatever it is they’re complaining about.

 *It depends on the factor: it’s relatively common for me to read modern or original world fantasy, reasonably so for me to read non-supernatural historical books, but I almost never go for anything that’s depressing.

**Okay, I didn’t actually do that, because we didn’t get to reply to comments in creative writing class, and that…was probably why. Because I would also have gone on to ask why the person in question didn’t write about something other than angsty teenagers being angsty, and frankly, our discussions devolved into back-and-forth sniping half the time anyhow, and the TA didn’t really need more. Poor TA. Poor, kind of cute, TA.

***Although there’s a time and a place. I had a blind date once who–after monologuing for an hour about his favorite TV show–asked me what I liked. I said, among other things, The West Wing, and he promptly looked at me like I’d just suggested eating three-day-old egg salad. “I hate that show! Everyone’s too witty and bright–it’s so unrealistic!”

Rather than giving the obvious snarky answer, I tried to get my English Major on and said that I rather liked a more stylistic approach to dialogue, at times, but that certainly TWW probably wasn’t what you’d be looking for if Gritty Realism was your thing.

To which he huffed back “Well, people just don’t talk that way!”

And I suddenly realized that, while I’d had a truly lovely time, I had to work early the next morning, what a shame, have this firm handshake, goodbye.

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We Interrupt the Genre Discussion for Iron Man 2: Metallic Boogaloo?

Spoilers, uh duh.

I liked it, first of all. Not High Art, but really, I had quite enough of that in college: these days, I want something fun to accompany an entire box of Junior Mints. (Which: Harvard AMC, while I’m usually not one to complain about AC in theatres being set below the usual “unmoving cold of deep space” notch, yours needs to be cranked up a bit, because I had less Junior Mints and more melty-blobby-mint-thing by the end of the movie, and, being in a crowded theatre, could not amuse myself and those around me by yelling “MIIIINTSUOOOOOO!”*)

Diversions into sugar and creepy anime aside, Iron Man filled its purpose admirably. It was shiny, it went “woosh”, it had some pretty damn cool character moments. It also had two major female characters, neither of whom was or turned evil, and I appreciate that. It’s kind of sad that I have to appreciate that, but there we are. It also didn’t get hung up on the action-y bits of the action scenes: I’m not averse to those, but I find that many movies drag them on a little long, like, yes, they’re throwing each other into things, and other things are exploding, woo, get on with it. Iron Man gets on with it, and includes witty banter, which keeps my attention.

Also a surly Russian with electric whips. That is, I have to say, what they call a “strong visual.”

There were a couple things I wasn’t thrilled about: Tony’s Daddy Issues seemed to come out of nowhere and get resolved in about fifteen minutes, and I don’t get why Papa Stark** had to get all Da Vinci Code about the structure of, um…Starkium? Tonium?…rather than putting it in a diary and putting that diary in a locked safe: I mean, he trusted the rest of his secret plans to SHIELD, and what if Tony hadn’t been that on the ball? (And, indeed, how do you know that he’s going to be a) smart enough to figure this out, and b) moral enough to use it well, when the kid is seven, Starktriarch? You were one of those wicked obnoxious parents, weren’t you?)

Also, above-mentioned pleasure at having two female characters–okaaay, that sounds dirtier than I meant it–aside, I could really have lived without seeing another iteration of I Don’t Want Him, But I Do, But I’m Not Admitting It, But I’m Going To Semi-Catfight With Every Girl He Digs. Jealousy is, I admit, a pet peeve of mine–especially excessive snippy jealousy over someone you have decided not to get involved with, ugh–but really? Really? Dear writers of everything ever: it is possible for two women to be kind of into the same guy, and know this, and still get along perfectly well. Do not make me give anecdotes.

By and large, though, I liked it: I liked the snarky computer voice, and the shiny tech stuff, and the contrast between Rhodes and Tony. And I totally froze up at the bit with the evil drone guy and the kid, and then went “awww”, because I’m kind of a sucker. Plus, I felt sort of sorry for Justin Hammer at the beginning, and then I rapidly stopped feeling sorry for him, because he had such a smarmy everything-wrong-with-corporate-America vibe–like, he reminded me of one of my right-out-of-college bosses, the one who confused “editorial assistant” with “personal slave” and yelled at everyone and often didn’t wear pants and ended up hastily moving to Canada***–that I was really glad to see him get humiliated and then incarcerated.

And we all learned a very special lesson about not making deals with shady Russian convicts.

*”HEEERSHEDAAAAAAA!”

**Or “the Starktriarch”, as I like to call him.

***Yep.

Okay, So, Genre: Part I

In which I will try to avoid the more touchy aspects of this discussion. Not that I mind talking about them–Lord, no–but the post that got me thinking about genre specifically got me thinking about the way it functions, and the types of genre–the, um, genres of genre? Metagenres?–and how they can be pulled apart and stuck together like so many Legos. This is hard to do when I’m also ranting.

This post is, therefore, from Weird Theoretical Izzy. Ranty Izzy will show up in Part II: Shut Up, Harold Bloom. Also, I have no particular emotional attachment to anything I say here: this is not a thesis I’ve spent years working out, but rather the same sort of random-observation-esque thought as my desire to write a paper comparing the different narrative functions of Evil Cobra Kai Sensei and Evil, Um, Hawks? Coach from Mighty Ducks.

Right.

The English language being what it is, “genre” gets used in a number of ways, and in a number of levels of granularity. But if we start out with the way libraries and bookstores generally categorize fiction, I think we end up with basically three metagenres.

1. Genre by plot element: romance, mystery, thriller.  I will note–and emphasize, especially as I write in one of these–that this isn’t “all plots are the same”: it’s that all plots in one of these genres share some core element. Romance novels are *primarily* about people falling for each other, or falling for each other again. Mystery novels are *primarily* about someone figuring out, um, a mystery, usually involving someone getting killed or at least someone’s priceless thirteenth-century candlesticks getting stolen. Thrillers are primarily about action, and often conspiracies and stolen nuclear weapons. 

Horror also goes here, I think, but it’s weirder and more nebulous: “very bad things happen to some people”.

 2. Genre by setting element: fantasy, science fiction, Western. Like with plots…well, really. Lord of the Rings is not the same setting as The Dresden Files, duh, move on. I think this is the most straightforward of the categories in some ways: with the exception of some things like magical realism and the Great Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy Debate of Just Kill Me Now, either the work has certain elements or it doesn’t. Except…well, more on that below.

Historicals are weird. Historicals seem like they’re genre-by-setting, except they generally get put in the non-genre-fiction class unless they’re *also* romance or mystery or whatever. If I had to bet money, I’d say that this is largely because the line between “historical fiction” and “fiction that happened to be written back then” is one a lot of people don’t want to bother drawing, which is understandable.

3.  Genre by audience: YA, “chick lit”. (Yeah, the most prominent audience distinction categories are women and kids: those of you playing at home can draw your own conclusions in re: sexism.) This is the *least* straightforward. YA protagonists tend to be eighteenish or younger, and that’s the one thing I can say with any certainty about the books–but so do a fair number of protagonists in fantasy, at least at the start. And “chick lit” often involves romance, as far as I can tell, but it’s not necessarily the main element.

Of course, all of these have subcategories–“cyberpunk” is a distinct genre, but it’s going in with the science fiction unless you’re in a specialty bookstore, etc–and, perhaps more importantly, all of them cross over. You can, and often do, have historical mysteries; the only science fiction Western I can think of off the top of my head is Firefly, which isn’t written, but I’m sure there are books out there; I personally write paranormal romance, urban and straight fantasy, and…Aftermath, which I’ve been prone to describe as post-apocalyptic romantic angst.

It seems, and I could be wrong, like audience takes first priority in the sorting process, then plot, and finally setting: I’ve picked up a lot of books in the YA section of my library, because many of them are actually fantasy romances, or historical thrillers, or whatever, just with younger characters.  I mean: Harry Potter.

The cross-pollination seems like something to be aware of, as a reader, if only because it opens up other sections of the bookstore to browse in. Whether that’s a good thing or not…depends on how many trains you want to miss, I guess.

On Classification and Characterization

Or something.

I’ve been out for drinks with my new co-workers–whimsically-themed cocktails are something I’m very much in favor of. for the record, especially the citrus-flavored variety–so we’ll see how coherent this ends up being.

See, I’ve been talking elseblog about TVTropes, and then sort of about personality tests, and the various ways one can define things. Definitions and labels, mind, do to some extent serve to limit understanding even as they aid it: so do words themselves, and even our senses. They’re like the little hand-and-footholds we carve in the glacial expanse of The Cosmos–which is a metaphor I really should have used in some college essay. And on the one hand, you can’t get too dependent on them: you hold onto the same little niches in the ice long enough, and the view will get really tiring, plus your hands will get exhausted and you’ll fall and die and be a discouraging story on the Discovery Channel.  On the other hand, you need those niches. Because you are not Spiderman.

Wow. Metaphors.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that I think “classification cannot fully describe everything and thus all classification is wrong” is…not the way to approach this. I take the opposite approach: no one system of classification can fully describe a person or a situation, largely, and thus you should play around with every system you can. I’m an INTJ, a 4 or a 7 on the enneagram (I think: it’s been a long time), Artemis/Aphrodite in the Goddesses in Everywoman test (more Aphrodite, but I think that’s because some of the Artemis questions are very nature-and-sports oriented, so I don’t hit her stuff until we get to relationships and my lack of desire for commitment or kids or whatever*), probably Fire if we’re going all classical elements, a Libra in Western astrology and a Dog in Chinese, often the Page or Knight of Wands if I identify with the Tarot, Neutral with what I hope are Chaotic Good leanings…

…there are a million ways to classify a person. And a million ways in which a person, or a character, or whatever, doesn’t entirely fit one characterization, or complicates it, or whatever. We use the word “jumping-off-point” a lot in my job, and I think that’s a good one for these kinds of things: you take a look at a category, and you talk about how you fit it and how you don’t, and then suddenly you’re talking about all kinds of interesting things that you might not have mentioned if not for the category.

It’s not a definition. But it’s a very useful place to start.

*Like olives, or spicy food: absolutely great that other people want them, I’m totally pro-them-doing-that, but So Not My Thing.

Hello world!

The first post on a blog always has kind of a Twilight-Zone-y feel: submitted for your consideration, one young woman with an excessive fondness for parts of the eighties–although not the parts currently appearing in stores, good GOD, and who said that fuschia could be a color again?–fantasy, and snack food Nature never intended, who one day…

…and so forth. Except hopefully with fewer omnipotent psychotic children.

So: I’m Isabel Cooper. Dorchester Publishing is going to be releasing No Proper Lady, a paranormal romance of mine, in April 2011. We’ve been describing it as My Fair Lady meets Terminator, with a bit of Lovecraft thrown in: my hero, a Victorian gentleman occultist has to teach an assassin from a post-apocalyptic future how to blend into Society.

It was immensely fun to write, and I did a remarkable imitation of an anime schoolgirl when Leah from Dorchester called me. I may have spontaneously developed pigtails and a sailor suit.

Moving quickly past that unnerving mental image:

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a writer (obviously), a geek (video games, fantasy novels, roleplaying…), a feminist, and prone to ranting more-or-less cheerfully about various popcultural trends. And why the CVS down the street has stopped carrying the good kind of cherry cordials.

If you know me from livejournal, this is probably where I’ll post longer, more thoughtful, essay-type stuff–which I’ll actually be trying to do a little more of in the future. It’s alarmingly like being a grown-up, this.