The Literary Line

A discussion over on Catherynne Valente’s livejournal has me thinking about what distinguishes literary fiction with genre (i.e. speculative) elements from genre fiction as such.

People approach this in a lot of different ways, of course. There’s value in saying, if it has a genre element — ghosts, vampires, time-travel — then it’s genre, and enough with all this waffling. (Margaret Atwood, I’m looking at you.) Otherwise this notion of “speculation” loses all real meaning. There’s also value in saying the real line lies in shelving: it’s all about what publisher will pick you up, what audience they think they can market you to. That, more than the actual content of your book, determines which camp you belong in. This ends up being a fairly accurate descriptor of how society creates the divide, after all.

But I do think there is something within the stories that separates Is Genre from Contains Genre. Some people say it has to do with the centrality of the genre conceit: if you could pull out that thread and still have a coherent story fabric, what you have isn’t really science fiction or fantasy. This almost but not quite hits the mark I’m looking at, and I can give a good example of how.

I mostly enjoyed the movie Stranger Than Fiction. If you haven’t seen it, this is a story about a man who suddenly starts hearing a woman’s voice narrating everything he’s doing in his life. He comes to discover that the woman in question is a writer, and what she’s writing is a novel about his life — a novel in which he’s going to die.

This is not just genre but as central as you get. Pull out that thread, and you have no story left at all. But in the end, I felt dissatisfied with the film, and my dissatisfaction grew directly out of the fact that I wanted it to be a genre story, and I don’t think it was.

What made it not genre, for me, was its utter lack of interest in the cause of its own conceit. Why had this strange connection happened? Did the writer’s imagination create that man, summon him into reality, or did she somehow tap into the life of a pre-existing individual? Did her work control or merely reflect him? Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t care. What it cares about is the moral question of that connection: once the writer discovers her character exists outside of her head, what will she choose to do with her story? She insists the death she has planned for him — a meaningless, random demise; I think he’s supposed to be knocked down by a bus — is a powerful ending, the one the story has to have. Which I found to be an interesting nod toward the conventions of literary fiction in general, the notion that an ending where somebody dies is somehow more meaningful than one where the person lives.

The moral question is an engaging one, certainly. But it wasn’t enough for me. I want not only to think about the ethical ramifications of our fascination with watching characters suffer and die, but also the metaphysics of how a writer might be confronted with her own protagonist. Otherwise — in strange contravention of mainstream opinion — the story feels shallow to me. Its own world feels like a painted backdrop, rather than a reality.

Which brings me around to the division I like best, where narrative content is concerned: genres as conversations. Stranger Than Fiction is talking to litfic, not specfic. It’s debating this whole notion that telling a story about some schlub who wanders through his life and then gets knocked over by a bus is inherently better than telling a story about that schlub living, which is very much a litfic kind of issue. If it were a genre story, the conversation would address the matter of causation. Is her typewriter magical? Is that man some kind of tulpa, called into existence by the power of her thought? Is this some intervention on God’s part, or a weird experiment conducted by aliens? The moral relationship between author and character could still figure into it, but the manner of that figuring would be shaped by the cause.

It isn’t that a genre story absolutely has to explore the causes of its own science fictional or fantastical elements. Not every narrative needs to be about its own foundations. But Stranger Than Fiction‘s complete disinterest in its own fantasy was a clear signal, at least to me, that its conversational partners are not mine. This is also what annoys sf/f readers when a litfic writer decides to write a book with (say) time travel in it: in most cases it’s painfully obvious that the writer is ignorant of the long-standing conversation on that subject. As a result, you get novels where the author seems to think they’re the first person to discover the grandfather paradox or branching realities or whatever, and their community celebrates it as this awesome new thing, while the specfic community yawns at the sight of Yet More Old Hat.

Who’s involved in the conversation? Which writers and works is a story responding to, agreeing with, counteracting, poking fun at? It isn’t just a litfic/specfic divide; I suspect, for example, that you can use the same principle to sort urban fantasy from paranormal romance. And it’s probably a rare story indeed that can talk with equal facility to more than one community at a time, however much the basic content of the narrative may look like a hybrid of two worlds.

For me, that’s where the line really lies. Sometimes it’s useful to say “if it contains genre, it is genre,” and sometimes it’s useful to look at where a work is shelved, but ultimately, it comes down to the conversation.