Can We Escape Genre?

Like branding, genre is an extended phenotype of our genetics. Humans need to be able to make sense of the world, so the brain developed a small armamentarium of “noise-reduction” shortcuts, almost none of which are aiming at what is really out there since “what is really out there” includes the rigidly uncertain and indeterminably cross-categorizable.

At some point in our evolution, the brain hit the law of diminishing returns and said “while a mere two units of effort can make sense of 50% of what I’m likely to encounter in the world, and seven units of effort can make sense of 80%, it takes a whopping twenty units to hit 90% and 95% is basically impossible. Therefore the most economical solution is to be satisfied with an incomplete setup, to stop at seven units of effort and so to fit 100% of the messy world into a scheme that actually only makes sense of 80% of it and call it a day.”

Genre is a stable system. Certainly it persists, which means a whole lot of people must feel served by it. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with genre. Who doesn’t like a good detective story? The problem is those who turn back at the border. (Hint: I don’t like them.)

After all, stable can also mean rigid. Indeed, despite that genre systems are fluid and do change over time, at any given moment they are also highly conservative if only because it’s almost impossible to mix “framing cues” — the subtle textual signals that instruct you how to read a work — across divergent genres. These are the clues that tell the reader that, for example, when a character gets hit in the head with a blunt object and falls into a river, it’s meant to be funny (“This is a comedy, so you can laugh”) rather than tragic or suspenseful (“This is a crime story, so that is shocking”).

Texts that intentionally mix these cues are either tongue-in-cheek, like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or inescapably surreal, like the recent Adult Swim short film Too Many Cooks, which necessarily hovers in a disembodied space because, like a ghost, it participates incompletely in multiple genre “worlds” simultaneously. Texts that want to mix genre and still tell an engaging story — one an audience can get lost in rather than experience as a spectacle from the other side of the glass — have to assume a primary mode. They can interject. The inclusion of humor at key points can actually heighten the fright of a horror story, for example. But to be experienced as horror, and not farce, the text has to assume that genre’s cues as its dominant mode. It’s has to set itself up as a horror, and to do that it must use signs horror readers already recognize and understand. (Enter the trope.)

I know for a fact that most people who read my stuff do not contemplate much of it as particularly meaningful. I suspect that’s because I don’t adopt a mode that cues the reader to ruminate, to dissect symbols, or indeed even to much notice that they’re there! This is not a bad thing. I want my peeps to be entertained — so much so that they want to come back again — and that means writing in a mode that allows first for the spontaneous experience of fun. Full stop.

But my shit does have some depth to it — not like you’d find in the literature section, of course, but more than you might expect given the near-absence of textural cues signifying “This is symbolic” or “Read this as philosophy.” There’s a reason Xana has her heart removed, though, and why John is physically burned. There’s a reason each course of THE HERETIC ARCANUM is labeled with the color it is. Etude’s prophecy at the end of A Symphony in Green, written last year, basically predicts the Trump phenomenon. Malcolm McDoom’s short speech in Episode Two is a very reasoned, literary indictment of superhero fiction. The whole of THE MINUS FACTION, in fact, is a rumination on “suprapower,” and the coup that takes place at the start of the final episode isn’t (just) an entertaining turn. It’s a statement about ideology and the fate of top-down revolutions.

It’s not that I want people to interrupt the narrative to engage with those things. You can enjoy a glass of wine without knowing a damned thing about tannins or terroir. You don’t need to know the recipe to appreciate a delicious meal. I’m not trying to revolutionize molecular gastronomy (Haruki Murakami) or produce a rare vintage (Anthony Doerr). But then, I’m not trying to be the reliable chain (Lee Child) or trendy midtown bistro (G.R.R. Martin) either. I’m offering a diverse, satisfying meal, which includes both the familiar and the unexpected, the old stalwart and the remix, some art, some science, and a whole lot of flavor, both subtle and profound. I’m offering “experience dining,” a place you’d want to go with your friends so you could awkwardlessly sample each other’s selections.

Or, that’s the goal anyway.

So, wait, what genre is that?

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