The Genre Dance

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines of late.  Sidelines is a collection of essays, speeches, travelogues, and sundry other non-fiction bits and pieces, and it completely deserves and shall have its own review.  However, as I was reading the text of a speech Bujold gave at the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention (Denvention 3), I remembered this half-written piece I started, oh, months ago, in response to a review I read of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance that dealt with the book as a romance.  That review (you can read it here) really bugged the crap out of me, although I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the reviewer was cherry-picking the bits out of CVA that dealt with Ivan’s romance and pretty much giving short shift to the fact that while that book, and many of the Vorkosiverse books, do contain romances for the characters, they do not fall within the boundaries of a romance as it is traditionally defined.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Now I’m not someone who thinks genre is a dirty word—all books are genre books to some extent, and thinking about the ways that a particular book falls within the boundaries of a particular genre doesn’t bother me—you’ll note that our tags in this page usually place a book within some sort of  category: mystery, romance, SFF, biography, etc.  Genre is a handy label that gives the reader an idea of what to expect—certain tropes are common and various elements are expected in certain genres.  So if I were asked, for example, “Tell me about Moby-Dick”, I could say “It’s about this insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale” and that tells you what the story is about, sure, but it doesn’t tell you much about how the story is told—but if I say “It’s an adventure novel about an insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale”, well.  That gives you a much better idea of what you’re in for.  By the same token, I could say “It’s the classic novel about…blah blah blah” and that suggests something completely different in terms of expectations.  As Mark Twain once noted, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”  Most people hear the word classic and their mind goes straight to dull.  Or possibly old-fashioned. Or even good for you.  No one likes literary spinach.

Genre labels have expectations.   It’s then up to the story to meet those expectations, fail to do so, surpass them, or turn them on their heads.  But I think in the above example you can see the danger in them as well.  Useful as the label is, it’s also possible to use them to mislead.  If I really wanted to push Moby-Dick like a crack dealer on an unsuspecting reader, for example, I’d avoid labeling it a “classic” and stick with “adventure story”.  Science Fiction comes with its own issues as a label (which Bujold hilariously details in an essay later in Sidelines where she describes being the only SF author at a book fair and soliciting opinions about why the people there didn’t like the genre.  The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “I only read important books”).  You see the problem with labels… because oh those pesky pre-conceived notions.

Me, I don’t think it’s any crime to like genre books and read them. I don’t think they’re unimportant–in fact, I think they are undervalued as a whole by critics.  Are some of them fluff?  Oh sure. Some of them have no heft to them whatsoever.  I’ve also read some “important” books in my time that are fluffy, or overwritten, or just plain stupid.  That’s not a genre issue, that’s a writer issue.  Genre does not equal bad, or lacking value.  Genre does not deserve to be looked down upon like a hairball the cat left on your new rug.  Poop on that.  Want to read a fluffy cat mystery?  Do it.  Fluff is sometimes exactly what someone needs.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m reading.  I just want to read it.  It’s to escape, not to improve my mind. I compared this need once to the difference between fast food and fine dining.  Sometimes you just want a Happy Meal to fill you up.  You don’t really care if there’s actually any beef in your cheeseburger.  Happily, though, there are just as many substantial books that do have some heft to them.  So if you want that, you can have it.  If you don’t, you don’t have to.  That’s the great thing about our world.  There are so many books, bless ‘em.  Something for every need and occasion.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign

So having established that, let me get back to this idea of genre and cherry-picking.  And Bujold.  Since it was her speech at Denvention 3 that got me revved up on this topic again, I shall use her as an example: if you say to me “What is A Civil Campaign about?” well good grief.  It’s about a lot of things.  It certainly is about romance, and I’m confident that folks who are romance fans will not go away dissatisfied in that respect.  But. It has to be understood that while you can read A Civil Campaign strictly as a romance novel, if you have no prior knowledge of Miles or Ekaterin, or of Kareen and Mark, and have no interest in the Vor caste, or in the complex world Bujold spent 8 previous novels building, you will have merely skimmed the surface of what is, in my opinion, not only a great novel, but a great series.  And you will not understand the nuances of the Miles/Ekaterin romance if you do not understand the world they live in.  Rather than a romance for all time, it becomes just another romance.  And it’s way more than that.

I’m glad to see people recommending Bujold to readers who may not have much experience with SFF, mind you.  I think she makes a great bridge between the romance and science fiction genres in those of her novels where the romance elements are more pronounced. And I want to be clear that I don’t think the author of the original post was trying to pull some kind of fast one on their readers.  But this kind of unintentional thoughtlessness bugs me.  It’s sloppy thinking and it can, as demonstrated above, be misleading.  To treat Bujold strictly as a romance writer is dicey at best because the Vorkosigan books are space opera–character-driven science fiction adventures.  Sure, some of those adventures include some romance now and then, but.  It’s essential to make note of how the science fiction elements influence the romances: how the Vor culture dictates how Miles acts and Ekaterin responds, or how Kareen feels trapped by societal expectations for her gender, or how Donna Vorrutyer has to take a drastic step in redefining herself in order to circumvent tradition and what effect that has on her romantic future.  You couldn’t take these people out of their world and plunk them down in Regency England or midland America and expect their romances to work because their behavior is conditioned by the culture Bujold creates (likewise, taking Regency characters and parking them on Barrayar?  No—for exactly the same reason.)  I’m trying to say—and probably making a hash out of it—that you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff here.  Bujold herself describes ACC as what happens when you put Regency romance and the science fictional world of Barrayar into a blender and push start.  Miles is who he is because of the world that he grew up in—to pull him and his pursuit of Ekaterin out of that world and isolate them would be like trying to grow a bonsai’d skellytum in my backyard.  The romance in Bujold’s novels is the same way: it grows out of the fictional world she’s built, it’s not there in spite of it.  It’s as much a part of the landscape as the Dendarii mountains, and it’s just as organic to the series.

So yes—A Civil Campaign has romance novel elements in it.  It also has elements of political intrigue, feminist thinking, an examination of gender roles, a consideration of how traditions can be bent toward a more progressive future, and all the elements of a comedy of manners.  But it is still science fiction in the same way that Memory may make use of mystery tropes, but the answer to the puzzles—both the mystery Miles is trying to solve and the mystery of why he pulls one of the most boneheaded moves of all time– is found in the science fictional elements Bujold created.  Without those elements, there’s no sparkle in the diamonds the author’s cut.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I think romance or mystery has no place in these worlds—the absolute opposite is true, in fact, and Bujold herself notes in another Sidelines speech that borrowing those tropes helps place her characters into new and interesting situations.  I think they enhance the worlds created in so many ways, mainly by giving the reader familiar touch points to help them settle into unchartered territory, but also by allowing characters who might otherwise be alien to us to have a handle we can grasp.  They serve as bridges to new, unexplored territories, and there’s no reason you can’t have a mystery or a romance on a foreign world–I’m sure they have problems to solve and people they love just like we do.

To give you another example, Dorothy L. Sayers subtitled her final Peter and Harriet novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, “a love story with detective interruptions.”  But here’s the thing: Peter and Harriet have had a rocky 5 year courtship for a variety of reasons.  When they finally do marry, there are adjustments to be made and they have to make them, to figure out how to live with each other without making the other one a lesser person.  It all starts out as playing houses for them, until a murder interrupts their honeymoon.  And wisely, that’s where Sayers laid her conflict—at the heart of their relationship, their working as a team, their varying attitudes toward their responsibilities for the people involved in the death of a not very likeable man.  Without the mystery, there would be no conflict—they’d just continue to play house.  She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers.  But A Civil Campaign is not “A love story with science fiction interruptions” any more than Busman’s Honeymoon is really “a love story with detective interruptions”.   You can’t cherry pick them out of their home genre because that genre is what shapes the romance.

In her Denvention speech, Bujold offers three definitions of genre.  First, it’s “any group of works in close conversation with one another.”  Second, in terms of readers, it’s “a community of taste,” a subject I could probably write paragraphs on but won’t because I’ve already gone on waaaaay too long here.  And lastly, she notes, genre is “a marketing category.”  I agree with all of that.  Again, it’s a handy tool, a way to categorize what we read and to some extent why we read it.  But she also offers a caution, which is what I’m going to end this lengthy screed with, because to me, it perfectly sums up the problems with cherry-picking or trying to cram a book into a category where the fit isn’t quite right:

“The categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren’t perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels become toxic.”

Five Life-Changing Books

In my previous post, I talked about how my daughter’s Honors Reading List got me thinking about how we define texts these days and how I think that definition has expanded with advances in technology.  You can kind of think of this post as part two of that discussion.  I’m going to talk about what I’d put on a list like that, although I’m not about to list 15 texts, mostly because I’ve got some crud that’s making my head ache.

So, to review: as part of receiving an Honors degree at her college, my daughter has to defend what is known as the Honors Reading List, an annotated list (or narrative essay) that consists of 12-15 texts that demonstrate how she has grown as a critical thinker and as a person during her college career.

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl

I graduated from college 30 years ago this May, and I’ve changed a lot since then.  My list is more The Five Books That Have Changed Me in some way:

1. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: I first read this when I was around 12, and I reread it to this day, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself.  This was the first thing, book or otherwise, that made me realize that whatever problems I might think I have, they are nothing compared to what other people endure.  It was the first book that made me realize the world was a much bigger place than my own little corner of it.  And it also made me see that without hope, you’ve got nothing.  Those are all big lessons for a 12 year old girl to learn.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

I should note that Anne Frank’s diary is also on my daughter’s Honors List, and for exactly the same reasons.

2.  Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers: I first encountered Lord Peter literally at the end of my high school days (I read Murder Must Advertise during my high school graduation) and this novel at a time when I was still struggling with the idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  This is the book that made me want to teach; its idealistic view of academia and the scholarly life had a tremendous impact on me—it was like a siren song.  I quickly learned that the view was idealistic once I actually started teaching, which in some ways made me really resent the book.  But there was a second component to Gaudy Night that really influenced me, and that was the struggle between Peter and Harriet to find a way toward a relationship that enhanced them both and took nothing from either of them.  I’d been through some half-hearted relationships by then and was thinking there was no one out there for me.  Peter and Harriet’s struggles showed me why I shouldn’t settle for just anyone and modeled what a marriage should be—a true partnership of the minds.  I met my husband about a year after I read this.  28 years later I can honestly say that teaching turned out to not be my proper job, really, but my marriage’s success owes a lot to Peter and Harriet’s difficult courtship.

M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H

3. M*A*S*H:  Not the book (which isn’t all that great, to be honest) or the movie (not that I do not love it), but the television series.  There are a number of things about M*A*S*H that stand out to me and for me and helped me become me: its anti-war themes and its refusal to whitewash what war is—a slaughter over a conflict of boundaries or philosophies, all romanticized by tales of glory and bravery—is just one.  If you ever get a chance to watch the episode titled “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet”, you’ll get the idea.  But as M*A*S*H began to last longer than the Korean War did, you got an expansion of that basic theme: the effects of long-term deployment on the unit’s psyches, on their families and the time they can never get back with them, on how the war shaped and changed them.  The most startling transformation was with the Hot Lips character, who starts out as a sex kitten interested only in climbing the military ladder through the only means available to her, sex, and grows into a strong woman not willing to compromise herself even with a general who offers her promotion.  Hot Lips becomes Margaret, proud of her accomplishments and the value she brings to the unit as a nurse and a woman.  It’s quite a transformation, and one I took a great lesson away from.  At a time when feminism was still in its toddler years, Margaret became a great role model for me.  And 30 years after M*A*S*H ended, it still holds up in all of the above ways and more.  It’s still funny, and it’s still relevant to our lives.

The Complete Poems, John Donne

The Complete Poems, John Donne

4. The Complete Poems, John Donne: my first encounters with Donne were not happy ones, and I probably would have happily left him behind when my course in early English lit was over, but I happened to be in choir in college, and our choir director set one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets (#7, “At the round earth’s imagined corners”) to music, and it all suddenly clicked.  I became something of a Donne devotee after that, spending years reading and rereading his works and mining them for meaning.  Through him I learned about balance more than anything: that humor can be used to make a serious point, that the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive, that relationships should be complimentary, not struggles.  I read a lot of poetry, and at one time I wrote a great deal of it; many other poets influenced me as a writer, but Donne alone shaped me as a person.  I still read this book on a regular basis—it’s almost a spiritual guide for me at this point.

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

5. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher: Penelope Keeling is such a great character, and I’ll tell you why.  Because she is who she is.  She makes no excuses for who she is.  She does not expect others to be like her, nor does she expect them to like her.  She cannot be bullied or guilted into anything, and she takes responsibility for her actions.  She is kind and generous, even when those around her don’t deserve such things.  She reminds me of how I ought to be when I’m at my worst.  And she taught me that it’s always better to be myself than to be what others want me to be—that that’s where true happiness lies.  She’s not wrong.

I’d love to hear what books shaped you—tell me about them in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Defining a Text in the 21st Century

a stack of books

a stack of books

Here at my house, we are rather eagerly awaiting our daughter’s college graduation, just as many parents across the country are.  Because she’s a member of her school’s Honors College, our conversations with her the last few months in particular have been very academically focused: graduate school applications, her Honors Thesis, and germane to this particular post, a particular component of her Honors degree: her Reading List.

In addition to defending her thesis in front of a five member committee, part of the requirement for her achieving an Honors degree is the submission and defense of what is known there as The Reading List.  This list must include between 12 and 15 texts that demonstrate cross-curricular knowledge and in total define who the student has become as they’ve grown over the years they’ve spent in college.

I think it’s a really interesting idea.  Because Honors strives to produce well-rounded students who have been taught to consider texts far outside their field of study and, in many cases, outside their own personal philosophies, the lists cannot include more than one or two texts read prior to college and should not contain more than a few texts read specifically for Honors.

That’s the background to what is the central point of this post, which is what, actually, constitutes a text?  My daughter’s reading list contains items on it that we would not traditionally define as books—there is one music CD on there, and one movie as well.  Past students have also included graphic novels and multi-player video games.  We don’t normally think of things like video games and CDs as texts, and I actually asked her if it was acceptable to include such things on her list.  She assured me it was, stating that the Honors College has a very flexible definition of “text”.

photo via Wikipedia

photo via Wikipedia

And when you think about it, it makes sense that music CDs, for example, can be included.  Many records are episodic in nature with an actual narrative structure that, if it succeeds, tells an actual story over the course of the album.  In my day this was called a “concept” album, and from my time, the most famous one is probably The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but there are lots of others—Green Day’s American Idiot has a definite narrative, even a thesis.  And how many classics have been made into musicals, movies, and plays?  Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, even Jesus Christ Superstar all started out in written form. They still have a narrative structure.  There is still a story being told.  It’s just not being told in book form.

Same with video games—a lot of the multi-level games work from story boards and as the player progresses through the various levels (or chapters) they’re really working toward a dénouement: bad guy captured, prize achieved, the day is saved.  It’s just that this time, the story is told not through music and lyrics, but visually, and the “reader” (the game player) helps to create how the story plays out through the actions taken.

Persepolis

Persepolis

Things have changed since I was a college student. To date myself: most of us still used vinyl records, since CDs had not been invented yet; books were always bound paper, not digital; video games consisted of Pong and Space Invaders and Q-Bert—if you wanted to play a multi-level questing game, it was either pencil and paper like Dungeons and Dragons or a text-based adventure like Zork if your college had a computer lab and you could actually get time on one of the two or three computers to play it (because everyone else was on there playing Zork.  Seriously.  We never used those to write papers.  We had typewriters for that).  My English professors would not have accepted such a loose definition of a text, although one of them did, for a literary criticism assignment, allow me to apply certain theories to John Lennon’s poetry, which was considered quite daring.  Graphic novels were comic books and were generally considered low-brow, not something to be studied in a lit class or an Honors Class.  You can find entire classes devoted to graphic novels now, and my daughter read Persepolis as part of her Honors curriculum.

But times change, and furthermore, how we read has changed.  The proliferation of digital technology has, I think, encouraged how we stretch the definition of a text, as more people are downloading music and movies to portable devices to carry with them, and where online sites like Audible.com make listening to texts easier and more portable.  “Books on tape” have been around for ages, but “books on my iPhone” changes the reading experience in whole new ways—you can listen to a novel not only while driving or traveling, but while working out or even working for a living.  Computer graphics are almost life-like now; instead of the old text-based Zork, where I had to imagine myself and my surroundings and find my way through them, I can now make an avatar of myself and watch me make the story happen.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, either.  Far from it, in fact.  Stories are an integral part of who we are as a people, and they always have been. Every culture has its traditions, its classics, its music, its myths. The oral tradition of storytelling goes back for as long as we do, and cave paintings are the forefathers of today’s graphic novels.  Music has always told a story, either with lyrics or without them: folk songs, jazz and the blues, classical pieces, and rock and roll.  Nothing has really changed in that regard—it’s only the delivery system that’s progressed.  And with that, I think, it’s time to allow the definition of a text to progress as well.  We’re always going to have stories in these various forms.  And you know, 40 years from now someone will write something somewhere about all of our quaint Kindles and iPhones and how people used to interact with texts back in the good old days…