Is Genre Fiction Art? Pt 3: Genre as morality and defender of truth.
This post has multiple parts. For part one, please go here.
Before I launch into my defence of the strange suggestion that genre fiction is the defender of truth and morality and therefore the very opposite of what art is meant to be, let me make a quick statement. By genre fiction, I mean fiction that fits into a particular genre. I do not mean the label an agent gives to a work of fiction in order to sell it better to a publisher or a bookseller might attach so he can better organise his bookshelves. This is a fluid terms that is completely sales motivated. I am talking about content here. I mean genre fiction that is intended to be genre fiction when written. (It all comes back to motivation)
Genre fiction is also known as popular fiction, and that is part of its problem as a work of literature for me. Not that literature can’t be popular – yes yes I know. But popular as a word implies social stationing so much that it is almost a definition of the word. You cannot be popular if you are not regarded with favour, or if you are not pertaining to the people. Genre fiction fits into a pre-prescribed pattern (even when they contradict that pattern, which is still a form of compliance with it) that has been known to be socially sanctioned and approved by “the people”. It is writing that has gained pre-approval. It is going to fulfil existing desires. In other words, it will comfortably fit into the “what-we-expect” even when it surprises us with twists and turns.
The corner stones of our domestication are morality and truth. Everything we do as a society comes from these two premises. Our laws come from here what we as a collective think to be moral and true. Our social laws are based on what we deem to be moral and true. Within that morality there is a certain sort of “misbehaviour” that is allowable, or rather open to judgement case by case. “Morality is a code of acts, and of judgements and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or trying to behave toward other human beings generally (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love. Needles to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings , among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination… Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices.” (Susan Sontag – On style)
When someone writes genre fiction, no matter how beautifully, they are agreeing with a pre-prescribed morality that has previously been socially sanctioned. There is no challenge to humanity, there is no challenge to our morality, there is no challenge to our notions of truth. You might try to argue that within the realms of genre fiction a certain kind of subversion is occurring, but this is made redundant in any meaningful way by virtue of the fact is being discussed within the bounds of genre fiction.
Let me give you some examples. Naked Lunch is a work of literary art. Bizzaro fiction that has followed Naked Lunch, no matter how radical, no matter how much more “shocking”, no matter how “out there”, no matter how many drugs fed the writer, is not literary because Naked Lunch has already done all that the works are purporting to achieve, and Naked Lunch has already been accepted by society. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is a work of literary art because it questioned the role of science in our lives in 1818. No matter how beautifully written, a sci-fi novel about a man building another man which remains true to the sci-fi genre cannot be a work of literary art, because the ideas no longer challenge us in the realms of the true and the moral. Tarkovsky knew this very well. It is why he saw his most popular film, Solaris, as a failure, because despite its poetic cleverness and its brilliant subtext and its sublime beauty, it remained so close to the sci-fi genre that the art of the film was removed. It was with Stalker, years later that he achieved his dream of radical genre subversion within sci-fi; A film barely recognisable as science fiction. Still today, Solaris is seen as Russia’s answer to 2001: a Space Odyssey – a label that reveals Tarkovskys error.
I would go even further to add that genre is upholding morality in its re-application of socially sanctioned truths and moralities. For me, genre is adhering to the following:
Action/adventure – the ability of the human creature to surmount any obstacle no matter how great if they believe in their cause.
Crime – our fascination with those (ourselves) who break our laws and why they do it.
Fantasy – that there may be more than just us, if we believe hard enough.
Horror – conquering our fears and dominating those who could hurt us
Mystery or Detective – outsmart each other, being too clever for the other.
Romance – love of other conquers all
Science Fiction – we are not alone
Western – Playing true to the tradition roles and values of men and women even when subverted.
Inspirational – I can diagnose, fix and heal myself.
And so on. The above is merely the Wikipedia list of genre fiction, and my fast 2 second explaination. There are many more genres, but the basic underlying point remains the same. Genre fiction is a form of adherence to the acceptable within our society. It may be scary, creepy, unsettling, ugly, beautiful, sleazy and spooky. It may be magnificently written. It may make you see things from a different point of view. What it never ever is, is subversive, or challenging of the status quo. It is the ultimate in pre-approved, domesticated writing – even when it is unpublishable. It is tame and it is controlled. Some literature might fall into the category of genre, but genre can never be literary art.