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Back to the Genre

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The night before last,  I had one of those complete disasters I’m prone to on occasion, where I get up around three hours after I’ve gone to bed and then just can’t get back to sleep again.

Actually, it might have been the three hours that was the problem.  The  United States Army has actually done research on this, and it turns out that the best times to wake the troops so that you can make sure they’ll be awake for whatever you want them to do is three hours, five hours, or seven hours after they’ve gone to sleep.

Of course, having been told that–my older son’s closest friend is a lieutenant–I sat around for a while and worried about how the Army could possibly know that the troops had actually gone to sleep, since just going to bed doesn’t guarantee that.

But whatever.

And will somebody please tell me when and why everybody started wearing camo all the time?  I mean, Army guys used to have these khaki uniforms for everday and camo just for combat, or something, and now…

Okay, that was a digression.

I woke up on only two hours of sleep and spent the rest of the day flying on a caffeine high, which was surreal in lots of ways, because, you know, I’m really too old for this kind of thing.

But in the middle of it,  I had an e-mail discussion about Jose Saramago which suddenly clarified something for me. 

And if you’ve already thought of all of this, I apologize.  I’m sometimes very thick.

Jose Saramago is a Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel in the early Nineties.   I first discovered his book Blindness right about the time I first went to Portugal, and having become entranced by everything Portuguese, I read it.

In translation.  I found a woman to tutor me in Portuguese a few years ago, but then she moved, and I haven’ t been able to get back to it since.  In a way, that’s a shame, because there’s another Portuguese novelist I’m interested in–Augustiina Bessa-Luis–and she’s n ot published in English that I know of.

And I may just have gotten her first name wrong.

Anyway, I read Blindness and then  I went out and bought every single Saramago novel I could find.   I can’t remember the last  time I found a writer who did that to me.  

Blindness is about the city of Lisbon during a weeks-long period when the population is suddenly struck by an epidemic of blindness.  People go blind, for no reason anybody knows–and, since they know nothing about the afflication, they also have no idea if it’s temporary or permanent.  

And, as in most epidemics,a small percentage of the population is immune.  There are some sighted people.

The book then follows the life of one sighted woman who fakes blindness because she wants to follow her husband to the new quarantine camps and to care for him there.  The novel is about the ways in which all these people respond to their blindness, the ways in which this woman helps and cares for them, and (in one very small stretch) the way some other sighted people also respond.

Look, however, at what’s not there–there’s nobody trying to discover where the blindness came from; there are no corrupt government officials covering up a DOD science experiment that goes wrong, no Brave Heroes racing to cure the disease or reverse its effects before civilization collapses–

Therer’s just this woman and the day to day realities of living with and responding to the condition they’re in. 

Now, you may love this idea or hate it–I love it to pieces–but the difference between the plot as Saramago wrote it and the Bave Heroes thing I was just talking about is what makes Blindness “just a novel” and not part of the science fiction genre.

Science fiction is the most loosely defined genre in the bunch, but by and large genres are skeleton plots–they give you a narrative arc into which you fit whatever else you want to do.  If you’re inventive, you can produce something quite wonderful and novel.

But all detective novels have the same plot.  So do all romance novels.  So do all serial killer novels.

And, what’s more, all genre novels have a restricted range of characters available to them–detectie novels require at least one person whose essential motivation is to unravel the mystery and uncover the murderer.   Any novel about a murder that does not include that character is not a genre mystery.  Any romance novel that ends with the heroine deciding that the hero is an ass and she’d just as soon not be in a romantic relationship of any kind is not a genre romance.

Saramago has written a number of novels whose premises fit what Robert would call “science fiction,” and none of them are science fiction, because none of them follow any genre’s narrative arc.  In The Stone Raft, the entire Iberian peninsula breaks off from the rest of Europe and goes wandering around in the Atlantic ocean.  Once again, there are no Brave Heroes rushing around to deal with the situation, no explanations of why what happened happened–just the people on the peninsula coming to terms with what’s happened to them (and a nice allegory about the EU).

Saramago’s latests novel, called Death With  Interruptions (and oh, how I  wish I’d thought of that title), is about a period of time when nobody dies, and how day to day people deal with that.  But I  haven’t read it yet, and  I think Death is a woman living in a small apartment and feeling too depressed to get on with work, but I’m not sure yet.

There isn’t anything in the world that is an unfit subject for real, non-genre fiction.  In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily,” Miss Emily murders the lover who wants to leave her and then spends the next twenty yeas sleeping next to the corpse.  It, and what she’s done, is discovered only after she’s dead.  In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard  To Find,” a family of five is murdered by an escaped convict and his accomplice out in the empty reaches of rural Georgia, all because the grandmother of the group is a selfish, self-absorbed witch.

Genre can be done very well, of course.  Like a sonnet, it can provide a framework for a lot of things.  There are good sonnets and bad sonnets and great sonnets.  They are good murder mysteries and bad murder mysteries and great murder mysteries. 

And sometimes genre can provide an excuse–readers who normally wouldn’t touch a novel about the decay of a small rust belt city will read a murder mystery set there, and given the writer a chance to sa what he wants to say about it.  They did with Precious Blood, at any rate.

But in the end, what disstinguishes genre from non-genre is not the basic premise, but the existence, or lack, of certain stock characters and narrative sequences. 

And it’s that predictability that makes genre the stepchild of English literature.

It’s also what makes contemporary self-styled “literary fiction” a genre.

Written by janeh

August 24th, 2009 at 8:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Back to the Genre'

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  1. Death With Interruptions sounds familiar – but then I just re-read Reaper Man. I’d be interested to know if there are any parallels.


    24 Aug 09 at 9:44 am

  2. The khakis have been gone a LONG time. I turned in my Air Force khakis about 1973, and when I joined the Army in 1983 the “Class A” (dress) and “Class B” (office wear) uniforms were just like the Air Force only green instead of blue. The Army and Marines basically stopped wearing anything but the “utility” (fatigue) uniform about 9-11, but the USAF still sensibly wears a regular light blue shirt and slacks (or skirt) when working in an office. The Army has been a little funny that way for some time. They made everyone in Defense Language Institute wear utilities when every other service had their people in Class B’s, and were mocked accordingly. But that is a digression.
    BLINDNESS, though, reminded me strikingly of BRAIN WAVE. In BRAIN WAVE, suddenly virtually everyone’s IQ is raised to genius or supergenius levels–and not just people. The zoo animals know they’re in a zoo, and most of them don’t like it. And the cattle! The “explanation” is about half a page somewhere around Chapter 2. The rest of the novel is how individuals and civilization responds. Who does the grunt work when everyone’s threshold of boredom is incredibly low? You’re as much brighter than a steer than you ever were, but is it still OK to slaughter it for meat when it knows what you’re doing? And what do you owe the person you love if your IQ is now off the charts, and she’s the same fairly bright person she always was? No miracle cure. No race to save the day. Just people adapting to a new world. But BRAIN WAVE was written about 50 years ago by Poul Anderson, who evidently didn’t know that you can’t write that story in “genre” SF.

    THE STONE RAFT sounds remarkably like the work of RA Lafferty. I keep thinking of a short story in which someone inadvertently turns one of the hinges of the world–the teak one, in the south Pacific. The peaceful islanders are replaced with an otherwise identical bunch of cannibal savages until someone can turn the hinge again. Lafferty assures the reader it can’t happen elsewhere. “The iron hinges in Bavaria are badly rusted, and if anyone turned them, the world would hear them groaning.” But Lafferty regularly published in F&SF while Anderson published in ASTOUNDING/ANALOG. Fortunately, neither realized the limits of his genre. Or perhaps Bujold was right to call genre “works of art in close conversation with one another” and not just use it as a synonym for “predictable plot.”


    24 Aug 09 at 5:03 pm

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