Genres Aren't Boxes, They're Reading InstructionsS

Where would we be without genre labels? Free to write new and weird idioms, possibly. But a couple of recent blog posts make the case that genres aren't cages, they're toolkits that tell you how to read a particular text.

Writing over at Tor.com a while back, Jo Walton quotes Samuel Delany as saying that people who read science fiction regularly most likely have developed a set of skills to allow them to read SF books. That's why you don't get tripped up by the inclusion of futuristic technology (like the tachyon drive in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War) and you tend to take a certain amount of strange world-building for granted. She mentions a reviewer who wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link's story "Zombie Contingency Plans" into metaphors, when in fact they're actual zombies.

Why did the tachyon drive in The Forever War trip up someone who's not accustomed to reading SF? Walton explains:

The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works-forget it, that's not important.

This tachyon drive guy, who has stuck in my mind for years and years, got hung up on that detail because he didn't know how to take in what was and what wasn't important. How do I know it wasn't important? The way it was signalled in the story. How did I learn how to recognise that? By reading half a ton of SF. How did I read half a ton of SF before I knew how to do it? I was twelve years old and used to a lot of stuff going over my head, I picked it up as I went along. That's how we all did it. Why couldn't this guy do that? He could have, but it would have been work, not fun.

Conversely, Walton says she was in a reading group tackling a Trollope book, and got into an argument about whether you needed footnotes to understand all of the strange little references to things Trollope's readers would have understood back in the 19th century. She eventually realized she was reading it as if it were a science-fiction novel, and taking a certain amount of strange world-building for granted.

So genre expectations are actually a kind of decoder ring to allow you to read the text, but people insist on treating them as something more, writes Rachel Swirsky over at Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days blog:

I have argued that genre disctinctions aren't useless - they are ways of signaling expectations to readers, and establishing reading conventions, and all that is great. I think the problem comes when we start reifying genre and assuming that the barriers between genres are somehow real and important barriers, rather than being useful human constructions that can be argued over and negotiated.

Genre is a tool. It's not a prophecy.

She cites some instances of people in academia belittling or misunderstanding SF and fantasy (People in academia? Short sighted? That never happens!) as well as people in the SF community returning the favor for literary fiction in a misguided attempt to balance the scales.

But the idea that genre is a tool, not a prophecy goes beyond combating genre snobbery, I think — it's actually helpful for writers to think about when crafting their next novel. Just because there's this marvelous tool for helping readers to understand your story, doesn't mean your story has to be crafted around the tool. Novelists are not Ikea, and your swashbuckling space epic is not a chunky sofa with a Scandinavian boy's name. Food for thought, anyway.