Thursday, May 20, 2010

More on fiction categories

I was thinking about that pesky fiction 'category' problem a few weeks back, and a bright idea came to me. Well, it seemed like a bright idea at the time.

Faithful readers will recall my Literary v Commercial post way-back-when (all of three months ago), in which I pondered the difference between "literary" and "commercial" fiction, or even whether such a difference exists.

My bright new idea: that fiction categories are determined by backlist, in a meta-publisher sort of sense -- by a book's antecedents. Or that category is transitive, in mathspeak. That is to say, if my book nods to or borrows from X and Y and Z, and everybody knows that X and Y and Z are steampunk, than my book is steampunk too.

Literary fiction is the category I read the most, so it's no surprise that to me this idea seems to apply most clearly when determining whether a book is literary fiction in a European tradition. The backlist in this case is the Western canon, all those Important Books you were assigned in literature classes at University (if you attended university in Europe or North America). If a book resembles or extends the canon -- especially insofar as it refers, explicitly or subtly, to prior work in that body of art -- it's literary fiction.

I asked a number of writers I know which authors they think the backlist might include in genres they write and read. Here's an unsorted set of what they came up with:

  • Westerns: Larry McMurtry, Stephen Bly, Max Brand
  • Mystery: Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Higgins Clark, MC Beaton
  • Fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Jeff Carlson, Robert Jordan
  • Young Adult: C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle, Judy Blume, JK Rowling
  • Detective: JD Robb (a.k.a. Nora Roberts), Lawrence Sanders
  • Romance: Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter

But -- as often happens when you ask a question of people who think creatively -- some of the alternate perspectives that came back in response to my question are probably more interesting than my little brain-burp.

One idea is that categories group fiction by needs or core concerns that occur in the social milieu in which the work is created. Writer KL suggested that "Literary Fiction is just an umbrella for a bunch of 'invisible' genres. I bet if you pulled out your 'literary' books, you could quickly group them into categories based upon the main theme of each: environmentalism (the need to be one with nature), activism (the need to be heard), etc." Here's some suggestions adapted from KL's list that correspond to familiar categories:

  • Romance = our need to be loved
  • Western = our need to be free
  • Mystery = our need to find answers
  • Fantasy = our need to dream
  • Epics (e.g., Beowulf) = our need to be brave
  • Religious books (e.g., the Bible) = our need to have a big picture

A suggestion from another writer, SL, tentatively agreed with my 'backlist' concept, but with some distancing caveats:
"I'd say [...] perceived antecedents, perceived being the key word, because those decisions are made like the old fashioned pinball machines, where the ball made it's way down hitting rubber pegs: agent/editor/editor/publisher/agent/editor, and your book is branded [...] Personally, I see all art as fluid and at the most basic level lacking genre, and speaking instead to the human condition itself, what great books scholars would call the 'Great Conversation.'"

SL had some amusingly unkind things to say about great books scholars, but we'll leave that aside... I think he's got an interesting idea, though perhaps it reaches too strenuously for a Platonic ideal: most writers, I think, are in some way influenced by what sells -- whether it's shaping a work so that it has a prayer of getting published, or deliberately writing against the market to make an artistic point ... or someplace in between these polar responses.

I think it's also worth considering a concept I first heard in one of those classes about the canon when I was in college: that there are only 7 plots in fiction (some theories give a different number). Christopher Booker's ponderously thick volume, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, lists these plots as:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage & Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

This is a way of sorting fiction across category boundaries like "romance," "mystery," and "fantasy." The Hobbit is a Quest, and so is The Road -- but you won't find Tolkein and McCarthy shelved in the same section of most bookstores. (Each of these books also has Overcoming the Monster elements to it, but that's the thing with this seven-plots business: the most interesting books mix & match. Cf. some of the reviews/critiques on the linked Amazon page, above.)

I don't suppose there's any one way of slicing and dicing, but SL probably got it right with the suggestion that categorization is all about brand and market ... and that the best writers -- including the best genre writers -- attend more closely to the human condition than to rigid compliance to genre conventions.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

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