Colliding Genres

Re-posting my article this week from Un:Bound 

It was one of those special mornings, the kind that only comes when the weather really begins to bite. You're wrapped up in a scarf, but you're not wearing gloves yet. Yesterday saw our first real snowfall, the kind that stays on the ground for longer than a few hours, and as I drove into work this morning I felt amazingly refreshed. This freshness led to the purchase of a mammoth 24 oz. cup of steaming coffee and a disc of classical music in lieu of the usual rock music or talk radio.

My commute is about 25 minutes, so I spent the time thinking about what book review to post today. I was running out of reviews that were "straight" science fiction or fantasy, and was debating a few selections that, while definitely falling under the "mainstream fiction" banner at any bookstore, still contained elements that would push the book into territory that would fit comfortably here on the site. As I sat there in traffic, warming my hands and sipping on my scalding hot beverage, it occurred to me that the line between what is considered "mainstream literature" and what, for lack of a better term I'll call "Genre Literature," meaning books that are given their own separate section in a bookstore like "horror" or "science fiction" is becoming increasingly blurred, and all for the better. More and more "literature" books are tackling their themes using devices and imagery that have been prevalent in science fiction and fantasy for decades, and writers and novels that originally had their start as pure "genre" have been elevated into the ethereal lauded chambers otherwise known as literature.

Although this line can be crossed in either direction, I think writers and novels that have co-opted the framework and devices of genre literature and transformed it into something considered "literature" is generally the easier ( in terms of acceptance) to take. Authors like Haruki Marakami and Tom Robbins have consistently used fantastical elements to get across their ideas and themes. The majority of Murakami's novels, (notably Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase) are alive with underground creatures,talking animals, weird mad-scientist experiments and odd conspiracies, all an an effort to drill down his recurring themes of isolation, identity, and Japanese culture.

Robbins takes things to even further, integrating ancient mythological gods (Jitterbug Perfume),alien conspiracies mixed with red-heads (Still Life With Woodpecker) and eating utensils as main characters (Skinny Legs and All) to create an unfied (if separate) world where humor and outrage are used to sound off against the establishment and carry the cry of the counter-culture.

More recently, modern works like The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Pete Hamill's Forever, and Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem have not only encompassed some of the more common devices from genre fiction (time travel, immortality, and super-powers) but have found mainstream and critical fame as well. Of particular note is Lethem, who came to note first as a kind of heir apparent to Philip K. Dick (Gun, With Occasional Music and Girl in Landscape) and has since risen as a main figurehead for the new school of writers that embrace their fantasy and science fiction roots while crafting unique fiction that garners critical attention and prominent display space in major book chains.

But what about the other direction? A lack of respect toward the talent of "genre" writers has been a common complaint for years (one I've raised counteless times). Are writers of predominantly science fiction and fantasy getting the acclaim and respect they deserve? More and more, happily, the amswer seems to be "yes." The old stand-bys (1984 and Animal Farm, Brave New World) are still to be found in many a high-school classroom, but newer fare is slowly finding its way into into high school, college, and beyond, not for the ideas that they posit (I'd argue that 1984 is very precient in in its ideas and themes, but all around it's kind of a dull book), but for the strength of the writing within. Is there anyone left who would argue the literary merits of Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert's Dune, or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? How about Richard Adam's Watership Down?

There are probably dozens more that I could drum up, and those probably wouldn't match your own choices. And that's a great sign as to where this thing we call "literature" is right now. As more and more styles are digested and blended we see new forms emerging, and as the readers of today grow into the reviewers of tomorrow a day where we argue the merits of Murakami's place in post-war 21st century literature in college can't be too far off.

But the commute was only about 25 minutes as I said, and a 24 oz. cup of coffee only goes so far, so drum up some of your nominations and refutations in the comments below.