Does Genre Fiction Need to Evolve?

I was reading Lin Carter’s extraordinary little book on the history of fantasy literature, Imaginary Worlds (1973), and came across an impassioned defense of “Sword & Sorcery” literature, by which he means the subgenre of fantasy dedicated to Conan-like exploits in antideluvian worlds.  Responding to charges that Carter and other practitioners of Sword & Sorcery are merely writing the same thing over and over again, he writes: "Must a school of writing evolve?  I wonder why.  Evolution implies a change into something else.  But mere change for the sake of change, experiment for the sake of experiment—the apparent aesthetic of the New Wave school of science fiction writing...seems to a rather backwards looking conservative like myself a pointless exercise in futility.  Must the sonnet sequence evolve into some form other than that of the sonnet sequence, or opera into something that is not opera?  Must Sword & Sorcery turn itself into something radically different?"  (146)

Though this view can be easily attacked as “conservative,” it shouldn’t be ignored so glibly.  After all, what does make a literary genre (or subgenre) unique?  Partly it’s a theme or premise that governs the authors/readers that flock to it, and inspires both to believe in and create a world within its boundaries.  Carter’s example of the sonnet sequence is apt, since such a sequence has a very distinct pedigree and immediately conjures up Petrarch, Sidney, and Shakespeare.  While none of these writers followed the demands of the genre slavishly, their sonnets are instantly recognizable as part of a tradition: even Shakespeare, for all his brilliance and innovation, can make some very conventional gestures (the lover’s youth makes him seem old, he wants to die for lack of love, begs the lover not to remember him, curses the lover for loving another, etc).  If literature is all about freshness, why cultivate an old form, something that has all been done before and probably done much better in the past?  Even when Sword & Sorcery was only a few decades old, critics were calling the subgenre played out, “a living fossil with no apparent ability to evolve” (Carter, 145).  Shouldn’t we attempt something new, rather than writing the millionth sonnet or the ten thousandth Sword & Sorcery novel?

I think the idea of seeing any literary form as a “fossil” is problematic.  A writer can make it sound or read like a fossil, but the form is like language itself: it expands and bends and contracts at the will of the author.  But language can never be “old,” not unless an entire culture abandons it.  Even Latin, decried as a “dead language” is not entirely dead: the works of Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid still speak to us, most often in tones that would be terribly indecent for a natural history museum (have you read Catullus?).  If language is read it is alive, and language must take a conventional form to be understood, which is where literature comes in.  Literature is conventional.  When you decide to write something, you adapt form to audience, style to substance—one is inextricably linked to the other.  While an author can experiment in form and collapse one genre into another, we are still aware of this experiment: we can see, for example, how Shakespeare is fuses comedy, tragedy, and quasi-opera in a work like The Tempest even if we’re not sure what to make of the result.  You can’t very well sit down and write something that never existed in a form no one has ever imagined.  Even the most experimental works—say, Joyce’s Ulysses— have a point of origin in convention and familiarity.  Most often, what the language does within these boundaries is what makes it unique and experimental.  So how can a novel, of whatever genre, become a fossil?  Have we heard all that a symphony can offer?  Are portraits played out?  Should we no longer bother with ballet? 

The challenge of a genre is putting your skill and intellect against its artistic limitations:  can you do A, B and C while avoiding X, Y, and Z?  Also, be careful of G.  You can do S but only up to a point.  Most people won’t accept E, either.  For this reason most genres, such as science fiction, fantasy (or Sword & Sorcery), romance, mystery, Western, etc. are largely derided as “low literature” if literature at all.  It’s child’s play, unimaginative fair for conventional readers (or worse, rank-and-file writers).  To be sure, genre fiction can be rank-and-file, written to order much the way a movie sequel apes the very qualities that made the original a success.  However, just because a novel has the potential to be conventional and formulaic, that doesn’t mean that every novel is inherently old hat.  As the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø admits, “Many Scandinavian writers who had made their name in literary fiction felt they wanted to have a go at the crime novel to show they could compete with the best. If Salman Rushdie had been Norwegian, he would definitely have written at least one thriller”  (The Guardian, 28 Oct. 2012).  For Scandinavians (like Brits), crime fiction is both popular and challenging, for one of the greatest tests of a writer’s skill is how they can retain their voice while adopting the ‘conventional’ voice of the genre.  Even Rushdie, one of the contemporary high water marks of literary fiction, would dabble in crime had the Indian subcontinent been colonized by Sweden

This reminds me of our fascination with cooking competition shows like Top Chef: not every chef can make great dishes with a limited pantry in 30 minutes, but it is an exciting challenge.  A genre author works with the ingredients at hand, which have been passed down to him through generations, but still finds a way—perhaps a very subtle way—to add his own spice or sauce.  And let’s face it, we go to a certain restaurant expecting a certain food.  We like to know what we’re getting, but still want to be surprised.  We don’t want the same Chicken Alfredo we’ve had a thousand times before, though it should taste something like all of those Chicken Alfredos.  Perhaps a true chef would turn up his or her nose at such a pedestrian dish, preferring to deconstruct it or add molecular gastronomy.  But this begs the question, why do we still order Chicken Alfredo—or Sword & Sorcery novels?  Why do we have a deep, dark craving for just this genre?  To call any literary form a “fossil” when that form is alive and culturally relevant suggests a certain critical tone-deafness.  A critic may have better taste than a thousand other readers, but he/she is also guided by taste—and taste is an aesthetic formed by expectation.  Most critics turn up their nose at fantasy writing, for example, since it looks nothing like the “literary” fiction they most prefer.  True literature, they would argue, has rich, psychological characters, realistic settings, and universe themes that make even the oldest form—such as the novel—culturally significant.  Why write stories of wizards and spaceships in a world of race riots, corruption, and global warming? 

For me, the answer is that all fiction, literary or otherwise, is a way of confronting the world.  A book is a metaphor for life; it doesn’t pretend to be life, it doesn’t negate our day-to-day existence (even if we want it to!); it simply helps us examine the world from a unique vantage point.  One could argue that the more strange and exotic the perspective, the easier it is to examine the wonder and insanity of life.  Indeed, the origin of storytelling had its roots in the formation of society: stories were a way to bring people together through shared values and the appreciation of a global narrative.  Even in the workplace, individual workers lose sight of the big picture, seeing his or her job as the most important, while everyone else is getting in the way.  A story makes us someone else, and allows us to see, from the perspective of God (third person), or a very flawed and limited protagonist (first person) what the world looks like.  We can’t see it any other way.  In our lifetimes, we will never truly glimpse our own face the way other people see it.  We need some kind of reflection, a mirror or camera that imperfectly captures some aspect of who we are to others, even if none of the mirrors quite agree on their conception of “you” (hence our search for “good” mirrors and “good” lighting).  The metaphors of fiction re-imagine the world in different terms, through “other people’s” lives so we can go back and live our own.  There really is no such thing as escapism per se; a story about Conan the Barbarian, for all its blood and thunder heroics, can also examine the flaws of religion and the corruption of man.  A story set in on a remote asteroid in the Beta Quadrant can be a metaphor for our own isolation and paranoia.  Books helps us see when we forget we the purpose of eyes.  We let others do the looking for us.  Literature makes us see the world anew, to question all the thousands of details we’ve taken for granted, including our own uniqueness.  Aren’t we all a copy of a copy of a copy?  Is anyone unique in the world?  So can we ask our fiction—written by us, after all—to do the impossible? 

In the same chapter of Carter’s book, he quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of originality: “ “Creation” as applied to human authorship seems to me to be an entirely misleading term.  We rearrange elements...Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together.  Nothing happens” (148).  Granted, science fiction and fantasy authors have tried all these things, with more or less success.  However, the point is that we use the tools at hand, and no one can boast of creating new tools.  Even if they had, who would understand them?  The point of writing isn’t to recreate the wheel (wheels work fine, after all) but to make the vehicle move forward.  Sword & Sorcery may seem like a dead end to some, a fossil that crawled out of the slime simply to die in some forsaken forest.  Yet evolution took place: it became a new way of experiencing the world, and that way is unique and valid.  It doesn’t have to do anything more.  The burden now lies on the author to make it speak, and the failure of a Sword & Sorcery book (or any other kind of literature) lies not in the genre but in its writer.  To return to Carter, the “school of writing” is enriched not by evolution for evolution’s sake, but from writers who love the genre and can still ask, “what if we did this...?”  Only a cynic tries to tear down the walls simply to glorify in his or her work.  Someone who loves literature preserves the “ruins,” so to speak, and adds a new addition in the same style.  For it is love, rather than lack of inspiration, which draws readers and writers to literature.  They want to find themselves in a world which feels more like themselves, their idea self that they can only glimpse in the mirror of fiction.  And certain mirrors, for certain people, simply offer a better reflection. 

In the same way, we preserve great art because we want future generations to see it.  The Mona Lisa should remain exactly as it is, which is the point of artistic restoration.  So perhaps  genre is a kind of literary restoration process.  The original, ideal work (to borrow Plato’s terminology) exists “out there” somewhere, and every work within the genre is an attempt to remind us why we started reading it in the first place.  If we diverge too much from the original, the artwork is lost and the entire tradition becomes fossilized, a mere footnote in the history books.  A genre continues when a healthy staple or writers and readers work hard to restore it, to make it relevant in a world which might outwardly share few of its values.  Critics forget that each new work published is some reader’s first introduction to the genre.  So a genre which may seem played-out to a seasoned reader can explode with possibility to the neophyte.  Indeed, often a “second class” work is better able to communicate the wonder of a genre to a new reader than the more sophisticated (and unique) “first class” writer.  Carter reminds us that many of the great fantasy writers of yore were first put on the scent by relatively modest writers, such as Burroughs, whose John Carter or Mars and Tarzan made its first readers really think about what the genre could do.  The same is true for children of my generation (the 80’s) who grew up with the Star Wars movies.  These movies, for all their originality, are also completely derivative.  Yet they pointed me and other towards other works of fantasy and science fiction which, in turn, led me to write my own works.  And while I can now see the limitations of Lucas’ vision, I remember how powerful it was seeing it all on a screen as a five year-old.  That first vision was a glimpse at the original, at the “ideal” masterpiece that has never been written.  

That’s what keeps me returning to the genre as a reader and a writer.  I want to recapture that experience for myself and create it for another.  If I made the work too original, too innovative, that experience would be lost.  So I work within the conventions of the genre, adding my voice to a conversation which still has a lot to say, even if we’re all familiar with the question.  For genre is a way of asking a question, and writing is how we provide the answer.  And no one, as far as I know, has discovered completely new questions to ask.  Maybe we need to evolve before our literature can; until then, I anxiously await to new answers from some very ‘old’ works of literature.