my genre is better than your genre

There's been a very interesting discussion over on Kristan Hoffman's blog. It started as a discussion of "chick lit," but then it also got into genres in general.

As I said over there:

I’ve been thinking about this more now that I’m critiquing a YA [young adult] novel for a friend. I don’t read YA, and some of the plot developments seem rather trite to me, but that’s the genre (and the book is very well written, so it’s easy to read).

But it occurred to me that other people’s genre conventions can always be off-putting. If there was suddenly a murder, in an impossible situation, with limited suspects, I’d be right at home, but a lot of other people would think, "What a bunch of cliches!" But those are my genre conventions, and I have some idea how many different things you can do within them.

"Chick lit" is, I’m sure, the same way.

I think I realized this first when I was seeing The Cramps open for the Ramones at CBGBs. During the Cramps' set (which I loved) all the Ramones fans were standing back by the bar grousing that all the Cramps songs sounded alike. Which is, of course, what the rest of the world always said about the Ramones.

I had a friend once who laughed at the idea that there was such a thing as a "southern accent" (a view often held by northerners). She demonstrated, in quick succession, about a half dozen accents from different areas of the South. Each was indeed very obviously different from the others. And it was Truman Capote who pointed out that in some areas of the South the men have a different accent than the women.

When you're outside something, you can dismiss it as being monolithic and uninteresting. When you get inside it, though, when you really study it, then you usually find that there's a lot more to it.

You can do almost anything with a mystery story. Inherent Vice is a mystery story. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery story. In fact, both are actually far more conventional in their observance of genre conventions than you'd expect. I talked more about this here and here. As a writer, Raymond Chandler had very little in common with Agatha Christie, though both of them wrote novels with dead bodies and detectives.

When I saw Let the Right One In, I was pretty sick of vampires. But I'd never seen a vampire movie like that one before.

You get the idea.

All of that being said, though, The main point is still the one Kristan started her post with. I think the term "chick lit" (and its cinematic equivalent "chick flick") says it all.

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9 Responses to my genre is better than your genre

  1. Kristan says:

    “When you’re outside something, you can dismiss it as being monolithic and uninteresting. When you get inside it, though, when you really study it, then you usually find that there’s a lot more to it.”

    Precisely! And I love the accent examples.

    Because I like to travel, I think of it in terms of geography too: People might say, “Oh those Americans do things like this, or behave that way,” and we would say, “Wait a minute, we’re a huge country, with at least half a dozen regions (if not more). You can’t categorize us all in one way!”

    But then we turn right around and say, “Oh, French people are this way, and Chinese people are that way, and Mexican people are another way…” (and so on).

    On the one hand, labels and categories help us quickly understand things — but in BROAD strokes. The error comes from thinking those labels and categories tell us everything we need to know about the people/things they contain.

  2. @Kristan, geography is a good example, definitely.

    One of the great things about writing is that you can tweak those prejudices a bit. I learned that from two Roberts, I guess.

    Robert Heinlein, where, in Starship Troopers, you get most of the way through the book before you learn that the main character is dark-skinned. What a clear way to show that, in the future world he lives in, it really doesn’t matter (BTW, that realization was a major reason that Samuel R. Delaney, who is Black, decided to write science fiction).

    Robert Altman (the single biggest influence on my writing, though he was a movie director and never wrote a book) did that sort of thing quite often, usually near the beginning of a picture, to tell the audience that they needed to think about what he was going to show them. I talked about that at the beginning of this review:
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=1095

    And I’ve done similar things a few times. Introduced a character and let the reader assume he or she was white (or straight) just because I didn’t specify otherwise right away.

  3. Kristan says:

    Yes, sometimes it’s fun/good to play with readers’ expectations.

    • I watch to make sure I don’t do it often enough that it becomes predictable (I hope). I just re-watched The Gingerbread Man, and in Altman’s commentary track he draws a distinction between fooling the audience and letting them fool themselves, which I think is an important difference.

  4. Alexis says:

    I just wrote a post about cliches in genres, specifically YA fantasy. Of course the post is scheduled for the future sometime so you won’t see it yet, but this topic has been on my mind because I’m doing some work on a fantasy novel that I’m a little intimidated by. Like you, I’m pretty sick of vampires. But I know there’s a way to create a unique, original story using them. And maybe these conventions are not so bad. I’m just not a fan because I don’t typically read the genre. I wonder if I’ll just naturally get passed that with time.

  5. @Alexis, how far in advance do you write posts anyway? I sometimes write them a few days in advance, but I’m too impatient to wait longer than that. Anyway, yes, there are ways to do vampire stories that are new and fresh. As I said, I recommend the movie Let the Right One In. I’ve never seen a vampire story like it. It’s very romantic, but also completely unromantic about what it would actually be like to be a vampire.

    I wrote a vampire story myself (before I got so tired of them), but it’s really a mystery, not a vampire story in the classic sense.

  6. Alexis says:

    Sometimes a month. I have to schedule them or there would never be new material posted (or there would be a bunch at once.) With a baby at home, I rarely get a chance to get on my laptop for more than a few minutes at a time, so when I can write a post or even five or six, I take advantage of it.

  7. Sounds like a good plan. I’m glad you’re posting again (though I certainly understood when you had to take a short break. 🙂 ).

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