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April 13, 2005

New words from an old controversy. Michael Chabon on “genre” fiction: “It’s as much about structures created in the mind of the reader as in the structure or pattern of the text itself. Genre isn’t just a box to be stuck in; it’s also a window to look through.” [06:25 AM]
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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on New words from an old controversy.:

Steve Thorn ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 08:41 AM:

What a great quote. Then again, Pulitzer Prize winners should be highly quotable. :)

BTW: Did anyone enjoy his (MC's) novel SUMMERLAND as much as I did? And I'm not even a baseball fan. Just a great, new, contemporary fantasy-type story.

Trent Goulding ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 10:33 AM:

Steve: Yes, I loved Summerland. And I'm not much of a baseball fan, either. Great story, though.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 12:55 PM:

I've been debating whether to pick up a copy of Summerland. It got utterly ripped by critics, but maybe I'll give it a shot.

Chabon's website is full of fun stuff:


I particularly liked the Report to the Carnegie Institute, having lived in the neighborhood he describes.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 02:22 PM:

Great news for Kelly Link. I'm not a huge Dennis Lehane fan, but 4 'genre' stories in the collection is very uplifting.

Jason ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 02:28 PM:

To state the obvious:

That Michael Chabon, he's a smart guy, huh?

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 04:51 PM:

I like his work, and enjoyed the quote. But.

To be a devil's advocate, ALL writing is in a genre. To suggest that "genre" = "Science Fiction + Fantasy + Horror" is to do a disservice to acknowledged modern fiction genres such as Westerns, Romance, Mystery, older genres such as Sea Stories, Air Stories, Men's Stories, let alone classical genres: the Essay, Lyric Poem, Verse Drama, and the like. Pornography is a genre, which has the advantage that one can sell a first draft, and are expected to be psudonymous. ANY of the genres produce some works of artistic genius, and a plethora of, well, generic product.

By the market share in North American books, Romance is THE big genre, accounting for 1/3 of all fiction, and thus 1/6 of all books. There are very roughly 1,000 members of Science Fiction Writers of America, about the same for Mystery Writers of America, at least double that of Western Writers of America. But there are roughly 8,500 dues-paying members of Romance Writers of America.

I've been working for years on a General Theory of genre, and don't want to even start on my hobbyhorse. Yet I thought these small comments would provide a skeptical perspective. I'm open to alternative views, please...

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 05:04 PM:

JVP, how does any of what you're saying amount to being a "devil's advocate"? I don't agree that "all writing is in a genre," but I certainly agree that lots of it is. Nobody was claiming that "genre" only meant SF, fantasy, and horror, least of all (I daresay) Chabon.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 06:01 PM:

I think Chabon was talking not about SF or any other specific genre, but about 'genre'...um...generically.

Oh, you know what I mean!

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 06:02 PM:

Genre in gen'ral. The genetics of genre? Do not go generically into that good night?

Argh. Time to go lie down.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2005, 07:31 PM:


In which case, what exactly did Chabon mean?

"The much-rumored inclusion of three overtly 'genre' stories (two fantasy, one sf) among the final twenty is mistaken.... noir"

I read this as {genre} is included within {Fantasy} Union {Science Fiction}, or vice versa. It wasn't clear to me if "noir" was included or not. Making Light has had a subthread on whether or not "noir" = "hardboiled" yet did not challenge that {noir} is included within {Mystery}. Yes, there is a fine, disturbing Sceince Fiction/Dark Fantasy novel titled "Noir."

I may have overstated my hypothesis by assuming, without overt explication, that "mainstream" fiction consitutes a genre. I may or may not think that strictly true. Is {New Yorker story} included within {mainstream}? Isn't "slipstream" supposed to mean something akin to "on the fuzzy boundary between, or in the intersection between {Fantasy and Science Fiction} and {mainstream}?

When Science Fiction fans call theose other people in the con hotel as "mundanes" are we not claiming, in some sense, that "mundane fiction" is a genre? So many Mystery fans are also Science Fiction/Fantasy fans that many respect these as "sister" genres? Reminder, again, of the June 2005 con in Las vegas by SFRA which has a "Science Fiction and Westerns" track.

I think I know, but do many of your readers know the only person to have won both a Nebula Award (SFWA) and an Edgar Award (MWA)?

Doug ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 08:03 AM:

JVP, Harlan Ellison?

Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 09:25 AM:

Here's where one of my favourite hobbyhorses comes out of the turn and straightens out for the run to the post.

See, fantasy isn't a genre. You can't write a set of genre tags for it. Fabulation? All fiction fabulates. The very process of fictive narrative demands it. Presence of magic? In that case, Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy isn't fantasy. Estrangement from reality? In that case, any text using, say, obvious caricature or non-sequential plotting or numinous language would be fantasy. Like, f'r instance "Cold Comfort Farm" or "Catch 22" or even "Pickwick Papers". Clearly, this isn't right.

Fantasy is actually the default case. Mimetic fiction is the genre, because it has a genre tag: the action, setting and characters of the narrative must mimic observed reality, though it is true that the reality may be partly internal. (If the reality becomes entirely internal, we're back in the realms of fantasy again.)

Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 09:40 AM:

We've trod this ground before. It's a silly definition of a genre that insists that for any work to be considered in that genre, it must contain all of a list of elements. As you point out in your examples, that's simply not the case. But that argues against your definition of genre, I submit, not the existence of fantasy as a genre.

Fantasy, like any genre, is defined by a set of uses of language, plot structure, plot elements, settings, conventions, and agreements. If you're an Alexandrian architect or programmer, think of a genre as a pattern language. You wouldn't insist that a building contain every one of Christopher Alexander's patterns to be an utterance in that pattern language.

Markers for the fantasy genre include magic, yes, and historical settings, and adventure, quests, kingship, good-vs-evil struggles, second-world settings, and on and on. But no work has to contain all, or even most of them. And indeed it can also contain genre elements from other genres, and we can spend all day fruitlessly arguing whether China Mieville's Iron Council is a fantasy or a western. "Genre" isn't an Aristotelian category.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 10:53 AM:


Harlan is great, but is not the winning answer.

Dave Luckett:

One can claim that Fantasy embraces all of literature, as the superset. John Campbell used to claim that Science Fiction embraced almost all of the universe, with a tiny set of exceptions called mundane literature.

Alex Cohen:

Yes, each genre has its markers. Book Covers reflect this. You Can Tell a Book by the Cover.

Nobody but Patrick explicitly rejected my confusion on what Chabon meant by "genre." So what DID he mean?

Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 11:08 AM:


I can't speak for Patrick, but your first response on this thread -- insisting that all writing is genre -- simply had absolutely nothing to do with Chabon's remarks, which said that genre is just as much in the mind of the reader as in the text of the work. You positioned it as "devil's advocacy" but it wasn't in opposition to the actual quote.

Is all writing in a genre? I don't think so, although clearly there are many different genres of different types, far more than are indicated by the typical use of "genre writing." To be a genre, I argue, you have to have an existing and recognized set of literary conventions.

One can claim that Fantasy embraces all of literature, as the superset.

You can make this claim, but it is at all useful to anyone? Booksellers, browsers, readers, authors, critics? "Excuse me, where's your fantasy section?" "Fantasy embraces all literature, sir."

I'm a big fan of discussion of genre, because I think it can reveal interesting and previously hidden structure. But I just don't see the point of setting up definitions of genres that are so broad as to be useless in discussion, or so precise that they exclude works that everyone already agreed are in the genre.

Just keep repeating: genres are not formal Aristotelian categories. You cannot develop a set of rules that will include all members and exclude all non-members. And you know what? That's okay.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 02:28 PM:

Alex Cohen:

You're right. That's why SFWA, which used to stand for "Science Fiction Writers of America" now stands for "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America."

Genres are, as best, Fuzzy Sets. For a particular work, one might say "well, that's 75% a Fantasy" or "the horseback and deserts scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are at least 80& a Western because they are set in NorthWEST China, involve tribes versus authority from the capital, have a bandit leader, and lots of fighting..."

"To be a genre, I argue, you have to have an existing and recognized set of literary conventions." Well, in that light, what sort of writing is NOT in a genre? There are conventions for laundry lists and parking tickets, albeit these are not often considered Literary. Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Alan Ginsberg used lists not far removed from laundry lists to good effect. The Odyssey and Iliad have great lists of naval vessels and disposition of forces.

Can you define the genre of literary things that are not in any genre?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 02:59 PM:

Christ, if I have to listen to another plonk-plonk nerd argument about how to precisely define this or that popular-fiction genre, I'm going up the clock tower with a machine gun myself.

Stop it. It's not interesting. As Chip Delany observed a few years ago, definitional arguments always wind up paying too much attention to edge cases and not enough attention to the broad middle. Moreover, just acknowledging that genres are "fuzzy sets" isn't enough; you're still obsessing about them as sets. As Alex Cohen points out: genres are not formal Aristotelian categories. At all. Period. Fuzzy, moldy, slimy, or otherwise.

Instead of worrying about the perfect "definition" of (for instance) fantasy literature, how about describing it?

What was so fresh about Chabon's observation is that Chabon is looking at how readers use genre in order to perform their part in the story transaction. Chabon is looking at what's in front of his nose, rather than what's behind his eyes.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 03:25 PM:

Myself I like to change genres in midstream. Halfway through the story, I just flip all those little switches, and all the definitions change. In this way I seduce my readers into reading a genre they ordinarily reject, bwah-hah-hah. Ultimately I will write a story that covers all the conventions of Romance, Horror (surprisingly similar, those two), Hard-Boiled, SF (both kinds), Political Thriller, Mystery, and Cook Book, exploding the notion of genre once and for all, and making me SUPREME OVERLORD OF ALL LITERATURE!!!! Bow down to me now and your manuscripts may (that's MAY) bypass the slushpile after the Regime Change.

Forcing myself to be serious for a moment, Patrick has pointed out a basic principle of semiotics: everyone knows that something that does not exist at all cannot carry meaning, but fewer take the time to realize that something that is universal cannot carry meaning either. Saying that a certain term applies to all of literature is therefore the equivalent of saying "this term has no useful application." In terms of actual semiotic value, "X applies in all cases" is not very different from saying "X does not apply in any cases." There is no "genre" of literature written for cats to read in their litterboxes; nor is there a "genre" of literature employing verbs. The fact of containing verbs cannot carry genre significance, any more than can the fact of being written for litterbox viewing (sorry, movie fans, it had to be done).

As for Campbell, I suspect he was pointing out that until the past couple of centuries most literature was fantastic in some way or other. Realism, in the sense of setting stories in the world in which your readers actually live, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 04:06 PM:


[light bulb goes on] Thank you for the clarification. NOW I think I see what Chabon was saying. You're also right, implicitly referencing Delany's essay on anti-definition in NYRoSF.


I, for one, welcome the new SUPREME OVERLORD OF ALL LITERATURE. I was unhappy under the lashes of Rush Limbaugh and Haward Stern.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 05:14 PM:

[appreciates the welcome, but stands with folded arms, waiting for JvP to bow down]

Stephan Brun ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 05:30 PM:

[prostrates self]

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2005, 06:39 PM:

[Lying face down, as in submission or adoration]
[Lying flat or at full length]
[Reduced to extreme weakness or incapacitation; overcome]
[(Botanically) Growing flat along the ground]
[speaks obseqiously]:
Ummm, Lord Xopher, if it's not presumptious of me to ask, when can we go smite the attempted usurper, Stephen King?

Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2005, 03:17 AM:

So what do we even want to use a set of labelling terms for?

I think there's other things but mostly the most interesting one is to match readers with books. So fantasy is "the books that readers of fantasy books want to read." Which clearly changes over time, in the individual and in the mass case. Which makes the category hard to grasp and hold on to, because it's both squishy and motile. When I was a kid, I went looking for "magic books" -- but Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, while lightly amusing, did not qualify, and The Silver Sword which did not actually have magic but did have a harrowing escape from a concentration camp and a miraculous discovery of a lost family artifact, did qualify. And so did that completely realistic book about the peasant boy who wants to be a hawker. In retrospect, it was of course the sense of wonder I was looking for, and also, I think, a reflection of my own inchoate yearning.

It's thisness. What is the thisness of fantasy? I think there's something in it about air and light (and dark), and something in it about heroism, and something about a relationship to the land and the cosmos, and something about clarity and obfuscation -- and then there's something about colors, and certain kinds of noise, including bells and stringed instruments and the clash of steel and usually, horses and owls or eagles. Banners and ribbons, usually. Even when there's not. And something about otherness. And intelligence in unexpected places, which may be malevolent or not. And bad roads. Or I can possibly be a little delerious -- I fell off my bike going too fast down a steep hill this afternoon.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2005, 03:41 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer:

Bravo! Beautiful. Now, who will tell Chip Delany?

You've got to use this in the preface or introduction of one of your novels. Is there an editor in the house who agrees, hint hint?

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2005, 09:43 PM:

I'm not only bowing down to the new Overlord, I'm wondering where I left my vegetarian cookbook... Because cooking is what I do best.


Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2005, 01:23 AM:

Mary Kay - Talking about cooking vegetarians at a time like this might be ill-advised, what with the new overlord and all...

Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 02:26 AM:

everyone knows that something that does not exist at all cannot carry meaning,"

Hmm ... "existence" in this sense including "believed in"? (Oh dear, this one goes back to the tree falling in the forest discussion). Because there may be very many things factually/actually, objectively, as far as we can currently define by scientific methods (and here we also touch upon the difficulty of measuring integration, intelligence, & good function mentioned in Neurological Update, from Making Light) there are an awful lot of things which could be said not to exist, but which have a lot of meaning to a lot of people.

Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 01:06 PM:

... speaking of New Overlords, as noted on Making Light, "Habemus Papam" - Benedict XVI

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 01:43 PM:


Thanks to the new Covenant between Lord Xopher, and Pope Benedict XVI, you have been adjudicated to have written Double Heresy, and shall go to Hell for two concurrent eternal sentences. NObody ever expects a German Inquisition!

Kimberly ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 03:25 PM:

JVP: Heresy! Our new Supreme Overlord would not "covenant" with the NEW POPE. Unless he (the NEW POPE, not our esteemed Supreme Overlord) renounced his evil ways.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 03:58 PM:

The following decrees from your Overlord:

1. Yes, do smite the pretender King.
2. Stephan Brun is proclaimed a Knight of Literature, for being the first to prostrate himself before Your Overlord.
3. Epacris, Your Overlord was speaking of symbols. If, for example, you dream of a unicorn, then as far as symbols are concerned it exists. Whether it IS a symbol, and if so of what, can still be debated (until such time as Your Overlord makes a ruling, of course, after which all such debate becomes heresy). If you NEVER dream of a unicorn, a unicorn cannot be a symbol in your dream; that is what Your Overlord meant.

4. Epacris has not committed heresy, but simply inquiry. Inquiry, until Your Overlord changes his mind, is allowed. The reign of the Overlord is just and generous.
5. JvP, however, HAS committed heresy, as the noble Epacris has pointed out. Your Overlord will have no converse with such inferior beings as the NEW POPE. They are as rats to Him, especially this one. Set out poison and traps, please.
6. JvP is hereby sentenced to 39 lashes with a wet noodle, to be administered at a time To Be Named Later. The reign of the Overlord is mild and merciful.
7. Epacris is hereby proclaimed a Theologian of the Overlord's Whims, for pointing out the error of the Postean Heresy. Congratulations, Epacris!
This concludes the transmission from World Literature Control. Back to your desks, My many minions!
Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 04:01 PM:

Oh, one more thing:

8. Mary Kay is hereby awarded the office of Cook to the Overlord, and admonished to find the lowest-carb recipes possible within the contect of vegetarianism. The reign of the Overlord is slim and slender.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 04:02 PM:

Um, the Overlord meant 'context'. Laugh if you dare!

fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 04:40 PM:

Does the Overlord authorize the use of ferrets in rat-suppression? How about terriers? There's a young one at my house, and he's ready to learn...

pericat ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 04:55 PM:

New Pope tastes more like Pepsi than Classic Pope, but almost certainly has never contained cocaine.

WARNING: New Pope's rumoured effectiveness as a contraceptive is no more than an urban legend. It cleans up corroded batteries pretty well, though.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2005, 10:25 PM:

Ferrets are permitted, but the Vatican should be set with traps sufficient to catch huge white-mitred rats forthwith. Such rats to be cast into the Tiber in chains.

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 03:09 PM:

Since it was in fact Kimberly who pointed out the Postean Heresy, she is also proclaimed an Overlord Theologian. Epacris' status as such is NOT rescinded; to do so would compromise the doctrine of Overlordal Infallibility, which your Overlord infallibly assures you is infallible.

fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 03:32 PM:

But what about the terriers? And my landlady wants to know about dachsunds--hers have shown great promise in the rodent elimination field, including the larger varieties.

Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 03:37 PM:

> Your Overlord will have no converse with such
> inferior beings as the NEW POPE. They are as rats
> to Him, especially this one.

We laugh nervously at the Overlords most-sparking wordplay.

>The reign of the Overlord is slim and slender.

Dang. Here comes my posting to Gaul.

Kimberly ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 03:50 PM:

Ooooh, an appointment.

I swear to You, Oh Infallible Overlord, that I will do my very best to be sufficiently, er, theological.

Are there perks? Do I get a hat? Fancy bag? Newly enhanced ability to distinguish daffodils from daylilies? Special powers of genre-defining, um, I mean, genre describing?

Kimberly ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 03:52 PM:

Clearly, "special powers preventing random hyphenation" were not part of the deal. ;)

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 04:44 PM:

Kimberly, Your Overlord encourages you to design your own badges of office. If He approves them, appropriate sumptuary laws will be passed to prevent others from impersonating your office. (If not, of course, you will be summarily executed. But that's just a risk you'll have to take.)

Your Overlord encourages you to develop theology defending your hyphenations as canonical.

fidelio, all creatures which are of utility in exterminating the rats from the Vatican are holy and blesséd of Your Overlord.

Harry, not at all! Your Overlord wishes to appear slim and slender; surrounding Himself with chubby people is one of the divers elements He employs, as anyone who has eaten a meal cooked by His Overlordship will attest!

That is, unless you WANT to be posted to Gaul. If so, something can be arranged. You may have to change your name to Tullius Octopus or something though.

fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 05:17 PM:

The dogs shall rejoice. Luckily, since their rejoicing is normally a noisy business, Your Overlordship is far enough away not to be deafened.

BTW, the dachshunds usually eat what they kill, and have been training the rat terrier to do likewise. I'd hate to interfere; I could end up being bitten myself.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2005, 07:14 PM:

Well, the Good Book says "give not that which is holy unto the dogs." I don't see that as a problem in this case. I'd worry about them choking on a rosary or something though.