Thursday, May 9, 2013
Linnaeus and the Literary Affliction of Genre-Confusion
This literary segregation is initially encountered when seeking an agent for a work freshly-completed; or perhaps prior for those writers comfortably established within the known confines of a particular genre. I cannot claim such literary snugness. My novels seem more an amalgamation of disparate things: while indubitably set in the past they incorporate strains of the suspenseful, the literary, the political and the romantic. They are, perhaps, representative of the literary mongrel as opposed to the purity of a genre-thoroughbred; incorporating all the diverse elements that together infuse the narrative with a particular personality that somehow eludes ready classification.
Certainly there are a profusion of reference books to assist in this process, that define and classify works in very specific ways; many of which are then themselves imbued with specific genre-expectations in regard to length, character formation, and nature of prose contained therein. Unfortunately for the literary mongrels among us (and I do not mean this in a derogatory sense - rather works encapsulating a multitude of literary expression that defy tidy categories) the placement of ones work is a prerequisite to agent-acquisition. My recent novel The Goodwin Agenda is set in 1803 which seems to immediately presuppose its inclusion in 'historical' (although that also begs the question, when does historical end and modernity kick in?) These distinctions seem more useful in marketing applications; a preliminary expediency insofar as agents and publishing houses are concerned, engaged as they are in the selling and branding of a particular kind of novel. For the intended readership there is an 'expected' element analogous to the offerings of franchise restaurants: the product tends to be unvarying and satisfaction, for those who prefer literary consistency, more assured. Certainly there are a profusion of well-written novels that fall neatly and conveniently within one genre-category or another, but what of those that do not? And indeed is this genre-classification broadly useful or even broadly accurate?
This general application of literary codification seems somewhat reminiscent of Carl Linnaeus' system of classification as applied to biological organisms. He established a binomal nomenclature that specifically defines a plant or an insect within a readily identifiable taxonomy based on physical attributes (Mammalia, for example, was subsequently defined with ever greater specificity according to the number, structure and arrangement of teeth). The literary process of genre-appraisal examines a narrative with the expectation of squeezing it into some specific category or other. The scientific endeavor serves to define, compartmentalize, and order according to genus or species - which not only enables scientific inquiry in regard to specificity of ecosystem in a rapidly-changing world, but offers insight into the dizzying array of diversity to which the earth is home. Of course they are not the same: literary genre-application comprise a broader brush with vastly different intent, but perhaps the thought-association is an intriguing one.
So having reluctantly designated a particular genre (as ill-fitting as the garment appears to be), how is the literary fate of that piece then narrowed and preconceived through the filtered perspective of that particular genre-judge? Romance novels are notoriously specific in regards to inclusion criteria - characters and plot-lines adhere to a predominately predefined formula which are then packaged up (all of suitable length) and inevitably covered with a sensuously posed woman in scanty-attire with a broadly muscled chest in attentive proximity. For the avid reader of such works (and there are indeed many) there is a warm satisfaction in the duplication of what has become a most successful narrative formula; the literary equivalent, for many, of comfort food.
I wonder, however, whether for some writers a specific genre-formula is more honored in the breech than the observance, and that the very best of novels elude such prescribed, predefined allotments. For there are indubitably fine works of science fiction that examine the human predicament, that might in fact be characterized as literary if the protagonist physiognomy was a little less elven; works set in the past, that might more readily be classified political thriller if they had taken place fifty years later. Is there not also a timeliness to genre classification? When does a classic become a classic? Does it require a certain amount of intervening time, removed from our familiar age and issues? A degree of chronological resiliency? A wide readership ubiquitously assenting to a level of achieved excellence? The bestowal of literary awards? There is a prevailing genre-ambiguity which narrows the reading demographic, and condenses the glorious variety of literary threads to simply one - irrespective of fit.
I continue to write in utter oblivion to genre-classifications (which may very well be to my detriment in procuring a literary agent) but the work within me, like the complexity of life I seek to convey, is a rather motley assemblage of diverse elements that seem to ignore, span, encompass and bridge conventional categories. My next novel will similarly, inevitably, tinker with genre-expectations; endeavoring to create a historical fiction work of literary bent, with suspenseful interludes, political reference and romantic escapades - thusly encompassing elements of numerous genres within the confines of one: historical fiction, literary, thriller, romance. So is there a trump card? Do all these contributory threads defer to one? Does historical fiction then emerge as the dominant genre in this regard? Can the novel then be submitted to agents interested in all these above genres? Does that not then defeat the process of classification, and the initial attempt to constrain and define? And indeed should such works should be subject to such narrow rigidity?
For art, unlike Linnaeus' particular subjects, often elude classification - they are of the more incorporeal kind, comprised of dark whispers and faint suggestions of a subliminal world, of profoundest impact in the provoked effect rather than the ink-printed solidity of the novel itself; literary works find their most powerful definition in the neural cascade of an emotional receptivity, the intangible impressions of the imaginative minds' eye, in the ability, like magic, to conjure up, with all vibrant veracity, that which does not intrinsically exist outside of our own mind.
To quote the great Swedish taxonomist himself: "Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence." Perhaps the key for literary genre-allocation lies within Linnaeus' eloquent words - that like the ever-expanding multitude of species that are defined as they come to biological light, literary works (due to their innate complexity) also need a similarly limitless genre-array in which to place themselves; a classification defined by membranes of a more permeable kind. But of course this impractical entreaty results in a genre-blend, a literary soup in which one type can hardly be differentiated from another. The solution? Perhaps simply an increased flexibility with the Linnaeun option of establishing a hierarchical arrangement: with a major in historical and a minor in thriller, literary and romance. I have also become aware that greater genre-flexibility is accorded to writers of proven publishing performance - the implication being that genre-mixology remains the provenience of the literary adept, at least insofar as traditional agencies and houses are concerned.
So I remain singularly unable to postulate a practical solution, but obdurately committed to my particular kind of writing that eschews ready genre classification: resigned to the allocation ambiguity of my own literary mongrels. Like the author that penned them, they are a product of a diverse number of influences and accumulations of thought; they are indubitably their own complicated literary endeavors, and any placement-complex or misfit-anxieties that they might experience once fully-fleshed is met by a twinkle in the authorial eye. There is a certain pride in the authenticity of a work (whether it can be readily classified or not) that perhaps, at the end of the day, is indeed all.