Not Your Parents’ Literature: Traditional vs. Blended Genre Traditions

A few days ago, I was listening to Stephen King’s Misery on audiobook when something clicked in my head. A novel I had started a good two or three years ago and never touched again after writing around five thousand words came into my mind when Paul Sheldon was working on the second draft of Misery’s Return for Annie Wilkes. I started thinking about writing again, and not blog writing or academic writing, but about creative fiction writing. I started thinking about the novel I was currently listening to (Misery), the novel I was reading at home (Outbound Flight), and the kinds of novels I liked to read (sci-fi and fantasy with a unique take on the genres). And in the flash of an instant, I decided to begin work on that forgotten novel again.

I decided this because I do not think it is the kind of novel many other people would like to read, though I hope one day it turns out that many people might indeed like it. I decided this because it was the kind of novel that I like to read. Until that moment in my car as I was driving into Alabama, I never understood why so many authors say they actually write stories they want to hear. I always knew that for each piece of writing there is an intended reader like Wolfgang Iser purported, but I never realized until yesterday that Iser’s intended reader just might be the authors themselves.

So I arrived back at my house that night a little past midnight and got into some fun debates with my roommates about the nature of Star Wars’ inherent nostalgia and about Mac vs. PC, but before I went to bed at four a.m., I made sure that I dusted off (as much as I could dust off a digital file on my laptop’s hard drive) the early part of that novel and read through the prologue, fixing things as I went. The next day, I got through the first five chapters, and I was impressed. Not so much at the quality of writing (though it was better than I remembered), but at the story and the world I was beginning to build. I was impressed because I had already set out writing what I had just realized the day before was the perfect novel for me.

What do I mean by the perfect novel for me? That’s an easy one. I don’t like traditional novels very much anymore. I think I burned myself out on the tried-and-true stories when I was a kid. The voracious reader that I was, I would read anything I could get my hands on; I cleaned out my elementary school’s library and had to make regular trips to the bookstore by the seventh grade just to get my Accelerated Reader requirements in. Some of my favorites included The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, and anything written about the Dragonlance franchise. I had read almost every major science-fiction and fantasy series I could get my hands on by the time I was eighteen, and by the time I was twenty, I could no longer stand to read them. Something inside me just shut off at the stereotypical swords-and-sorcery fantasy or the generic aliens in science-fiction.

So over the past six years, I have made it my reader’s duty to seek out new literature which merge and blend genre boundaries and conventions. My two favorites are Stephen King’s The Dark Tower cycle because it really has no set genre—it mixes science-fiction, fantasy, the American Western, and horror so well that the lines actually blur—and Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files because he takes what would normally be considered typical fantasy fare and puts a unique twist to the conventions and settings. These series are truly unique in what they do because when compared to the rule set forth by the “classics” of the genres—The Lord of the Rings, Dracula, Frankenstein, Shane, anything by Louis L’amour, Foundation, Dune, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons—they exist outside any predefined boundaries while remaining faithful to everything that is essential to the genre.

So given my mode of thinking now, a novel written with me (or someone like me) as the intended reader must, in some form or fashion, exist outside the predescribed boundaries of genre while holding faithful to what makes those genres worth reading in the first place. I also think that any work which holds someone like me as the intended reader must incorporate many conventions that are normally found in only one genre in order to remain interesting. And I think the latter is more important. I feel more at home reading a book or seeing a movie that blends two well-loved genres over something that tries to reestablish or reinvent something I already hold dear and fails (Twilight, I’m looking in your direction). The best made works are those which can stay faithful to tradition while still being original in some way.

Take Star Wars, for instance. Even though it is a work of science-fiction, it is not hard science-fiction. The world does not work with any attempt at remaining faithful to the laws of physics or how science actually functions, save token nods and buzz words. It has a very pulp sci-fi feel to it that is very different from, say, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke and more akin to Flash Gordon. Star Wars also possesses elements typically found in the American Western as well as the Japanese Samurai film, not to mention a very heavy influence from the classical hero motif Joseph Campbell examines in The Hero with 1000 Faces. These elements made Star Wars fresh and exciting in 1977 because whether audiences knew it or not, it was the first time these specific genres were merged together in such a successful way. This unique approach is what made the science-fiction appealing to not only the masses, but the geek-elite as well. In choosing a single primary genre (science-fiction) which then incorporated elements of many other genres, the original Star Wars trilogy was able to access a storytelling common-ground that no single-genre series before or since has ever been able to approach.

After being so enamored of Star Wars for so many years along with absorbing as much traditional genre fiction as I could, there is no doubt in my mind that the next logical step for me as a consumer of fiction would be to seek out those works in which my favorite conventions are merged into one cohesive narrative. I don’t want to come across as snobbish, however, and I want no one to think that I do not appreciate or like works that don’t bend genres. I just have a hard time getting into the more traditional genre fiction these days. The next time the fantasy bug bites me, I intend to pick up George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, and even though it is a straight fantasy epic, I have no doubt that it is fantastic based on the short excerpts I have read. I’m sure I will enjoy it. My concern is that I may never want to read it because I have found such a love for unique takes on the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Even my television viewing has changed since I made this discovery about my tastes. I love Star Trek in any incarnation, but I spend more time watching shows like LOST, Fringe, Firefly, and Dollhouse than I do the more traditional genre shows. Each of the shows I watch regularly falls squarely into the sci-fi genre; however, each of them twists and bends what viewers expect. Until I can find a traditional sci-fi or fantasy work that satisfies me as well as these mixed-genre shows do, I will continue to seek out the borderlands of television programming and hope some spills over.

The novel I decided to pick back up and write blends genres like this. Maybe I will succeed at it, and maybe I will fail miserably. I am trained to critique others’ works, and sometimes that comes as a hindrance in coming up with my own. I am not setting out to write something that redefines a genre or the literary landscape. Those kinds of books don’t appeal to me as a reader, so why would they as an author? I want to write a story that I would enjoy if I were to find it on a bookstore shelf or get it in an Audible newsletter. I think that is all that can be asked of any writer, really. We are all our own intended readers. After all, if we won’t read our stuff, how can we expect anyone else to?

Comments

  1. gordon

    Really great post 🙂 I think you've sold me on the Dresden files, I'll need to order the first book from Amazon.

    I'd love to have a career as an author. I enjoy writing and reading and I too like the mix of genres. It's also why I enjoy books like The Dark Tower.

    I'd highly recommend George R. R. Martin. He manages to breath some fresh air into the fantasy genre by being a lot more hardcore and hardboiled. I love reading books in which I know anything can go!

    In terms of TV shows, I could recommend a few non-sci-fi/fantasty shows. The Wire is probably the best thing I've ever had in front of my eyeballs whilst The Sopranos is good too.

  2. Beej

    Be aware that "Storm Front," the first Dresden Files book, is a little more quirky and experimental than the rest of the series. It is good, but the rest of the series is really where it hits its stride.

    And I love the Sopranos. I got the series on DVD as a Christmas gift, and my roommate and I watched all of them. They're just fantastic.

    If you've not watched "Pushing Daisies," then I highly suggest you pick up the Season 1 DVD. It doesn't really fall into any traditional genre categories, either. It's just fun.

  3. Xash

    I think the books I've enjoyed the most are books that take our standard world and twist some form of the fantastical into it. The Stand, Neverware, American Gods,heck even the Harry Potter books I find infinitely more interesting then insert Dungeons and Dragons book #1206 about drow rangers with no character flaws overcoming adversity.

    I like the idea of Steampunk or Cyberpunk because it takes our view of something already established, and changes a single but far reaching element.

    I especially like Cyberpunk because as a bonus you get to witness an authors forecasting of technological progression. Reading an old book like Neuromancer I find it fascinating how somethings we have totally achieved, perhaps in slightly different forms, while others technology has gone off on a completely different direction. Plus I find Cyberpunk to be much more believable then say Star Wars or whatnot.

    I've always just thought of Starwars as a Fantasy series, that happens to be set in space. They make no attempt to explain how anything works, they just seem to rely on the old adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (which is not to comment on the force, which is all but magic) In addition, due to when it was made compared to now we again have this issue where technology has advanced in amazingly different directions that anyone could have imagined. It always Irks me a little when I see Darth Vader, and he's got these huge Fisher Price control buttons on his chest to manage his life support and stuff, Meanwhile they've got Lightsabers and faster then light travel but it looks like he's about to watch a betamax on his torso.

  4. Beej

    I haven't actually read much cyberpunk. I heard a really interesting paper on Neuromancer at this year's PCA conference in New Orleans, but I didn't understand a lot of it because I'm just not familiar with the genre or the work itself. I have Neal Stephenson's "Crytonomicon" on my shelf to read sometime, but who knows if I'll get to it any time this century. I think it's been on my list since 11th grade…

    I agree about real world twists that made the series interesting. That's what "The Dresden Files" do that make them so interesting. Harry Dresden is a modern-day wizard who is listed in the yellow-pages as a Private Investigator Wizard. It's fantastic.