The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)
SOME THINGS I BELIEVE
The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography
This is a transcription of a talk I gave in Orlando to an audience mostly composed of academics. It’s not the actual speech I wrote, because I departed so far from my notes in the giving of it.
Thank you so much. That was so moving. Oddly enough, I think in some ways my talk is about passionate unknowing. I’ve written a speech, because I’m nervous, but I’ve also made lots of little marks in green ink where I’ve told myself I’m allowed to go off and just sort of start talking if I want to. So I have no idea how long this is going to be. It depends on the green-ink bits. What is the official title?
[From crowd: “‘The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography.’”]
Yeah, or something like that. It’s actually nothing at all about the genre of pornography. That was just put in to make it a catchy title. I make no apologies.
It is the job of the creator to explode. It is the task of the academic to walk around the bomb site, gathering up the shrapnel, to figure out what kind of an explosion it was, who was killed, how much damage it was meant to do and how close it came to actually achieving that.
As a writer I’m much more comfortable exploding than talking about explosions. I’m fascinated by academia, but it’s a practical fascination. I want to know how I can make something work for me. I love learning about fiction, but the learning is only as interesting as it is something that I can use.
When I was a boy, we had a garden. Mr. Weller was eighty-five, and he came in every Wednesday and did things in the garden, and the roses grew, and the vegetable garden put forth vegetables, as if by magic. In the garden shed every kind of strange hoe and spade and trowel and dibber hung, and Mr. Weller alone knew what they were good for. They were his tools. I get fascinated by the tools.
The miracle of prose is this: it begins with the words. What we, as authors, give to the reader isn’t the story. We don’t give them the people or the places or the emotions. What we give the reader is a raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they use to build the book themselves. No two readers can or will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author. I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of returning to a beloved childhood book. A book that you remember a scene from so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it, and you remember the rain whipping down, you remember the way the trees blew in the wind, you remember the whinnies and the stamps of the horses as they fled through the forest to the castle, and the jangle of the bits, and every noise. And you go back and you read that book as an adult and you discover a sentence that says something like, “‘What a jolly awful night this would be,’ he said as they rode their horses through the forest. ‘I hope we get there soon,’” and you realize you did it all. You built it. You made it.
Some of the tools that hang in the garden shed of a writer are tools that help us, as writers, to understand what the patterns are. That teach us how to work with our collaborators—because the reader is a collaborator.
We ask ourselves the big questions about fiction because they are the only ones that matter: What’s it for? What’s fiction for? What’s the imagination for? Why do we do this? Does it matter? Why does it matter?
Sometimes the answers can be practical. A few years ago, in 2007, I went to China for the first-ever, I believe, state-sponsored science fiction convention, and at some point I remember talking to a party official who was there and I said, “Up until now I have read in Locus that your lot disapprove of science fiction and you disapprove of science fiction conventions and these things have not been considerably encouraged. What’s changed? Why did you permit this thing? Why are we here?” And he said, “Oh, you know for years we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPods. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. You bring us things and then we make them. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered that they all read science fiction when they were teenagers. So we think maybe it’s a good thing.”
I’ve spent the last thirty years writing stories. I’d been doing this for a living for fifteen years before it occurred to me to wonder what a story was, and to attempt to define it in a way that was useful to me. It took me about a year of pondering, and eventually I decided that a story was anything that I made up that kept the reader turning the pages or watching, and did not leave the reader or the viewer feeling cheated at the end.
As definitions go, it worked for me. And sometimes it helped me figure out why a story wasn’t working, and what I could do to get it back onto the rails.
The other big thing that niggled at me was genre. I’m a genre writer, in the same way that this is a genre conference, and that only gets sticky or problematic in either case when one asks what the genre is, which leads us to a whole boatload of other questions.
My biggest question, first as a reader and then as a writer, was simply, what is genre fiction? What makes something genre fiction?
What is genre? Well, you could start out with a practical definition: it’s something that tells you where to look in a bookstore or (if you can find one these days) a video store. It tells you where to go. It tells you where to look. That’s nice and easy. Just recently Teresa Nielsen Hayden told me it wasn’t actually telling you what to look at, where to go. It was telling you what aisles not to bother going down. Which I thought was astonishingly perceptive.
There are too many books out there. So you want to make it easier on the people shelving them and on the people looking for them by limiting the places they’re going to go looking for books. You give them places not to look. That’s the simplicity of book shelving in bookstores. It tells you what not to read.
The trouble is that Sturgeon’s Law—which approximates to “90 percent of everything is crap”—applies to the fields I know something about (SF and fantasy and horror and children’s books and mainstream fiction and nonfiction and biography) and I’m sure it applies equally as much to the places in the bookshops I don’t go—from cookbooks to supernatural romances. And the corollary to Sturgeon’s law is that 10 percent of everything is going to be anywhere from good to excellent by any stretch of the imagination. It’s true for all genre fiction.
And because genre fiction is relentlessly Darwinian—books come, books go, many have been unjustly forgotten, very few unjustly remembered—the turnover tends to remove the 90 percent of dross from the shelves, replacing it with another 90 percent of dross. But it also leaves you—as with children’s literature—a core canon that tends to be remarkably solid.
Life does not obey genre rules. It lurches easily or uneasily from soap opera to farce, office romance to medical drama to police procedural or pornography, sometimes within minutes. On my way to a friend’s funeral I saw an airline passenger stand up, bang his head on an overhead compartment, opening it and sending the contents over a hapless flight attendant in the most perfectly performed and timed piece of slapstick I’ve ever seen. It mixed genres appallingly.
Life lurches. Genre offers predictability within certain constraints, but then, you have to ask yourself, what’s genre? It’s not subject matter. It’s not tone.
Genre, it had always seemed to me, was a set of assumptions, a loose contract between the creator and the audience.
An American film professor named Linda Williams wrote an excellent study of hard-core pornographic movies, back in the late eighties, called Hard Core, subtitled Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” which I read more or less by accident (I was a book reviewer and it landed on my desk to review) as a young man, and which made me rethink everything I thought I knew at the time about what made something genre.
I knew that some things were not like other things, but I didn’t know why.
Professor Williams suggested in her book that pornographic films could best be understood by comparing them to musicals. In a musical you are going to have different kinds of song—solos, duets, trios, full choruses, songs sung by men to women and by women to men, slow songs, fast songs, happy songs, love songs—and in a porn film you have a number of different kinds of sexual scenarios that need to be gone through.
In a musical the plot exists to allow you to get from song to song and to stop all the songs from happening at once. So with a porn film.
And furthermore and most importantly, the songs in a musical are, well, they’re not what you’re there for, as you’re there for the whole thing, story and all, but they are those things that if they were not there you as a member of the audience would feel cheated. If you’ve gone to a musical and there are no songs, you are going to walk out feeling that you did not get your musical money’s worth. You are never going to walk out of The Godfather going, “There weren’t any songs.”
If you take them out—the songs from a musical, the sex acts from a porn film, the gunfights from a Western—then they no longer have the thing that the person came to see. The people who have come to that genre, looking for that thing, will feel cheated, feel they have not received their money’s worth, feel that the thing they have read or experienced has broken, somehow, the rules.
And when I understood that, I understood so much more—it was as if a light had been turned on in my head, because it answered the fundamental question I’d been asking since I was a boy.
I knew there were spy novels and that there were novels with spies in them, cowboy books and books that took place among cowboys in the American West. But before that moment I didn’t understand how to tell the difference and now I did. If the plot is a machine that allows you to get from set piece to set piece, and the set pieces are things without which the reader or the viewer would feel cheated, then, whatever it is, it’s genre. If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.
When every event is part of the plot, if the whole thing is important, if there aren’t any scenes that exist to allow you to take your audience to the next moment that the reader or the viewer feels is the thing that he or she has paid for, then it’s a story, and the genre is irrelevant.
Subject matter does not make genre.
Now, the advantage of genre as a creator is it gives you something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you balls.
Another advantage of genre for me is that it privileges story.
Stories come in patterns that influence the stories that come after them.
In the eighties, as a young journalist, I was handed a thick pile of bestselling romances, books with one-word titles, like Lace and Scruples, and was told to write three thousand words about them. So I went off and read them, with initial puzzlement and then slow delight as I realized that the reason they seemed so familiar was that they were. They were retellings of fairy tales, old ones I’d known since I was a boy, retold in the here and now and spiced with sex and money. And although the genre in question was known in British publishing as shopping-and-fucking novels, the books were about neither shopping nor fucking, but mostly about what would happen next, in an utterly familiar and predictable structure.
I remember coldly and calculatingly plotting my own one of those. It concerned an extremely bright young woman, plunged into a coma by the machinations of her evil aunt, so she was unconscious through much of the book as a noble young scientist hero fought to bring her back to consciousness and save the family fortune, until he was forced to wake her with the shopping-and-fucking equivalent of a kiss. I plotted it, and I never wrote it. I wasn’t cynical enough to write something I didn’t believe, and if I was going to rewrite “Sleeping Beauty” I was sure I could find a better way to do it.
But story privileged is a good thing for me. I care about story. I’m always painfully certain that I’m not much good at story, always happy when a story feels right, or comes out properly. I love beautiful writing (although I’m never convinced that what the English think of as beautiful writing, which is writing that’s as clean and straightforward as possible, is what the Americans think of as beautiful writing, and it’s definitely not Indian beautiful writing or Irish beautiful writing, which are other things entirely).
But I love the drive and the shape of story.
I spent much of the last four days with my ninety-five-year-old cousin Helen Fagin, who is a holocaust survivor and was professor of the holocaust at the University of Miami for some time, and a wonderful, remarkable woman, and she was telling me about when she was in the Radomsko ghetto in 1942. She had been at Kraków University until the war interrupted her studies, so she was assigned in the ghetto to teach younger kids (she would have been nineteen, maybe twenty), and in order to assert normality, these ten-or-eleven-year-olds would come in the morning and she would teach them Latin and algebra and things that she was uncertain that they would have any use for, but she would teach them. And one night she was given a copy of the Polish translation of Gone with the Wind, and she explains this is significant in that books were banned. Books were banned by the Nazis in an incredibly efficient way, which was if they found you with a book they would put a gun against your head and shoot you. Books were very, very banned, and she was given a copy of Gone with the Wind. And each night she would draw the curtains and put the blackout in place and read, with a tiny light, two or three chapters, losing valuable sleep time, so that the next morning when the kids came in she could tell them the story of what she read, and that was all they wanted. And for an hour every day they got away. They got out of the Radomsko ghetto. Most of those kids went on to the camps. She says that she tracked them all later and discovered that four—out of the dozens of kids she taught—had survived. When she told me that it made me rethink what I do and made me rethink the nature of escapist fiction, because I thought actually it gave them an escape, just there, just then. And it was worth risking death for.
As I get older I’m more comfortable with genre. More comfortable deciding what points a reader would feel cheated without. But still, my main impulse in creating a story is to treat myself as my reader, as my audience, and tell myself a story that amazes or delights or thrills or saddens me, that takes me somewhere new.
But still, as Edgar Pangborn put it, I persist in wondering …
Do we transcend genre by doing amazing genre work or do we transcend it by stepping outside of it? Is there any merit in transcending genre?
For that matter, at what point does an author become a genre? I do not read Ray Bradbury for moments of genre gratification, I read him for moments of pure Ray Bradbury—the way the words are assembled.
I get told—most recently by a pedicab driver in Austin, Texas—that my writing is Gaimanesque, and I have no idea what that means, or if there’s anything people are waiting for, anything they’d feel cheated if they didn’t get. I hope all the stories are different. I hope the authorial voice changes with the stories. I hope I’m using the right tools from the potting shed at the bottom of the garden in my imagination to build the right tales.
And when I get stuck, sometimes, I’ll think of porn films and I’ll think about musicals: what’s the thing that a lover of whatever it is I’m writing would want to see? And sometimes I’ll do that. And on those days I’m probably writing genre. And on other days I’ll do the opposite.
But I suspect I’m at my most successful and ambitious and foolish and wise as a writer when I have no idea what sort of thing it is that I’m writing. When I don’t know what a lover of things like this would expect, because nobody’s ever loved anything like this before: when for good or for evil, I’m out there on my own.
And at that point, when I only have myself as a first reader, then genre, or lack thereof, becomes immaterial. The only rule that can guide me as a writer is to keep going, and to carry on telling a story that will not leave me, as the first reader, feeling cheated or disappointed at the end.
This was the keynote speech I gave at the thirty-fifth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, held in Orlando, Florida, in 2013.