Genre, again

As usual, when I was at Readercon a few weeks ago, there were panels on genre, and, again as usual, the highly literary panel participants viewed genre with suspicion and disdain, wondering at how restrictive genre definitions are.

Just as you can't analyze rising healthcare costs without looking at jobs, you can't analyze genre without looking at readers.  But if you sit in on these panels, you'll invariably hear a lot of discussion (don't get me wrong: intelligent and thoughtful discussion) about what the writer does, how the writer achieves effects, what the writer wants to convey. The reader, both individually and en masse, gets short shrift (BTW, I just looked up this term I've been using much of my life, and discover it refers to a shortened form of last rites, or shriving, used at busy and time-crunched Elizabethan executions: "Chop chop, buddy, there's people waiting." So not only are we executing our readers, we're doing it on the cheap.)

But I think I'm getting distracted. This is the genre of blogpost, which rewards a good subject line and a tightly focused, pithy couple of paragraphcs on a specificy topic. Genre will keep me focused. In genre there is strength.

OK. Too late for pithy. What is genre? I presume there a million definitions or descriptions.  There are a few ways of looking at it, some of which I might explore at some point.  Let me just list one here.

Genre is a contract between a reader and a writer. The reader agrees to give up some portion of a limited lifespan in return for some entertainment of a certain defined type from the writer. Genre defines the kind of entertainment. The writer violates this contract only at peril, and can succeed only by giving way more than the reader expected, while simultaneously scratching the same itch the original genre was going to scratch.  This is key to successful genre violation by a clever writer: it has to satisfy the original need, only in a different and unexpected way. 

Say the reader sits down to read a good mystery, one that reveals all sorts of things about a specific milieu the reader is unfamiliar with, puts characters under stress so that they reveal things they would rather keep hidden, and, at the end, unites all sorts of disparate and seemingly contradictory observations with a single explanation. Instead, the writer shows how all the events were caused by a combat between angels and demons.

I don't care if the writer has provided Paradise Lost. The contract has been grossly violated. Even if the reader believes in angels and demons, this isn't why they are here. That isn't why money was transfered. That isn't why time was set aside to be spent. And the original itch, the tension and resolution of a mystery, has not been scratched.

So that's why when Milton sits on a panel and says "Yeah, I called it The Chancel Mystery, but I gave those ungrateful wretches Paradise Lost, for heaven's sake. Why are they bitching?"

Genre allows us to determine which itch is being scratched. And, sure, there is an itch for "deeply perceptive literature". But even people who like deeply perceptive literature usually also like a brisk well-written mystery, or a romance, or a space opera too, depending on their mood, the number of unstressed brain cells available, and whether they're at the beach or in their best reading chair.

 So, sure, genre can be a straitjacket to a writer longing for some flexibility. And these distinctions can be determined by marketing, rather than inner reader needs. Still, before writers get all bent out of shape about genres, they need to see whether they've been holding up their end of the contract.