Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Genre Writing and Protocols

Boing Boing published a great interview with China Miéville recently, and within this interview there's a great discussion of Miéville's knowing use of, and meta-commentary on, his genres, leading to this great passage:
Tom: You could call this a paradox of genre realism. All fiction is ultimately formulaic, so only fiction that's willing to acknowledge that it's formulaic is actually in a position to go through this into being realistic again. Often, literary fiction invites you to collude in this pretence that you don't know exactly what's going to happen, what's going on—and this can get in the way of having some genuine and unaffected emotion, and being honest about enthusiasms and limitations. Instead, both you and the author are busy playing this game that says we're all too marvellous and sophisticated to acknowledge that narrative has rules and formulae.

China: I wouldn't go for the word "formulaic," because I think that's quite harsh. But what I would say is "structured by protocols". The vast majority of fiction certainly is structured like this. Even genuinely, wildly avant garde stuff has its own protocols. So you do have to start from that position.

Then the way you relate to those protocols and that structure is up to you. If you don't want to fall into despair, you have to cheerfully accept it as a norm and move on. But also—and I say this a little more tentatively, because I dislike very much the self-congratulation that can take place within genre fiction—my sense is that, at the moment, there is a little more space for this moving on within the best genre fiction than within the mainstream of "literary" fiction: a bit less anxiety about protocols and structures. And that gives me a certain hope.
I've seen this a bit myself recently but hadn't realized that this is what was happening: a genre so comfortable with itself that it's willing to still be SciFi, or Horror, or whatever, but as part of accepting that and "moving on," transforming itself into something new. To choose an example from 2312, the novel i'm currently reading, you can get stereotypical "hard SciFi" passages in which technologies and/or history are described in detail, but Robinson does this as separate chapters so that he doesn't need to put these explanations into his character's mouths. These sections are like the minor chapters of Moby Dick, except instead of being minor treatises they are made up of - and called - fragments, with the effect being that you're brought up to speed in a way reminiscent of continually channel surfing past the History Channel. I like the approach, and hope to more aspects like this in the future.

Originally posted on Thought Ambience.

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