Genre fiction, Mercantilism, Geology

This series of thoughts arose as I started composing a review for Even Though I Knew The End, a book by C.L. Polk coming out this November. I’m really enjoying it so far, I might talk about it more here. The review will be on GeeklyInc.

These thoughts have almost nothing to do with that book.

The genre fiction conversations I grew up hearing, and the ones I’ve usually seen bandied about in pop culture, approach genre fiction the way mercantilists approach markets. By this logic, genre fiction is a zero-sum game of capitalistic bloodsport. Any pieces of art inside the same niche must beat each other to pulp as they fight for limited market share and cultural value, to the exclusion of any other piece of art. This is a perversely Highlander-ish perspective in a world built from layers upon historical layers of art, influence, and nuance.

From an artistic perspective, from the perspective of someone who loves genre fiction, this zero-sum game is a lie. Every new piece of genre fiction isn’t slipping in others’ blood as it bludgeons the opposition in a mercantilist cage match. Instead, it’s adding another layer to the geological strata of our culture and our art.

Art builds on art builds on art, in a continuous dialectic. Genre fiction responds to the pressures and inspirations of culture and life, and it grows out of the art (and other influences) which feeds its artist. Genre fiction isn’t inherently locked in a murderous struggle with itself, because every new piece broadens our experience and our palette—and various pieces may coexist despite their dissonance.

Two (maybe obvious) caveats:

The artists, their ideological perspectives, and the ideologies espoused in their art may all be in conflict with each other. Some points of view aren’t hospitable to the existence of others. I’m just saying that their art isn’t inherently in conflict outside of its ideological disagreements.

And I’m not trying to belittle the marketing departments who struggle to win that aforementioned market share for their companies’ projects. They’re working within the constraints of their system, the constraints of our current publishing industry, and I’m not offering alternatives to that system here. Beyond that, as long as we’re in a capitalist system there is pressure to fight for the audience’s time and attention—artists need to be paid for their art, so they can support themselves. I’m simply saying that the art exists outside the market free-for-all as well.

Back to my geological metaphor for the dialectic…

I like the image of geological strata of culture because it gives me concrete imagery with which to talk about synchronic and diachronic perspectives. In this the synchronic is a snapshot in time across a broad area, a landscape painting or topographical map, while the diachronic is a deeper dive tracing one particular vein of (l)ore as it changes over time, an excavation of one location tracing its history back through time layer by layer. The synchronic speaks to a broad simultaneous state of the cultural experience, giving precedence to the most recent and the most impactful influences at the specified time. But the diachronic reveals how a genre emerges from its precursors, how it differentiates itself and grows, and how it diverges from and interweaves with other pieces of the creative cultural landscape.

I also like this image because it gives the lie to the idea of genre canon. There is no past piece of genre fiction which is mandatory reading, only pieces which give diachronic context for current art. It may be useful to know about the presence of those old stories, ossified to the point of cultural bedrock, but they should be read in context as the product of their own cultural landscape rather than as essential cultural truths.

With that in mind, I find it easier to listen carefully when someone says “you must read this.” Do they mean “I require that you read this before I consider you part of my group”? Or do they mean “this will give you important context for these other pieces of culture”? If it’s the first they’re probably being an asshole. If it’s the second, maybe they’re offering a route into the diachronic cultural depths.

And because of all this, I love asking people about what else they’re reading (or watching) that is similar to other books they’ve mentioned, and what else they’ve enjoyed in general. No one person is broadly read enough to give a full synchronic view, and so each individual snapshot gives me a better understanding of the genre landscape overall. Trying to make my own map from all the different pieces is like a game for me, and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to learn of stories taking their genres in totally new directions.

Speaking of which…

Even Though I Knew The End is so beautifully aligned with noir (so far, I’m not done reading it yet) that it doesn’t feel like it changes anything about its genre. Except… so much noir is almost comedically devoted to male protagonists and period-piece toxic masculinity, and this story—despite all its love of the trappings and conventions of noir—isn’t that. It feels reminiscent of Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw in that way. I love it. Something about how it approaches noir genre fiction from a queer woman’s perspective feels revolutionary, a little like how the first season of Jessica Jones felt years ago (though less gut-wrenching so far). It is a beautiful diachronic gift, so like and yet so unlike its own genre. I haven’t finished it yet, but I expect I’ll recommend it as soon as I do.