Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Genre

When I read the BookRiot request for new contributors the following statement caught my eye: “There are a few areas we are especially interested in right now: sci-fi/fantasy, Christian, self-published, romance, mysteries and thrillers, and young adult.”. I spent a lot of time thinking about essays I could write focusing on these genres. Forgotten thrillers that need a movie adaptation right now (Vertical Run). Sci-fi movies based on books that are actually better than the source material (Starship Troopers). How I learned to stop worrying and love The Hunger Games (not really). But the more time I spent thinking about it the more I felt trapped. What differentiates a thriller from a non-thriller? And isn’t it easy to imagine a self-published Christian romance novel with a sci-fi mystery at its heart targeted to young adults?Quick! Someone write this and option it off to Miramax! All this led me to think of one of my favorite anecdotes.

During the events of the novel Lila, Robert Pirsig (of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fame) describes himself walking through an American Indian reservation with the tribe’s chief, a professor of anthropology, and a woman from the Association of American Indians. Pirsig spoke of how a dog had been following the group and someone in the group had asked, “What kind of dog is that?” and the tribe’s chief had replied, “That’s a good dog”. Pirsig continues:

“Laverne had been asking the question within an Aristotelian framework. She wanted to know what genetic, substantive pigeonhole of canine classification this object walking before them could be placed in. But John Wooden Leg never understood the question. That’s what made it so funny. He wasn’t joking when he said, “That’s a good dog”...The whole idea of a dog as a member of a hierarchical structure of intellectual categories knows generically as “objects” was outside his traditional culture viewpoint. What was significant, Phaedrus realized, was that John had distinguished the dog according to its Quality, rather than according to its substance.”

And when I look at my bookshelves this is what I see. I see good books. Books that I recommend over and over (Ken Grimwood’s Replay). Books with prose so good it makes me want to get up and slap my momma (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities“I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea."). Books that make me say, “I cannot believe she pulled this off” (Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon SquadEgan also wrote a piece for The New Yorker set in the same universe as Goon Squad written entirely in the form of twitter updates. And it was AMAZING.). I also see bad books. Books that make me hate songbirds (Jonathan Franzen’s FreedomThe songbird rant should have been entitled: “An essay on the importance of keeping house cats inside, extraneous to this narrative and yet my pet peeve and dammit I’m a Time magazine cover boy, which the impatient may skip and animal rights activists might enjoy”). Books that make me throw up my hands in disbelief as the protagonist sleeps with every single female character. But genre? Does Cloud Atlas belong with Billy Budd or with 2001: A Space Odyssey? I don’t know and most importantly I don’t care. Cloud Atlas is a good book. That’s the important thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment