The Rise of Genre and the Decline of Story
By Michael Waller
When I was young I prowled the aisles of my local library unhindered by the fear of the unknowns of literature or the restrictions of genre. There were only two sections, fiction and non-fiction. Admittedly there were numerous subdivisions in the non-fiction side, but in fiction the shelves started at A and worked their inexorable way to Z. I was like a literate cow grazing a lush field and trying everything green in sight, grass, daisies, dandelions, all different, but all succulent.
Now however, I have to have my hand held for me, like some geriatric who’s meals are cooked by well meaning relatives and stored in labled containers, and be lead to the thoughtfully marked sections which have compartmentalised books to save me the onerous task of discovery. In seems that just as scientists now specialize in the minutiae of the darkest and most esoteric corners of their field, the writers of fiction are stifling their creativity by the need to write to the blueprinted instructions of the “genre”. And just as the search for the perceived perfect attributes in a particular dog has lead to congenital weaknesses, so a look into so many books now shows an absence of the writing stamina needed to produce robust and healthy stories.
Perhaps it is the rise of the numerous courses teaching “creative writing”, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, or the ever present spectre of targeted marketing, but, with notable exceptions, the world of fiction seems to be divided into two camps. There are those books which hit all of the check boxes of what a particular genre needs, or those which appeal to the incestuous circle of author, critic and academic, books which so often seem to me as if they should be in the non-fiction section with the other treatises on psychology.
So how does genre reduce the quality of story? Let us take a generalised example; A man murders his neighbour over damage done to his car. The local police inspector is particularly bright and after a thrilling investigation gets his man. A clear cut example of a murder mystery. Make it two technicians terraforming a planet and it is science fiction. Then we could have two knights fighting in the land of Blorg and it is fantasy. This in and of itself is not a recipe for disaster, but as with all recipes it is not only the ingredients that are important but also how much of each you use. Take out the technical jargon, the invented words, and the easy problem solving of magic and more often than not the story and characters are thin at best.
Cross genre authors are rare, and why is that? Is it because this is the age of the specialist, and the renaissance man is as outdated as the historical period referred to? Or is it because cross-genre writing requires real creative story telling ability. Poe writing his macabre phantasies thinks of crime and we have the Murders in the Rue Morgue. Robert Louis Stevenson puts his pen down from a horror story of medical research gone awry, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then picks it up again to write Kidnapped, a Jacobean swashbuckler, takes a rest and comes up with a maritime adventure The Merry Men, not to mention his travelogues and poetry. It was all just writing exciting stories to him, and he had the creativity to do it because fortunately he did not have a degree in creative writing to teach him what he should be doing. Or how different can Dorian Gray be from The Importance of Being Earnest.
Memorable writers never have, nor never will, bind themselves to the template of genre.
The Wizard’s Gift
The last of an ancient group of wizards leaves a gift to the newly arrived race of men. It is revered and cared for by a line of priests until it is stolen, and the high priest and his sovereign murdered by a king who believes himself destined to be a great wizard. But from ancient writings the high priest had discovered that the gift is not benevolent as was thought. This forces the son of the high priest, unexpectedly elevated to his father’s position, and the young prince who is equally suddenly king, into a race to find the gift before it can be used as that may cause the destruction of the world. Accompanied by the retired captain of the palace guard they hope to speed their journey by crossing the Wasteland, a seeming desert, which is fabled to be populated by monsters, and from which no visitor has ever returned. In the course of their adventures they are hunted by dog faced men and captured by slavers, but the young prince truly becomes a king, and the priest discovers that he has a destiny that goes beyond the bounds of his world.