What Genre Does Best
Why do we even bother making up stories about dragons and vampires and murder?
Hello, friend! It’s been a minute!
But the good (?) news is that, less than a week out from the publication date for my new novel, “The Eden Test” (next Tuesday April 25!), I am ramping things up.
For starters: if you are in NYC please come out to my book launch event tomorrow, Friday, April 21 at Books Are Magic on Montague St in Brooklyn. Details about tickets etc are all here. The best news is that I convinced Julia May Jonas, the author of the sensational novel Vladimir to come out for a conversation. Which should be fun because we are also married, and we both wrote novels about terrible marriages, one of which ends in murder. (No spoilers!)
So please come on out and also preorder my novel, if preordering novels is something you’re apt to do. Or run out on Tuesday and buy it and also buy 20 copies for your friends!
Okay — now for the hastily written, under-considered added bonus content nugget — it’s something I’ve wanted to write on for a long time, and will likely/hopefully actually write on more in-depth eventually, but which I was reminded of weeks ago while watching the (very good, I thought) finale of The Last of Us.
Which is basically: What the hell is genre even for?
It seems fairly clear why we tell stories: For one, it’s a useful habit for helping us imaginatively navigate scenarios we might plausibly encounter. (The other, less prosaic and more poetic answer is that it makes us feel less alone. The axe for the frozen sea inside us etc.)
But how or why did we ever get in the habit of telling stories about weird bullshit that doesn’t exist? Like dragons? Or werewolves? Or fungal zombies? (Topical!) Or fallen dystopian versions of New York City?
Again, I guess the most obvious answer is that, well, once upon a time people thought these things maybe did exist. Or they saw phenomena in the real world (my sheep were mutilated in the night!) that needed explanations so they scrabbled some together (goddamned werewolves!).
These are questions that have, I’m sure, better answers than I can provide here, from more learned people than I. (And I hope you will share in the comments/email me/bombard me with examples — honestly!)
But I can tell you why I personally read — and, more pertinently, write — genre fiction, which typically includes fantastical circumstances I haven’t and likely never will encounter — whether it’s the aforementioned dystopian New York, or a memory-wiped penal colony or, most recently, a retreat to a mysterious marriage counseling program in the woods with brutal and bloody results. Like, what am I doing, exactly? What is anything of this good for?
This brings us back to the very good genre television show “The Last of Us.” Spoilers ahead? If you haven’t watched the show? Or played the game?
The final episode hinges on a terrible choice: The hero, Joel, learns that the young woman he’s been shepherding, Ellie, who likely holds the key to a biological inoculation from the fungal infection that has destroyed human civilization, will be undergoing an operation that a) might lead to a cure for all humanity but b) will very definitely leave her dead.
Except it isn’t really, not for Joel — who abruptly decides to save her, screw humanity, and also kill anyone who tries to stand in his way.
As an ethical scenario, it’s a thorny, intriguing one: Would you sacrifice your child (or someone you’d come to love like a child) to save humanity? If not, how far would you go to save the person you cared for?
It’s also a question firmly rooted in the real world, in that real people have real loved ones they might be called on to care for or protect. So why do we add all this extra stuff: fungal zombies and societal collapse and pow-pow and killing and boom-boom?
The answer, I think, helps to distill genre’s singular power. I’ve always felt a big part of the art of genre is taking a universal and recognizable emotional situation (e.g. protecting a child) and using an outsized, outrageous and fantastical scenario (e.g. protecting this child will spell doom for humanity) to explore it more fully.
The example I often use is the classic “we accidentally hit a drifter on the road and killed him and panicked and now we’ve buried his body in our backyard and we have a terrible secret” trope (evident in, among many other places, Creepshow 2.)
In reality, very few of us (I hope!) have hit drifters or anyone else on the road and buried their bodies in our yards. But many — maybe all — of us can relate to the notion of terrible secrets, or pivotal moments we regret, or the general sense of worry that we might be found out, in whatever that means to us.
If mimetic or realist fiction puts these kind of emotions under a microscope — often with devastating and illuminating results — I like to think that genre fiction holds them up to a funhouse mirror. It blows them up, twists them, and renders them gargantuan and grotesque — all of which allows us to see and feel and understand them in totally unanticipated ways.
This is why genre stories about stuff we’ll never encounter (this Transylvanian count is a bloodsucker) still resonant emotionally with us — often more so than realist stories exploring the same terrain.
More to come on this — and yet again I’ve blown way past my self-imposed word limit (apparently my self is not very imposing) — but I wanted to say hello and warn you all about my event and my book (!) and I hope you’ll keep this conversation going in the comments. And maybe in… Substack Notes? I haven’t yet cracked the nut on that one but I’m excited about it.
Yes, I've always believed that genre's real power is it captures the intensity of how strange and intense the world can *feel*, rather than attempting to necessarily capture how it *is.* But certainly this is a question with many answers.
I think that's really well said.
I feel like genre also adds an escapist element that helps capture the imagination. I could read a realist novel about regrets and probably get something meaningful out of it. But add a time-travel element and suddenly I'm more excited about the story, even though it's asking the same questions about wanting to change the past. Maybe that's the funhouse mirror effect you describe: sure, we all have these feelings, but what if we could actually do X, Y or Z?
Personally, the escapism element is often important. I get enough real life...well, in my real life. In a genre story, I can see things I haven't seen before. And exercise parts of my imagination that wouldn't otherwise be engaged.