Ever since I made a conscious decision to start reading more widely, I’ve found that my definitions of genre have been shifting. To lapse briefly into metaphor, my earliest reading habits were like a stream of water that gradually wore a riverbed in the earth; but as I became more rigid in these choices, forcing myself to stick to what was known rather than breaking new ground, the flow of water lessened, confined to a muddy rut. The decision to read new things was like a drought breaking: since then, the river has been in spate, surpassing all previous limits. Which is actually a longer sort of metaphor than I’d intended, but the point is this: that the more I read across various genres, the harder it is to view them as being wholly separate, unconnected entities.
Right now, I’m fascinated by the crossover between mainstream literary novels and SFF. Several times recently, I’ve picked out popular fiction works and been surprised to discover their reliance on magic and SF elements. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing. But it makes me wonder: why are these books classed as fiction, when their content is clearly fantastic? I feel like we’re missing an important taxonomy here, one that might seriously help ease the debate about Literary Fiction vs Genre – the categorical equivalent of a Missing Link. Having read The Tiger’s Wife and Chocolat in quick succession, for instance, it strikes me that in both cases, the presence of magic is simultaneously incidental and integral: incidental, in that neither story is interested in expounding on how and why it actually works; yet integral, because the emotional crux of both narratives hinges on its ability to touch ordinary lives, thereby transforming the characters and generating the plot. The same is equally true of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, two of which books, in addition to Chocolat, have been turned into movies. In each of these stories, a real-world plot with a deep investment in the emotional lives of its characters has been facilitated by a fantastic premise, respectively a deathless man, a chocolate-making witch, a genetic time traveler, a persistent ghost and a girl who narrates her previous life from heaven – and yet, they’re not quite SFF, either.
What makes such stories different? Why is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist, despite its openly fantastic blurb, shelved with fiction, while Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, despite its similar themes of family, loneliness and love, put in with SFF? What about Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus: A Novel, which has all the conventions and impossible whimsy of a fairy tale? Were YA genre novels consistently separated from their fictional fellows, one suspects that This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall would pose a similar problem to would-be pigeonholers. And yet, the more I consider such books collectively, the more it feels like they’re all of a kind – neither fiction nor SFF, but something distinct and beautiful by itself. Whatever we might term this hypothetical section of the bookshop, it wouldn’t lack for content. Taking the incidental/integral balance described above and rendering it in language more familiar to SFF discussions, what distinguishes these books from other genre titles is their disinterest in worldbuilding. By which I mean: creating a secondary, hidden layer to the everyday world – or, as in the case of Yu’s work, speculating about a not-too-distant future – is less important than the emotional development these scenarios afford. (I’m being particularly tentative about Yu’s inclusion on this list, not just because his work is shelved in SFF, but because it’s the only novel mentioned here not set in the current Real World. Nonetheless, I think it fits.) What separates them from straight fiction is the inclusion of unreality.
Despite their SFF elements, these novels are concerned almost wholly with traversing internal, emotional landscapes – the magic is there to facilitate these journeys, but stops short of being a journey in itself. This is not a bad thing, the way it might be for a poorly written genre novel, because the story is meant to stop short. Asking questions to which deeper worldbuilding might provide an answer – Why does Vianne have magic? Where does the deathless man come from? What makes Wolfboy howl? – would only detract from the rhythms of the narrative proper. Magic here is at its purest form, resulting from the perennial what if of human imagination and leading to stories which are essentially folkloric in nature. Just as a child reading Rapunzel has no need to ask how a princess’s tears can cure blindness, so does an adult reading Of Bees and Mist have no need to wonder why Meridia’s childhood home is full of sentient fog. Asking is not the point; the people – and their situations – are.
Am I on the right track, here? If so, what might we call this nameless story-genre? If not, why? Do you agree or disagree with the books I’ve mentioned? Do you have some recommendations of your own? Come on, internets – inquiring minds must know!