Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Categorically Speaking

genre--the various categories of fiction; specific niche fiction shelving in bookstores and libraries; a system for classifying types of fiction; defining characteristics of a particular type of fiction.

Readers approach fiction variously for escape, entertainment, inspiration, distraction, and other similar mind- and spirit-enriching reasons. The common denominator for all readers is the understanding that the characters and situations are invented, products of a writer's imagination. This common denominator extends to include the Reader's First Expectation, to wit that the reader will be given sufficient reasons to suspend disbelief, in other words to forget that the characters and situations are unreal, thereupon to consider them as though they were real and accordingly to empathize with them.

The Reader's Second Expectation is that the specific categories or genera will contain but not necessarily be limited to specific circumstances,complications, conditions, emphasis focus, and formulas.

Here are some of the more prevalent fiction genera and what readers expect from them:

Adventure: novels and stories about individuals at accelerated risk and danger.

Chick Lit: young women protagonists, confronting sexuality, shopping, romance, careers, friendship.

Chivalric Romance: men on horses fighting dragons, wicked royalty, and their own sexual urges as they pursue Ms. Right.

Comic Novel: Imagine Ivanhoe of chivalric romance fame, riding off into the sunset with Rebbecca on his horse instead of Rowena. Imagine also Chris Buckley, thanking us for smoking, or that other Chris, Chris Moore, in everything he writes.Imagine satire as a subgenre, in which case you'd have to consider Joe Heller's Catch-22 as an icon.

Crime Novel: one or more murders have been or will be committed,now someone has to find out who and why. The "someone" occasions subgenera such as private investigators, sworn police officers, little old ladies, large young ladies, park rangers, process servers, innocent civilians, etc.

Erotic Literature: Individuals of both genders attempting to get laid with a modicum of originality, told in evocative prose.

Fables, Fairy Tales, and Folklore: Since neither the reader nor writer believe the individuals in these narratives actually existed, the overall tone and payoff must offer the reader something, perhaps a moral or an insight or even a laugh, to repay the time put forth reading them.

Historical Fiction: stories set in a particular period in time, reflecting the details, manners, and customs of that time. These may actually include actual historical personages, either as protagonists or cameo roles.

Literary Fiction: novels and stories having to do with moral choices, philosophical issues, mankind as a species adapting to the social and ethical challenges that confront it.

Picaresque: a more-episodic-than-plotted novel in which a rogue, scoundrel, con-person, deluded or intelligence-challenged person sets forth on a mission (which is usually to seek a fortune, his own or someone else's). You could consider James Leo Herlihy's Midnight Cowboy in this category.

Political Novel: a novel in which one or more of the major players is a politician or is a close-at-hand observer watching politicians as they behave. George Orwell's 1984 is political as well as speculative and cautionary, demonstrating yet other genera. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is political as well as biographical. Allan Drury's Advise and Consent takes its title from the U.S. Constitution and involves a number of U.S. Senators in action.

Romance Novel: a youngish woman who is often more attractive then she realizes is forced to make romantic choices.
Speculative Fiction: a novel or story that portrays an if-things-continue-the-way-they're-going scenario; Utopian or dystopian views of as yet unrealized outcomes. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell's 1984, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America are speculative; so is Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land and, indeed, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Alternate History: stories and novels that rewrite actual history, then improvise on what the result might bring. See Len Deighton's SS/GB, and Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee in which, respectively, Germany won World War II, and the Confederate States of America won the U.S. war between the states.

Fantasy: stories and novels in which magic is a key element. These narratives may also involve alternate universes which are accessed through such a portal as the rabbit hole into which young Alice fell. A subgenera of fantasy has one or more individuals being transformed by magic into an other-than-human form. Yet another subgenera involves a quest for an object which is the power source of magic, such as the sword which only Arthur can withdraw from the stone in which it was embedded.

Horror: The writer's intent is to portray events that will seriously frighten the reader. See Stephen King for any number of role models.

Science Fiction: an extrapolation on actual scientific reality, extended to expand the dramatic, emotional, and moral landscape in the world as we know it or in imaginary worlds where most of the conditions we recognize exist in some modified form. Science fiction may use either the "hard" sciences such as chemistry, geology, or astronomy, or extrapolate on the so-called social sciences ranging from anthropology to political science.

Thriller: the clock is ticking, the metronome is hurrying the pace along, and the good guys are in, seemingly over their heads, in a mismatch against a hugely powerful opponent, while the risk to the protagonists increases.

Conspiracy Fiction: "they," whoever they may be, are against "us," whoever we may be in a paranoid scenario come to life. See Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate as a prime example, but see also the screen version of The Verdict, David Mamet's screenplay adaptation of Barry Reed' s novel in which a down-at-the heels lawyer, superbly played by Paul Newman, goes up against a particular "them," not to forget where it all began in Erskine Childers' still compelling The Riddle of the Sands, followed by Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear. Lest the genre sound too pulpy, consider Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Umberto Eco's brilliant spoof, Faucault's Pendulum, by way of injecting literary tropes into the text.

Legal Thriller: bright young attorney goes up against prestigious firms with unlimited resources to tip the scales of justice in favor of an underdog client; fading, possibly alcoholic attorney scores a courtroom triumph, once again proving that justice will out. The deck in legal thrillers is always stacked against the good guys.

Psychological Thriller: Is the narrator psychotic or merely naive? Are the inmates running the asylum? Will the bright young psychiatrist break through the catatonic seizures of the targeted character? What about Richard Powers' penetrating dive into what an ego actually is, via The Echo Maker? If ever there were a rich example of a genre, both literary and thrilling in its implications, this is it. Unless, of course, you wish to consult Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, in which the private eye genre and the psychological thriller meet up in a back alley somewhere. The protagonist in Motherless Brooklyn is a PI who is afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a fact that may or may not trump Powers' protagonist, who is diagnosed with the Capgrass Syndrome.

Spy Fiction: Is it really espionage if you give vital information to a friend or worthwhile cause and are not paid for it? Are there moral justifications for spying? Suppose you are a spy for a cause you are willing to risk your life for as in, say, Graham Green's The Confidential Agent? Whatever your answers, readers of spy fiction are alert for betrayals, double-dealing, and covert operatives being lured into death traps, sometimes by alluring ladies wearing tightly belted trench coats, but sometimes by alluring young ladies wearing nothing at all. Any of the novels by Eric Ambler or John LeCarre will set the bar of performance at an appropriate level.

Tragedy: Back in the day,when Aristotle was alive to write about tragedy, the genre signaled the fall from grace or power of a member of the nobility; it might even mean the tumble from power of an entire family. Now tragedy has become democratized, Death of a Salesman earns its way in the front door, so too do the likes of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the venture into tragedy inspired by the plight of Hester Prynne, Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Thomas Hardy's novels, particularly Tess, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge portray wrenching, tragic events which not only illustrate their own circumstances but remind readers how close at hand the prospect of tragedy is in their own life. Theodore Dreiser was well aware of the implications of his An American Tragedy, wanting to earn recognition as the American, middle- and working-class Henry James. If tragedy is not paced properly, that is to say, if it is speeded up, it tips over into the realm of comedy. Comedy is tragedy on steroids.

Western: first things first; a Western is a historical action novel, set in the American frontier some time after 1840. Some of its many potential themes are well dramatized in Jack Shaefer's magnificent Monte Walsh, which is an episodic, semi-picaresque growing up and aging of a cowboy. Other Western themes: Cows vs. sheep; ranches vs. farms; cowboys and Indians; Indians and the cavalry; the coming of the railroad: free range vs. barbed wire; cattle drives. Western writers to study for imaginative ways out of the conventional themes include Dorothy Johnson, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry (particularly Horsemen Pass By and, later, Lonesome Dove), Mari Sandoz, and Wallace Stegner. In particular, the McMurtry Horsemen is a demonstration that the history of the West is still very much taking place now, involving some of the very issues with which it began its life under the hands of Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Gray's epic, written in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage.










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