The Gentrification of Genre, Part Two

Revenge of the GenresAs I mentioned in a previous post, I’m trying something new with this blog over the next few months. I’m incorporating it into my fourth-year seminar, which is to say I’ll be posting on about a weekly basis on the texts and subjects we cover. The idea is to use it as a jumping-off point for class discussion, as a substitute for me lecturing in class. The idea is I’ll post on Sundays—and hopefully at some points mid-week—raising issues and questions about the texts we’re covering. I joked in our first class today that I’ve never gotten around to writing a textbook that I can force my students to buy, so I’ll have to settle for artificially inflating my blog readership.

In seriousness, though, some of my favourite blog posts have been ones tied to my teaching—most specifically, my Lord of the Rings class. Given that I am hugely excited about this fourth-year seminar, as I described it in my previous post, I’m hoping for a similarly fruitful cluster of posts.

Also, hopefully this just forces me to blog more, and make up for the wasteland of the past year.

So without further ado … at least the first part of this post was my introductory lecture. I apologize (especially to my students, who are obliged to read this) for this post’s rambling quality—it went on rather longer than I had planned.

 

Genre’s Fluidity

My name is Christopher Lockett, and I am a huge nerd.

This should come as a great galloping shock to precisely no one, as the Venn diagram of academics and nerds has a significant overlap to start with. You kind of have to be a nerd to subject yourself to the kind of obsessive studying and research we bring to our different fields.

But several months ago I was sitting in my campus office, lost in thought, when I suddenly realized just how much geek paraphernalia I had accumulated. I have:

  • A mug with the TARDIS on it.
  • A weeping angel, on my desk facing where students sit (just to freak out the ones who know what weeping angels are).
  • A magnet featuring Dr. Seuss’ Whos from Whoville dressed up as the twelve doctors (thirteen including the War Doctor), holding hands and singing in circle around the TARDIS.
  • A Buffy the Vampire Slayer lunch box.
  • A little Tyrion Lannister figurine.
  • A White Walker figurine.
  • A map of Westeros rendered as a subway map.
  • An as-yet to be assembled cutout paper doll of Inigo Montoya.
  • An old Lord of the Rings
  • An old Discworld calendar.
  • A Ranma ½
  • And my prize possession, a large and handsomely framed map of the Shire, which hangs over my writing desk.

This list of course does not include the numerous works of SF/F littering my bookshelves, some of which I’ve actually taught.

tyrion-et_al

A Lannister never blinks.

I offer all this by way of introduction, because it seems the best way to establish how we’re defining “genre” for this course. There are literally hundreds of books and essays that have been written theorizing the question of genre, a not-insignificant portion of which deal with film studies. Much of this body of work is often quite fascinating, and consider the ways in which genres tend to be provisional categories, given to promiscuous overlap, borrowing, and frequent reinvention. We’ll certainly be talking about overlaps and borrowing as we go on.

Another approach to genre, however, is the one that draws a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, and which tends to sniff at works of “genre” as formulaic and derivative, inferior to works of serious art and literature. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson likened the emergence and evolution of genres to the process of sedimentation. All genres, he argues, begin as genuinely revolutionary and subversive new forms of expression. At these early stages they are not genres per se—genre comes about through repetition, as subsequent writers and artists imitate and reiterate the key elements of the original texts, with necessarily less originality and imagination than before. The process, Jameson suggests, is like the laying down of layer after layer of silt, until the form calcifies into something rigid that lacks the revolutionary quality of its earlier incarnations.

As analogies go, this is a pretty good one, and quite useful: we can think of a host of examples, such as the way the revolutionary energies of Romantic poetry ossified into the rigid banalities of late Victorian verse. For some time now, I have been nibbling around the edges of an essay on the way in which Romantic tropes and preoccupations find themselves similarly ossified in The Lord of the Rings, but also the way in which LotR then effectively invents the genre of fantasy as we know it. (Really, the main reason I want to write this essay is so I can title it “Romantic Sediments”).

Jameson’s metaphor has limited applicability, however, once we start to think of genre in the former manner, as provisional and fluid. Like Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, it provides a useful rubric that breaks down once you stop thinking in terms of linear progression. If we begin and end with the figuration of sedimentation, it doesn’t really allow for what we see all the time, these days—namely, the reinvigoration of rigid formulae, and the popular elevation of genre texts out of the basements of disdain, and into serious consideration, academic and otherwise.

Bloom’s theory of influence is instructive in this respect, as in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading (and more cantankerously in The Western Canon), Bloom posits a strictly lineal progression in which authors of “genius” struggle with their precursors and produce work that reproduces and revises key elements, but in wholly original and creative ways. The cliché example is John Milton agonizing over Shakespeare’s genius, appropriating the qualities of his great villains (Richard III, Iago, Edmund), and through the alchemy of his own genius producing the Satan of Paradise Lost.

Like Jameson’s sedimentation metaphor, this model is useful but limited, and we can probably easily rattle off a dozen authors and the ways in which they were profoundly influenced by writers of genius who preceded them. It probably goes without saying, however, that Bloom’s model endorses not just the principle of literary canon, but a particular exclusivity in the “genius” club, one that tends to favour white dudes, or when it lets in women or people of colour, it’s because they imbibed the lessons of white dudes of genius (hence, Toni Morrison, in a Bloomian estimation, can credit her own genius to the influence of William Faulkner, as much as anything else).

It doesn’t take too much effort to break down Bloom’s patrilineal Descent of Literature and point out that while great (and not so great) authors have always been influenced by prior Great Writing, they have also been influenced by a host of other societal, cultural, and historical factors: James Joyce might have set himself the lofty task of forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but Ulysses (which is honestly one of the funniest novels ever written, if you read it closely) is peppered with the equivalent of pop songs and contemporary trivia; his protégé Samuel Beckett incorporated vaudeville and music-hall acts into his plays; Charles Dickens was the original SJW; and Shakespeare? Don’t get me started on Shakespeare. Dude was a veritable sponge, sopping up literally everything, and was less concerned with besting Marlowe and Jonson than making a buck.

All of which reaches a certain critical mass in the second half of the twentieth century, as the media and communication revolution amplified these cultural vagaries by way of radio, television, cinema, and so forth. While there are still any number of prominent authors who wear their literary influences proudly—and sometimes defiantly—on their sleeves, and openly disdain our variegated media (Jonathan Franzen, I’m looking at you), many others enthusiastically mix and match the popular culture they grew up with into their writing. Insofar as we can establish a canon of postmodernist fiction, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow has to be on that list—a novel that, as the saying goes, “contains multitudes,” but is as influenced by classic cinema as by any literary traditions. Another canonical pomo dude is Don DeLillo, whose eminently “literary” novels have more to do with advertising and popular culture than literature.

The second text we’re doing on this course is Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is as “literary” as a contemporary novelist comes these days, celebrated by the New Yorker set for The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor (among others)—exquisitely written novels that deal with race and blackness in America in subtle and nuanced ways. And then comes Zone One, a zombie apocalypse novel. In an interview with The Atlantic, he says that he grew up “devouring horror comics and novels, and being inspired to become a writer because of horror novels, movies, and comic books.” The advent of the VCR, he says, had a profound influence in him in this respect:

[J]unior high, for me, was the rise of all kinds of horror movies, whether it was splatter flicks like Prom Night and other Jamie Lee Curtis classics, or Dario Argento, or John Carpenter. In ’82 and ’83, that was the rise of the VCR. Every Friday, my brother and I would go to Crazy Eddie’s—which was a video store in Manhattan—and rent five horror movies. And that’s basically what we did basically for three years.

Whatever his early fictional forays, he says, “I always knew I was going to write a horror novel.”

The openness to genre fiction and genre forms has been slowly spreading through the liberal arts in the academy by way of a similar generational shift, as scholars reared on the same kind of media and popular culture as described by Whitehead—such as myself, but also like almost every single one of my colleagues in my age range—fill jobs vacated by retirees of more traditional ilk. I work in a department in which, forty years ago, “Canadian Literature” was considered an oxymoron; in my eleven years here, I have taught courses on film, television studies, fantasy and science fiction, The Lord of the Rings … and this course, which in some ways is very much the product of all the preceding ones. We’ve come a long way.

(This is what I remind myself whenever I’m feeling hard done by or irritated by work frustrations. I really do have the best job).

 

New Kids on the Block

All of which is a long and circuitous way of coming around to this post’s main point, which is to explicate what I mean by my title: the “gentrification of genre.” It’s an expression I use advisedly, in all of its freighted connotations. Several years ago I wrote a short piece about The Walking Dead and the irony that the zombie genre, so long relegated to the B-movie ghetto, had emerged into mainstream recognition by way of a medium, television, that had for the better part of its existence been the embodiment of lowbrow culture. I titled the piece “Zombie Gentrification,” without much thought to the term’s broader implications. In the time leading up to this course, I have found myself circling back around the word, thinking through the ways in which it is appropriate to my approaches to the course material.

On one hand, the term implies or entails rejuvenation—the “fixing up” of heretofore marginalized properties, imbuing them with “quality” and making them attractive to more upscale audiences. On the other hand, gentrification also tends to entail erasure—erasure of that which had given certain properties a unique or idiosyncratic character, chasing out those who had inhabited them and alienating those who had loved the properties not in spite of but for their decrepit glories.

(I should add as a caveat the limitations of this metaphor. The “neighbourhoods” of genre and fan culture are virtual, imaginary spaces, and never actually go away: whatever the contemporary landscape of, say, zombie apocalypse stories looks like, the widespread appeal of something like The Walking Dead does not erase the schlocky glory days of B-movie zombie films in the same way the influx of Silicon Valley capital has overwritten entire communities in San Francisco.)

The mainstreaming of genre has tended to entail this sort of “upscaling.” There was an ad in The New Yorker in its December 2007 issue, heralding the fifth and final season of The Wire, which was basically a Q&A with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. In it, Kushner gushes over how much he loves The Wire, and how the series is “a great work of art.” Whenever I’ve taught television studies, I’ve started by showing students this ad: it is such a perfect example of HBO going out of its way to give highbrow audiences leave to unapologetically watch television. The creator of Angels in America thinks The Wire is great art? Sign me up!

kushner-wire-ad

The Wire, of course, was just one among many of the new crop of television series that brought the “prestige” to prestige television: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black—many shows of which, not incidentally, reinvented generic conventions. But while television entered its renaissance, genre was having a heyday in other media: the Marvel comics universe vaulting to cinematic blockbusters, the already-mentioned mainstreaming of the living dead, and of course the academic attention being paid to everything from comic books to the oeuvre of Joss Whedon.

Genre has become big business, with more money at stake than ever before, but this gentrification has had a not dissimilar effect to that of urban areas—that is to say, the previous inhabitants are not always keen on the newcomers, and question the authenticity of their fandom. This tendency has been most glaringly on display over the past few years with the Hugo awards. I posted a little over a year ago about the efforts of a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies to “reclaim” the Hugo Awards—which are awarded based on popular votes rather than the decisions of a committee of experts or luminaries—from what they perceived as the encroachments of “literary” and politically correct authors, whom they charge with the slow murder of “old-fashioned” SF/F. The Hugos are ground zero for them specifically because they are given based on the voices of fans, members of Worldcon who nominate and then vote. Given that the Hugos were established to give voice to populist tastes rather than literary pretensions, they should reflect that and privilege unreconstructed space opera, adventuresome fantasy, gritty space marines, and the like. Puppy co-founder Brad Torgersen offers a eulogy for the days when you could still judge a books by its cover:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

Given that I’ve already offered a lengthy and pointed critique of Torgersen’s argument, I won’t rehash it here other than to reiterate a point I made a year ago: whatever else the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and #Gamergate types claim—whether they’re ostensibly worried about listening to the voices of populism or concerned about ethics in gaming journalism—there is a definitive whiff of resentment at girls entering the treehouse and new kids moving into a neighbourhood that used to be exclusively theirs.

The opening up of genre and the mainstreaming of what used to be fan enclaves is, to my mind, a net positive: it facilitates a lot of creativity and inventiveness, producing many of the sort of texts that are on my course reading list. It also offers a great opportunity to further crack open the carapace of our “literary” designations and think around the ways in which genre itself becomes not just a signifier but a vessel of critique.

But in the process, the neighbourhood’s gonna look a lot different than it used to.

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