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Evaporating Genres (2011) By Gary K. Wolfe – Jazz Age Criticism

March 16, 2011

There comes a point in most discussions when it becomes abundantly clear that all disagreements are disagreements of definition and that all of the arguments and denunciations that preceded this realisation were due to the fact that people were talking past each other. This realisation is pretty much endemic in the humanities because the humanities spend so much of their time discussing issues such as ‘justice’, ‘life’, ‘love’, ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the good’. During the twentieth century, analytical philosophy attempted to solve this problem by isolating what it was that we really meant when we talked about such things as ‘the good’ and ‘the beautiful’. Unfortunately, far from solving the problem of inconsistent definition, analytical philosophy’s increasingly technical and theoretically sophisticated conceptual analyses yielded nothing but yet another layer of inconsistently used terminology.

The problem is that, while intellectual transparency requires everyone to be using the same words to mean the same things at the same time, words seldom retain the same meanings for very long. There is no user’s permit for language and there is no centralised body that standardises language-use across all conversations and so words tend to lose and acquire meanings depending upon when it is they are used and who it is that is doing the using. Nowhere is the dynamic nature of language more evident than in discussions of genre.

While the label ‘genre’ carries the implication of hide-bound conservatism and intellectual timidity, the truth is that genre boundaries are in a constant state of flux: Each new work of genre fiction shifts the boundaries according to its author’s personal vision and each attempt, by critics, to locate a work within a certain genre will, again, shift the boundaries of the genre by a fraction of an inch. With hundreds of authors and thousands of critics, reviewers, encyclopaedists and bloggers all writing within and about the different genres, it makes no sense to try and pin down what constitutes science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, romance or the western. These words are constantly redefined, they never sit still long enough to acquire a single fixed meaning.

This explains why attempts to define what it is we mean when we say ‘science fiction’ have tended to result in definitions that are either demonstrably false, effectively circular, so abstract as to be functionally useless or so theoretically involved that they simply kick the problem of definition upstairs by invoking a whole new layer of jargon which itself requires a contested act of definition.

Gary K. Wolfe’s latest collection of essays entitled Evaporating Genre – Essays on Fantastic Literature constitutes a valiant attempt to move discussions of genre away from fruitless terminological noodling. Rather than trying to nail down a single crystalline and eternal definition of either science fiction, fantasy or horror, Wolfe paints a picture of a genre landscape in a constant state of creative flux and suggests some of the ways in which scholars, critics and fans might begin to write about something so protean that its very essence appears to be a lack of essence.


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Humanities scholarship tends to fall into three methodological categories with each category attracting its own set of concerns and its own types of personalities. Obviously, there is a good deal of overlap between these categories and decent scholars display a capacity for all three approaches but these categories do still possess their own distinctive methodological flavours:


The first category is historical – Historical scholars are big on names, dates, places and people and their contribution to a field is primarily that of being explorers. They chart out the boundaries of the field and describe its contents while constructive historical narratives that bind all the elements of the field together into certain broad patterns. B took place after A and then C happened for reason X.

The second category is theoretical – Theoretical scholars deal in abstract ideas, examining the ideas and arguments that go into building up the different patterns. They point out inconsistencies in argument, they iron out definitional problems and they unpack the heavier items of conceptual baggage in search of smaller elements that might be cast aside or woven into their own patterns within the field. A caused B and when we say ‘caused’ we mean X, Y and Z, which also feature in C, D and E.

The third category is textual – Textual scholars devote themselves to close inspections of the basic building blocks that make up the field. By describing and re-describing these basic elements, they hope to uncover new patterns by helping us to look at the same elements in different ways. We only think that A caused B because we did not realise that A was in fact C.


Each of these methodological approaches yields its own sort of scholarship and possesses its own aesthetic principles.  Indeed, grand historical narratives tend to rely upon both much looser definitions than theoretical works and a lower level of resolution and detailing than close textual analyses. Wolfe is best known within the genre community as the senior reviewer for Locus magazine and this position on the front lines of thinking about genre goes some way to explaining why it is that, despite being largely concerned with a theoretical issue (“the chronic instabilities of the fantastic genres” pp. vii), Wolfe chooses to explore this issue through narratives that link together stories, authors and novels to produce a series of elegantly compelling pictures of the recent history of genre.

Wolfe’s image of genre as eternally chaotic literary plasma is laid out over the course of the first three essays in the collection. “Malebolge, or the Ordenance of Genre” is a shambling assemblage of anecdotes, publishing histories and authorial name-dropping that serves to establish the instability of genre’s relationship with the mainstream of literary and publishing cultures. With a funny story here, an insightful comment there and a brief historical overview over there, Wolfe argues that the walls of the genre ghetto were always porous and their foundations were laid mostly in historical accident rather than in the more stable bedrock of differences in style, subject matter or form. The article concludes with one of Wolfe’s more useful additions to the field’s theoretical arsenal in the form of stories that, despite possessing no traditional genre elements, nonetheless yield themselves to genre readings in a more fruitful manner than they do to more traditional critical approaches. The “non-genre genre story” could not exist if genre boundaries existed. Having pointed out the cracks in the ghetto walls, Wolfe moves on to a more systematic survey. The collection’s eponymous essay “Evaporating Genres” examines the different ways in which different authors have moved between genres and sought to deploy techniques and concerns from one genre in the writing of another. It would be easy to suggest that this fondness for interstitial technique swapping might lead to the different genres losing their distinctive identities but Wolfe is quick to add that:


The writers who contribute to the evaporation of genre, who destabilize it by undermining our expectations and appropriating materials at will, with fiction shaped by individual vision rather than traditions or formulas, are the same writers who continually revitalize genre: A healthy genre, a healthy literature, is one at risk, one whose boundaries grow uncertain and whose foundations get wobbly. – Pp. 51


The reason for this aesthetic judgement is explained in the following essay entitled “Tales of Stasis and Chaos”. Easily the most political of the works in this collection, this essay embeds Wolfe’s preference for genre-destabilising works within a broader set of attitudes towards social change.

Science fiction likes to think of itself as being the literature of change; Of being future-oriented, open-minded and fearlessly progressive. But if this is the case then why do so many works of science fiction end with the joyous preservation of the status quo? Wolfe suggests that, despite protestations to the contrary, science fiction is identical to other genres in so far as it moves back and forth along a Moorcockian continuum from stasis to chaos:


Stasis, as a rule, is not a very attractive option for science-fictional worlds; it works against the central dynamic of the genre, which traditionally boasts of itself as the literature of change and dynamism. But chaos isn’t a very attractive option either, for a genre that often claims to champion order and rationality. In becomes incumbent, then, for writers to find ways to mediate between unity and multiplicity – Pp. 63


This process of mediation feeds the process of generic change. For example, this need for change pushed the crime genre from country house mysteries that treated murder as a unnatural incursion to police procedurals where crime, corruption and social unrest were utterly endemic. Similarly, the horror genre moved from treating vampires as hideous interlopers from the East in Dracula (1897) to having them form the backbone of intelligent life on Earth in novels such as I Am Legend (1954). Similarly, social pressures can also drive the pendulum in the opposite direction as post-apocalyptic literature becomes the story of normal lives being reclaimed from the savagery of an unsteady world while Connie Willis’ time-travel stories stress the deceptively immutable nature of history. While Wolfe hints that this pendulum swinging may be some reaction to external forces, he steadfastly refuses to lay down any theoretical ground rules that might help us to describe this process of generic churn. This could be seen as something of a missed opportunity.

Wolfe presents an idea that sparkles with an intense intuitive appeal and illustrates this through a series of historical narratives but by refusing to place the idea within a broader cultural or political context, Wolfe effectively limits its ability to address future developments in the evolution of genre. Is the current popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction a response to the chaos of the world and if it is then how do works that refuse their characters the consolation of stability – such as The Windup Girl (2009) — fit into the picture? Is crime due for a return to the country house mystery? Are the tamed vampires of the paranormal romance genre a continuation of Matheson’s celebration of chaos or a retreat into a tidy world where even bloodsuckers can be tamed by true love and a handily inserted soul? It is in asking these questions that the limitations of Evaporating Genres are most evident.

Wolfe is an able theorist but his heart belongs to history. His true talent lies not in wrangling big ideas but in sketching patterns in the history of genre that seem so compelling and so elegant that one cannot help but be charmed by them. However, the problem with neat historical narratives is that they tend to leave out a lot of history. Evaporating Genres returns again and again to certain key events and key figures in the history of genre that illustrate Wolfe’s ideas but the relative shallowness of Wolfe’s data pool only invites people to pick holes in his narrative: What about writer X? What about story Y? What about sub-genre Z? This problem is largely due to a tension between Wolfe’s message and his methods.

Evaporating Genres is a collection devoted to undermining the idea of fixed genre boundaries meaning that Wolfe is effectively trying to solve a question of theoretical value (i.e. how useful are fixed conceptions of genre in describing contemporary genre fiction) by appealing to matters of historical fact (i.e. which stories appeared in which venues, by which writers and who influenced what). However, the construction of new historical narratives emphasising flexible genre boundaries in no way serves to invalidate or undermine more traditional whiggish histories of genre. Indeed, the very act of constructing neat historical narratives seems to militate against Wolfe’s vision of genre as a riot of ceaseless change and re-invention.

This tension hangs in the air as, having laid its theoretical foundations, the collection moves on to a series of very impressive and engaging case studies dealing with specific genre tropes (frontiers, artefacts and the apocalypse) and a specific author (noted Horror writer Peter Straub) before launching into a profoundly paradoxical attempt to nail down some of the characteristics that bind together works of so-called interstitial or slipstream fiction. Indeed, it is in this attempt to ‘define’ a genre of stories that exist between genres that the tension between Wolfe’s message and his methods becomes almost too much to bear. However, just as the storm clouds gather and begin to black out the sun, a shard of light illuminates the land:


The new aesthetic is based less in a rejection of earlier forms than in a celebration of them, what Jonathan Lethem calls the ecstasy of influence – a willingness to borrow tropes, language, techniques from almost anywhere – genre fiction, literary modernism, popular culture, avant-garde experimentalism, fable and folklore, as well as from alternate modes such as music, film, theatre, so-called “outsider art,” graphic novels, painting, or photography – ad to incorporate them into an eclectic new mode that quite rightly resists labeling and libeling. This is why we’re simply calling them twenty-first century stories, rather than something post-tacular and meta-tastic – although we were at times reminded of a line from rapper M.C. Lars, himself an exemplar of a recombinant movement known as nerdcore hiphop: “Did I say postmodern? That was a lie! I’ve been post-postmodern since junior high!” – Pp. 185


One of the major themes in Evaporating Genres is a sense of frustration with the theoretical proclivities of mainstream academic literary criticism. At one point, Wolfe reacts with amused horror to a graduate student’s proud admission that she now spends so much of her time reading theoretical works that she no longer keeps up with the literary field she researched for her PhD. This same sense of frustration and desire for different approaches and perspectives fuels the collection’s final essay “Pilgrims of the Fall”, a celebration of John Clute’s interstitial (i.e. neither fannish nor academic) criticism:


At the risk of unmasking the deep sentiment that underlies Clute’s most consistent positions, the dialogue between Story and critic, critic and world, Story and world, is a dialogue of healing and belief. It’s a dialogue that ties literary criticism directly to the actual world of readers, that welcomes the participation of all the multiple communities we have been discussing, that incorporates and preserves the discoveries and inventions of all those earlier pilgrims. – Pp. 213


In these two quotations we find the “deep sentiment” of Evaporating Genres and a statement of Wolfe’s approach to criticism. Wolfe never tries to fit his protean image of genre into a wider cultural context because a genre that evolves in a predictable manner in response to identifiable cultural pressures is no longer inherently chaotic. In order for genre developments to become predictable, genre must first be tamed and the idea of a tamed genre is profoundly at odds with Wolfe’s polysemic leanings. Indeed, the philosophical tension between Wolfe’s message and methods dissipates once you realise that his protean image of genre also extends to the writing of genre criticism.


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In his ground-breaking work on prehistoric fiction The Fire in the Stone (2009), Nicholas Ruddick uses the term ‘Hominization’ to refer to the process of using speculative fictional writings about human origins to reclaim certain characteristics as central to human nature. For example, by having us empathise with the peace-loving Neanderthals rather than the ruthless humans in The Inheritors (1955), William Golding effectively reclaims the Neanderthals as a part of the human family and, in so doing, stresses the centrality of pacifism to the human condition at the expense of psychopathic ruthlessness. Ruddick’s vision of prehistoric fiction is of a speculative sandbox where people can construct their own creation myths, legitimising their identities with their own made up histories.  This vision of a polysemic speculative history maps quite neatly onto Wolfe’s historical narratives. Indeed, when Wolfe constructs a history of the horror genre that emphasises Peter Straub at the expense of H.P. Lovecraft, he is not so much describing objective historical fact as he is constructing a speculative creation myth that ‘hominizes’ and reclaims a flexible conception of the horror genre as an alternative to the more traditional and whiggish histories of horror that emphasise one particular set of tropes leading to a fixed conception of what is and is not a work of horror. For Wolfe, genre is constantly evolving and part of that evolutionary process is the fact that different writers, critics and fans all engage with the genre from different angles and perspectives. There can be no necessary and sufficient conditions for science fiction because we all approach the field with our own creation myths and our own understandings of what constitutes genre. Genre is dynamic because language is dynamic and language is dynamic because meanings never stay put for long.


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Reading Evaporating Genres, I was reminded of the weekly podcast that Wolfe puts out with his editor at Locus Jonathan Strahan. While the podcast has now been running for close to a year, some of its early motifs were Jazz music and the idea that there was no such thing as a canonical ‘Must Read’ list of books in the field of speculative fiction. These motifs bring to mind the essay “The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science” from David Stove’s collection The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991).  In this essay, Stove attempts to account for the work of Karl Popper in terms of a Jazz age reaction to the stifling and regimented atmosphere of Victorian culture:


A sensation of darkness, stillness, enclosure, and, above all, of weight or pressure: some indefinite but massive incubus is pressing down on us, and we are about to suffocate. ‘For God’s sake let the air in and me out!’, is the most prominent element in the sufferer’s reaction. Many of us, of course, feel this kind of horror concerning ‘relics’ of any period, and of any kind, at least after a little while. Even this is a very recent thing, and largely confined to the West even so. Medieval pilgrims underwent untold hardships in order to visit religious relics (Jesus’s foreskin, luckily preserved at five different places, etc. etc.), which most modern men would pay to avoid visiting even, or rather especially, if they believed the relics to be genuine. It is no different with secular relics: many of us cannot look at such things for long without stifling. ‘These people are all dead!’ is our strangled cry. ‘Let the dead bury their dead: I have a life to live!’ – Pp. 21


Indeed, many critical writings about genre (particularly of the academic persuasion) seem designed to provoke a similar sense of suffocation in anyone new to the field. Asimov and Heinlein are dust in the ground and yet their ghosts continue to haunt popular conceptions of what does and does not constitute science fiction.  Similarly, it is shocking to see how many academic papers continue to mention William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1986) and the cyberpunk movement as examples of what is going on in contemporary science fiction.  As an academic who has chosen to retain a position as a reviewer of new works, Wolfe is acutely aware of the changing nature of genre: Every year, new blood is pumped into the genre by fresh readers, writers and critics and each of these new participants in the great conversation of genre carries with them their own understanding of what does and does not constitute science fiction and their own personal set of reference points and canonical works. To these new readers and writers, fixed boundaries and genre-defining works cannot help but feel like an intolerable burden: Heinlein? Asimov? Wells? Verne? Ellison? Let the dead bury their dead: I have books to read, games to play and films to watch! By arguing for a conception of genre that emphasises chaos at the expense of stasis, Wolfe is championing not only those works that challenge genre boundaries but also forms of critical engagement with genre that move beyond both traditional taxonomy and theoretical postmodernity and towards personalised understandings and individualised histories.

Evaporating Genres is not only a warm, witty, beautifully written and genuinely insightful collection of essays, it is also a quietly revolutionary piece of methodological advocacy that urges its readers to open their minds and their hearts to the chaos at the heart of genre. Let the dead bury their dead.


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