Friday, September 3, 2010

Mythic Structure :: In a World Without Genre

Genre has its place.  Certainly most readers see a long walk between Tolkien's war of the ring and Tom Clancy's war of the submarine.  Anything thing we can do to help a customer who loves one or more of those find others like it is a good thing.

The other day I implied that genre differences were almost entirely marketing.  I don't want to leave the impression that I think marketing books is a bad thing.  Genre is in the strictest sense, mostly about marketing.  Guiding a customer from the front door of a bookstore (remember those?) to the section most likely to hold books they would be interested in is marketing.  In my view, it is marketing of a mostly innocuous and helpful kind but marketing nonetheless.

Discover new authors + buy new books = happy readers, authors, booksellers & publishers.

Certainly my frequent assertion that bookstores should have a fiction section and a non-fiction section, alphabetized by author from A-to-Z never met with much success in my bookstore days.

Nevertheless, the distinction between the stories I mentioned is largely a matter of setting and macguffins.  The edges of the genres are much fuzzier than most devotees like to think.

JRR Tolkien was writing a war novel blended with a quest to end the war.  Reams of paper has been spilled drawing parallels between the War of the Ring and WWII, the One Ring being the Manhattan Project, etcetera.  Professor Tolkien denied any correlation, but it doesn't matter whether there was or not.  I have an edition of War & Peace featuring a forward that does exactly the same thing with Tolstoy's tale of the Napoleanic wars.  It doesn't matter that Tolstoy would be as surprised and annoyed as Tolkien was by the connecting lines that were being drawn from their tale to world events, the meaning of a story is in the mind of the reader.

Take almost any hero of almost any novel or story that actually resonates with readers (reflected by its success) and you'll find more commonalities than differences.  Change the age or gender of the characters and in strictest terms, there's very little to distinguish Tom Clancy's character Jack Ryan from Ernest Hemingway's Robert Jordan or JRR Tolkien's Aragorn, JK Rowling's Harry Potter or even Charles Dickens's Daid Copperfield and Lois McMaster Bujold's diminutive space admiral Miles Vorkosigan.  Heroes carry a universal tie that transcends genre.  Add just about any great literary hero to that list and you're going to find that they follow essentially the same path, crafted to fit their specific circumstances.

It's possible to write a great book completely ignorant of the universal thematic elements you are employing. The very nature of universal themes is that they are encoded into our collective subconscious.  How much easier would it be to do, though, if you know what you're about?  (JK Rowling has a BA in Classics from Exeter, you bet your sweet bippy she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote Harry Potter.)

Readers frequently deny this, but any author striving to create characters and explore themes that will stand the test of time won't get far denying it.  If you don't believe me, read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Or if you prefer, there's a superb re-treatment of Campbell's lessons aimed directly at writers called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.  One or both books should be on your shelf (or in your e-reader if you're so inclined).

It's pleasant to think that it's also true in terms of storytelling, stretching much further back into the history of words exchanged around a campfire, an unbroken line from Gilgamesh to Odysseus to Frodo Baggins and beyond.  But how does all of this tie to genre?

I posit that the lines dividing genre are being slowly eroded by electronic bookselling.  Just as there are tags at the bottom of every post on this blog that you can use to explore by theme, so too are books in online bookstores drawn together by thematic tagging.  No longer are you confined to a bookstore shelf holding only the books in your chosen genre, books are linked across the spectrum irrespective of genre distinctions.  Harry Potter is likely to turn up as "You Might Also Like" in a search for David Copperfield because both feature orphan heroes.  In a bookstore an adroit bookseller might know to make that suggestion, but such booksellers are getting fewer and farther between.

If you are unaware of your structure and thematic elements in your writing, then in a world where the reader isn't standing in front of a shelf surrounded by only books by you and people who write just like you, then you're drawing random cards in hopes of getting a royal flush (or at least a straight).  Personally, I prefer to stack the deck any way I can.

It's not the first time I've said it nor the first time it has been said: Writing is an industry that has - more than any other - remained virtually untouched by the last 500+ years of technological advancement.  Usually I say that in relation to the shockwaves still rocking the industry as they try to adjust to the idea of text on a screen instead of ink on a page.  This too is a change that will take a long time to get used to and benefit best those who address it first and those who are aware of it earliest.  I am tempted to trumpet it as the ultimate triumph of the storytelling form, millennia of storytellers who spoke tales to the heart, not the marketplace -- the marketplace coming back around to meet the storyteller rather than the other way around... but that might be too much to say too soon.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome this much I know is true: In a world of bookstores without bookshelves, being ignorant of your thematic ties to other books in other genres is well nigh suicide.

Edit: Repaired some wonky formatting (gosh, thanks Blogger) and retooled that final paragraph where I wandered a bit.  -Scott

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).