Receptive and Non-Receptive Communities

On the nature of self-limitations.

Receptive and Non-Receptive Communities
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The most important information community in my life thus-far has been a subset of the literary community, colloquially referred to as “genre writers.” Genre is a complex term, but at its most functional level it can be considered a byproduct of market publication and bookstores, which attempt to categorize different works of literature in order to sell to specific groups more effectively. In this context, “genre” fiction generally refers to those works of fiction that feature certain repeated themes and conventions, such as “mystery,” “horror,” science fiction,” “fantasy,” and “romance.”

Ultimately, I think of this type of categorizing as limiting and concerning, as it increases the likelihood of someone saying “I don’t like reading ‘X’ genre” when, in fact, they’re merely repeating some internal uninspected bias against whatever they narrowly perceive of as fitting that genre. In other words, it allows people to self limit, and reduces their capacity for imaginative growth.

And yet, with that caveat aside, I still consider myself a genre writer.

This in some part is because the opposed field to “genre” work is often that dry and soulless hall of mirrors known as “Literary Fiction,” which can too frequently take on the aspect of distinguished formality in people’s minds. In reality, most of the best writing I’ve encountered has been within the so-called “genre” field, while some of the most trite and self-congratulatory claptrap ever has emerged from the so-called “literary” folds.

Obviously, good writing can appear anywhere, just as bad writing can appear anywhere. The same is true for thinking, in general, beyond the literary field. Yet, the perception, enhanced by the categorizing terms themselves (“genre” vs “literary”) is incredibly difficult to overcome.

However, it is my experience that genre communities also function differently than those dedicated to more literary or purely poetic pursuits, and this is where I discover a core nugget of something fascinating. While almost all genre writers I’ve met are more than willing to read poetry and literary fiction, the case is not the same in reverse. It is a commonplace occurrence when connecting at literary conferences to find literary writers who have, at best, faint appreciation for genre work.

This may be due, in-part, to the tinge of the commercial aspect that hangs like a noose about the neck of the term… “Genre” seems to ooze capitalism, and that (quite understandably) puts people off.

But, it does not explain the historic hostility to genre writers, or the conventions of the craft of genre writing, that have emerged in writing programs, workshops, and even public opinion over the years.

While genre successes that capture the attention of a mass audience (a la Game of Thrones) exist, they are not representative of the common feeling, and even less-so do they represent a softening of feeling among those ivory elites of the literary and poetic fields.

A superb response to this is summed up perfectly in this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (Le Guin, 1979, p. 204):

There is an area where SF has most often failed to judge itself, and where it has been most harshly judged by its nonpartisans. It is an area where we badly need intelligent criticism and discussion. The oldest argument against SF is both the shallowest and the profoundest: the assertion that SF, like all fantasy, is escapist.
This statement is shallow when made by the shallow. When an insurance broker tells you that SF doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, author, critic, and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.

Which brings me back to my experience of the information communities centered on genre writers. These communities, in my experience, exemplify open and receptive systems. Rather than meeting new information with skepticism and hostility, almost every genre community I’ve encountered has been receptive to new points of view, and has been willing to expand their horizons by seeking out new (and even uncomfortable) information and experiences.

I am the sort of person who finds value in all information. I have personal preferences and biases aplenty, yet I do my best to stretch the borders of my perceived comfortability in an intentional manner. Growth, I believe, requires being willing to stretch yourself past your objections to reality.

I recall, once, speaking to a group about how to succeed in a creative writing MFA program. I cautioned that people should avoid self-assigning to a specific category of likes and dislikes from the outset. People would, I said, get more out of the program if they were to try new things, stretch beyond their preferred style, structure and (yes) genre.

One person, instantly upset, told me that they had come to the program only to work on their novel, and nothing else. And I found myself flabbergasted at the reaction, so wholly opposed to my entire way of interacting with, and conceiving of, the world.

This may have something to do, ultimately, with how I perceive writing, as an art form (as well as my perception of self-growth). I content that good writing requires broad learning, just as I contend that being a good human being requires broad learning. Within whatever container you exist inside, it is your capacity to fling out your senses to the limits, and then to probe those limits for vaults of expansion, that makes you an active participant in the act of being alive.

Genre writing, especially the genres of fantasy and science fiction, are inherently obsessed with possibility and potential. Both have traceable mythic roots, as well as roots within our species’ ancient oral storytelling forms. The vast network of interconnections inherent within these genres suggests a more fertile field for self-growth and discovery. They are inherently interdisciplinary and, at their best, require the development of imaginative skills beyond the norm, alongside practical excellence in the form, function, and research methodology of the literary craft.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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