Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Music Genre versus Literary Genre

In my non-writing professional life, I worked for almost 20 years in the music industry. You work there for longer than 10 years and you start to see the same musical trends coming back round for a second or third time. For rock/pop is a relatively young art form, only really being in existence since the 1950s (and the rise of the teenager with spending power).

We started with rock and roll, which in the 1960s morphed into psychedelia and the first rumble of heavy metal. In the 70s we had Prog and Glam rock which in turn prompted the oppositional punk rock which soon burned out and mutated into New Wave. Reggae too established itself as a music of protest in the UK and the Caribbean. There was also funk which gradually led to disco at the end of the decade and hip-hop and rap in the next decade. In the 80s there was also the synthesiser led New Romanticism. The 90s saw the explosion of dance music, in too many categories to comprehensively list, but let's offer Trance, House, Acid House, Rave, Ambient etc etc. Rock tried to strike back with Grunge in the US and Brit Pop by appointment to HM Government in the UK.

I've missed out a few along the way, but these are broadly the different genres in the short span of rock. But then somehow not only were some of these genres revisited (as against reinvented) such as Nu-Rave or New Wave of The New Wave, but the above genres fragmented into a myriad of sub-genres. Hip-hop and rap had several offshoots when combined with some dance music trends, so we had Jungle, Grime, Drum & Bass, Dub Step, R&B. No longer did we have good old Heavy metal, but Nu-Metal, Speed Metal, Death Metal, Rap Metal, Grindcore, Industrial Metal, Thrash Metal, Christian Metal and so it goes on.

Such fracturing makes for tribalism among fans as they rigorously defend their corners and practise exclusionism of those close cousins who somehow minutely differ in definition. For such a relatively young art form, the whole form seems moribund having repeatedly cut the cake of musical possibility finer and finer until only the crumbs remain. Yes the revolution of the industry through downloads and digital access and the machinations of the likes of Simon Cowell's TV-tie in music production have delivered crushing blows to musical creativity. But I believe it is this fracturing into sub-genres of music that have stifled the potential and possibilities of musical creativity.

It is of course possible that there are no new combinations of sounds and notes that have not already been committed to recording. But the opposite is true of the novel. Though an art form a good couple of centuries older and with a much larger back catalogue to call upon, the novel has barely begun to explore its own possibilities. There was a brief flourishing under literary modernism which took narrative and language in different directions, but that soon faded out for whatever reasons (of which I will not accept that it was an artistic and intellectual dead end).

So the novel stands replete with possibility and bristling with potentia. There are whole new bodies of knowledge opened up that allow us to interrogate mankind & the world around us with different images, paradigms and languages should we authors wish to explore them. Theories of mind, of matter and the universe to name but three. However, if the novel allows itself to continually fragment and divide itself down lines of genre and sub-genre as music has done, then it stands little chance of being big and bold enough to rise to these challenges and possibilities. Instead, as with music, it will channel itself down furrows and reduced horizons, fighting petty and insignificant battles over territory and definition. Who cares that what we once called scifi has now fractured into Space Opera, Hard Scifi, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Apocalyptic/dystopian, Slipstream, SciFi-Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, New Weird. Just give me the radical ideas and linguistic inquiry of "Solaris", "Embassytown" or "The Embedding". Ambition is always shrunken by genre, perhaps because of the proscription of the rules behind genre definitions, perhaps because of the expectations of the readership demanding more of the same.

It's all just fiction right? It's all about the novel (unless it's about short stories of course). And the novel remains fertile ground ripe for exploration. Please let's avoid the mistakes of the music industry. While the production and distribution upheavals in the digital age are similar within both music and literature, there's no reason for the practitioners, for the authors to make the same mistakes of their music peers and succumb to a rigid and limiting prescription of labels. We have a much longer and possibly grander tradition to uphold. And we can only do that by striking out into fresh pastures, not regurgitating what has come before and trying to make out by some quodlibet of definition that it is truly different. The New Wave of The New wave indeed...

If you don't believe me about the tribalism of music genres, then check out the comments to this YouTube video. The Nu Rave band Klaxons dared to cover an Old Skool dance track called "The Bouncer" and thus was battle enjoined...



Katherine Hajer said...

Too true. The other side of this is when books get assigned to genre by marketing, rather than by readers. Look at how many science fiction novels get pitched as literary. I remember having a good laugh/rant when The Time Traveler's Wife got pigeonholed as romantic fiction instead of SF.

Mary Papas said...

Interesting perspective Marc.

For me, the biggest issue with novels is that most authors seem to think its sooooo easy to write them. In my ears, that's like saying I can start running without even knowing how to walk.

I read less than 5 novels a year and that's mostly because most of them tend to be repetitive and ramble on and on and on. One of the main reasons I choose to write and (mostly)read short stories and flash fiction is because with shorts, you are forced to be more disciplined, get to the point fast and leave out what is unnecessary for the story.

Personaly, I am all for diversity, ans sub-genres, provided you know what you are doing and what messages you are trying to sell.

Anonymous said...

For me, the rot really began when the term New Adult became a thing.
Not so much that it's a genre, but that there is a perceived need to somehow subdivide literature by age even further.
When I was a young adult, YA didn't really exist. So I moved fairly easily from children's books into adult literature, from the age of about 9 or so.
The issue of findability is the only practical reason for the splintering of genres.

Roz Morris aka NailYourNovel said...

Oh yes, definitely yes, Marc! I developed my reading tastes from novelists like JG Ballard, John Wyndham, Alasdair Gray, Ray Bradbury - those examiners of the peculiar. They crossed all sorts of genre lines and nobody minded. By the time I'd found a voice of my own, with those early influences still guiding me, I was told by agents and editors that those writers wouldn't be published now.
But readers haven't changed that much; indeed those authors are still celebrated. What changed? It's the tastemakers in the publishing industry, who want everything to tick safe marketing boxes.
All these categories are artificial. They aren't how writers think - and they're not even how readers read.

David Biddle said...

This is a great and quick argument for what is needed these days now that author's are able to publish independently. Genre writing in part was this thing the publishing world locked into for obvious marketing reasons. My first novel got nowhere with publishers and agents because it was a literary mystery sci-fi thriller rock and drug story speculating about the meaning of life and the question of Death. The number of times I heard, "Your manuscript doesn't fit our categories." is, now, hilarious to me. That said, many indies still labor under the assumption that they will sell books by writing the next Alex Cross or Lucky Santangelo novels. There may a tad bit of truth there, but I think independent writers who toss the genre cards in the air and mess formulaic writing up once and for all will be the most successful over the next decade. One thing that I've found is that my tendency to want to write literary fiction about love is really just taking the romance novel and writing it in an interesting way, adding social commentary, a funky approach to sex, and making sure that happily ever after is not so simple...Great essay here Marc.