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Peanut Butter in Your Chocolate

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trade News | July 23, 2010 |


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Twisting Genres is a panel of eight novelists, each of whom has published hybridizations of different genres. The participants, lovingly cut and pasted from the program guide: China Mieville (Kraken), Justin Cronin (The Passage), Naomi Novik (Tongues of Serpents), Daryl Gregory (The Devil's Alphabet), Jeffrey J. Mariotte (Cold Black Hearts), Robert Masello (Blood and Ice), Keith Thompson (The Leviathan trilogy), and Scott Westerfeld (The Leviathan trilogy).

China Mieville is one of the stories here, shaved head, earrings and biceps worked like a bored inmate's. The guy's got a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and has published academically in addition to his fiction. He even ran for Parliament. There's a sense as the panel starts and the other authors give their two cents that he sinks into himself a little bit, the smart kid noticing that the table he sat down at is filled with the kids who want to be in the honors classes but don't have the chops. They want to be him, and more than anything want him to like and respect them, which renders conversation rather awkward, without him being an asshole about it at all.

The panel starts with a brief powerpoint by two of the panelists, Thompson and Westerfeld. They show a few slides of drawings from the turn of the twentieth century, noting that before photography, everything was drawn. Novels were filled with line drawn illustrations, all advertising as the work of pen and pencil. They show a drawing of an early camera and joke "this was such an early camera that there weren't any other cameras around to take a picture of it. You want to shake the artist and say 'don't draw it man! It's going to put you and everyone like you out of work!'" So their steampunk sort of novel is done in the style of a novel from that late Victorian age, with fantastic pencil drawings, and the artist a contributor in as much a way as the writer. They show a drawing from one of the Sherlock Holmes stories and point out that the iconic deerstalker cap was not invented by Doyle and is never explicitly described in the text, but was invented by the artist Paget.

The pictures are beautiful and detailed, their story a alternate history in which Darwin discovers DNA and works out how to manipulate it, while the Germans develop steam punk mecha and elaborate clockwork, setting up an alternate World War One of biology vs. clockwork. The powerpoint goes on a bit too long and feels almost like a hijacking of the panel.

The authors talk then a bit about how and why they've mixed different genres. Naomi Novik, who has written the Temeraire novels, said that she thought of it as the Reeses approach to writing, taking one awesome thing and another awesome thing and having them add up to something even more awesome. She pointed out using her novels as an example that hybrid genres ended up giving something familiar to some readers while also introducing them to something completely different. So someone who loves dragon novels but knows nothing about the Napoleonic wars (or vice versa) is getting both something very familiar and something completely new.

Mieville waited for his turn as the other authors spoke, before interjecting "I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with Naomi. Just because you add 'awesome' to 'awesome,' doesn't mean you're going to get something twice as awesome. Sometimes you get an abomination. Like Reeses."

He pauses, there's laughter, and then he launches into a theory of genre. "Genre is just fidelity to an arbitrary set of rules," he declares, emphasizing that that is not necessarily a bad thing, noting that there are actually lists of rules that detective novelists live by. "Stupid rules force a writer to be more creative than having no rules." He notes that the creative working around those rules sometimes angers particularly tunnel visioned readers of genre, when they accuse a book of cheating. "How does a book cheat? That's demented."

Justin Cronin pointed out that he first found success in the mainstream, and that the decision to write The Passage came from his daughter. "My daughter came to me with a concerned look on her face and said 'Daddy, I'm worried because your books are boring." So he set about outlining a dark post-apocalyptic supernatural novel, with the aid of his nine year old daughter. "For a nine year old, she's kind of macabre."

Genre, several of the authors piece together, is just labeling. It's a way to help readers find the things that they find familiar. Novik notes that even though she reads and has loved books from every genre in the book store, when she walks in to find something new, she goes straight to the "sci-fi" section, because she knows that's where she finds most of what she loves. The conversation turned to the idea of mainstream authors crossing over into genre and Mieville argued "the mainstream is a genre created by a 30-year marketing campaign insisting that it's not a genre."

When some of the authors tried to argue the superior product that resulted from crossing disparate genres, they strayed into publisher terminology of markets and audiences, which Mieville did not take very kindly. "This is not radical," he said of crossing genres. "That's self-aggrandizing, this is just a marketing technique." There's something absolutely refreshing about the distinction between a writer and an author, between those who happily sit on a panel and blather about markets in the same breath as plot and those who will call bullshit on the panel itself.

The last few minutes came up and audience members lined up to ask questions. There was some confusion as to where to line up for a few moments and Mieville joked, "don't worry, we'll take half of a question from this side, half a question from that side and just mash them together."

Someone from the audience asked what the worst place in the bookstore would be for their books to get shelved, since many of their books could be filed under multiple sections. One author said "the worst place for them is on crates in the back getting shipped back to the publisher because they didn't sell." Another told about a friend named Harvey Jacobs who wrote a book called Summer on a Mountain of Spices, a novel of Jewish life in the 1940s. Jacobs went on a radio show for an interview and the DJ started by saying that it was a wonderful cookbook full of absolutely delicious sounding recipes. Jacobs went on to talk about cooking and various favorite recipes for an hour. When asked afterwards why he didn't correct the DJ about his novel, Jacobs said "it'll sell better as a cookbook."

The final question from the audience asked what the authors thought the worst two genres were that they could combine. It wasn't a bad question, but it was sort of that obvious question where everybody tosses out the two most unconnected genres that they don't like. "That's a silly question," Mieville said before anyone answered. A good writer could make any two genres work together, because otherwise they wouldn't decide to write that story in the first place. Novik chimed in, bringing the conversation back to what Mieville had said earlier about genres merely being arbitrary rules, that mixing two genres, however far apart, was to some degree just a matter of finding the common ground between the two sets of arbitrary rules.

Another author leaned in to a microphone and tried to get a punchline anyway. "I still wouldn't recommend combining Young Adult and Erotica though."

Mieville retorted immediately with lovely darkness, "I don't know, growing up I read all of Beverly Cleary as erotica. It was enlightening."


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