The Ant King and Other Genres

The Ant King and Other Stories
The Ant King and Other Stories

My review of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories is up today at Strange Horizons. I am in rather more stident form in a four-way discussion with Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum and Martin Lewis, over at Torque Control.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about – or at least have had sat grumpily at the back of my head – is (whisper it now) genre reception. What surprised me in my reaction to Rosenbaum’s collection is that I preferred the more obviously generic of the stories. This isn’t normally the case with me – great SF is as great as any other fine literature, but by and large I find staple genre pieces of all kinds unable to make that leap. Clearly this generalisation doesn’t hold in a collection in which the staple genre stuff is just better written than the mixed stuff, and this might suggest that the quality of the writing has no bearing on whether something can be said to belong wholly to a given genre.

And yet.

It was recently reading Blindness which kicked off this quibbling. Jose Saramago’s haunting parable of society and order is surely science fictional in concept: a mysterious, unexplainable virus cuts a swathe through civilisation. As in PD James’s The Children of Men, this virus remains more or less an unexplored McGuffin, and this is what separates such works from the hard SF whose instinct it would be to delve into the facts and figures of the condition. This lack of interest in science doesn’t render the work divorced entirely from the genre, of course, since all sorts of soft SF, fantasy, and slipstream works make a similar choice. Yet the book – andmany others like it – is not widely or materially associated with the genre (the flipside of this is that some of Rosenbaum’s considerably less SFnal stories are). The standard answer to this condundrum is to blame the publishing industry: we follow the tag on the book’s shelf in the store, which exists only to market it, not as a tool for its criticism. And yet it’s hard not to identify an unconscious assumption that, if a book is luminously written, it cannot really belong to something as potentially limiting as a genre.

This may be true – great writers are also great synthesisers, fusing together many genres and modes. The very act of writing well may also be one of transcending protocols of genre. But what of those great writers – a Bester or a Miéville – who choose not to eschew genre? Do we limit our appreciation of their works with this vague (and easily disproven) rule of thumb, or do they limit their writing by placing it in a single (and easily limiting) box?

Nothing new to the debate here, genre veterans. Move along, move along …

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