A Brief History of Genre
In a comment on the last post, Jonathan McCalmont of SF Diplomat asks... why do you think that horror, SF and fantasy are kept separate from romance and crime? they all deal in fictional worlds... Is there really anything more than similar marketing demographic that unites SF and fantasy but not SF and romance?
To me it's not just about present-day marketing demographics, but also about the historical development of those, and about the aesthetics. There's historical and aesthetic factors that bind all the pulp genres as pulp, but there's also factors that distinguish the Unholy Trinity of SF, Fantasy and Horror from the other genres, factors that might make it less like Romance and factors that might make it more comparable to Crime.
All of these genres have their roots in proto-Modernity, I think. What the fuck is proto-Modernity? Well, briefly, as Clute says in his Fantastika and the World Storm essay, the Enlightenment radically reshapes our notions of fiction and literature. Beforehand, with the Renaissance you have the aesthetics of (Neo-)Classicism and Romance, but those aren't in dialectic opposition until the Enlightenment comes along. When it does you get this new scientific outlook called Rationalism, idealising Reason, and the complementary world-view of Romanticism, idealising Passion, the two defined partly in relation to the past (Classical Greece and Dark Ages Europe) but largely in relation to each other. In the interactions between them you get, I think, an initial synthesis of thesis and antithesis. I call that "proto-Modern" rather than "pre-Modern" because the latter term is usually associated with an equation of the Modern worldview with (scientific) Rationalism, an assumption that the worldview before Modernity was more (superstitiously) Romanticist. Contrary to this, I think we can identify a stream where Rationalism and Romaticism are in conflict with each other through the medium of individual texts -- i.e. where the author isn't purely allied one way or the other but playing out the conflict in their writing, trying to synthesise the two aesthetics.
So, we have the period in which the novel is being born as a Rationalist endeavour and thereby distiguished from the earlier Romance, but where the Romantic aesthetic is being constantly brought back into play in the novel, in attempts to fuse them, to create a Rationalist Romance. In that long period up to 1900 or so we get the roots of every modern genre. We get Samuel Richardson, Ann Radcliffe, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin (roots of Romance). We get George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbitt, Kenneth Grahame (roots of Fantasy). We get Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, H. Rider Haggard (roots of Adventure). We get Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, M.R. James (roots of Horror). We get Ernest William Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle (roots of Crime). We get Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells (roots of Science Fiction).
None of these writers are "genre" in the modern sense because genre in the modern sense doesn't yet exist. There's a distinction between populist Gothic (Romantic) fiction and more high-brow mimetic (Rationalist) fiction gradually merging into the distinction between "pulp" and "literary" modes, and some of these writers are stuck on either side of that boundary, but most of them are in a zone between the two; they're not really Gothic but they're certainly not Victorian Realists. Because of the dynamic nature of that zone, many of those writers are formative of multiple genres because they work in multiple modes, but many of them are also seen as "literary" classics because the class divide and notions of "commercialism" haven't yet fucked over the debate.
The literary "variety" journals in the UK, most notably the Strand, capture the last days of this proto-Modernity perfectly, publishing many of the writers named above alongside poets and short story writers of any and every mode. Ghost stories, detective stories, all sorts of strange fiction sits side-by-side with the non-strange. All of this stuff is begging to be critiqued in terms of subjunctivity level and boulomaic modalities, I think, in the sort of way I approach NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It doesn't fit into this genre or that and we shouldn't try and force it to just to validate our genres with historical ancestries, but it is deeply concerned with the effects that derive from stepping outside the "could have happened" subjunctivity level of purely naturalistic, purely mimetic, social realism. Even in Dickens the importance of melodrama and the aesthetic of the grotesque should not be underestimated.
Then the steam train of Modernity hits and leads to mass-production and mass-marketing, greater literacy and a corresponding shift in class demographics. We start to see the penny dreadfuls and dime novels, the magazines and imprints dedicated to specific "genres". From the early 1900s through to the 30s or 40s, there's a boom that utterly reshapes the territory. It's a totally evolutionary process -- expansion, diffusion, isolation, specialisation -- that leads to most of the pulp genres we have today and a few that are now all but defunct. A process of symbolic formulation sets in within all of those genres. Marketing to readers on the basis that there's a discrete audience for "more of the same" means codifying "the same", defining what each genre is, or should be, in terms of conventional tropes of character, background and plot structure.
The fallout of this, in many respects, has a terrible impact on fiction. Because all of these genres are based on the reactions invoked in the reader when confronted with certain combinations of subjunctivity levels and boulomiac modalities, anything which uses those same combinations, and thereby invokes the same reactions, is suddenly percieved as being a work of this or that "genre". In fact, even fiction which uses variant combinations, in using the same underlying techniques, invokes the same reactions and thereby comes to be percieved as "genre"... and therefore allied with "pulp" rather than "literature". For a middle-class and middle-brow readership to whom intellectual status is important (and for whom mimetic representation is mistakenly equated with relevance) those associations bring on a crisis of faith -- should they really be reading such "sensationalist" pulp? That negative reaction plays out in writing and publishing as writers and editors, as readers, fall victim to the same crisis of faith or simply to the market forces born of it. Soon there's no fucking way you could publish a journal like the Strand and there's no fucking way you could run a publishing imprint which had a similar diversity; before you know it that dialectic is reified in an uncrossable divide between high-brow general literature (which has to be mimetic) and everything else, which has to be fitted into one genre or another.
But with this new dialectic introduced by Modernity, that of "pulp fiction" and "literature", while we're seeing these new commercial genres developing under constant pressure towards symbolic formulation, we can also see a new breed of aesthetic upstarts and refuseniks committed to finding the synthesis of those opposing theses. These writers (and editors) know fine well how valuable the techniques of strange fiction are, that mimesis is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. Unfortunately, from the start their choices are limited by that divide: they can either go for broke and create something so radical that its "high-brow" status can't be denied, or they can work within the dictates of commercial genre publishing, try and remake the genre and prove its literary validity. Where they choose the former you get the "elitist" strangeness of Modernism which the middle-brow middle-classes ultimately reject, and a feedback loop of cerebralism that drives the survivors up into the ivory towers of Post-Modernism. Where they choose the latter is where the story really gets interesting.
We can see some historical distinctions here, in terms of how this played out, between the deeply strange genres -- SF, Fantasy and Horror -- and genres like Crime and Romance where it's more the "laws of normality" that are disrupted than the "laws of reality". Romance is widely renowned (or disrenowned?) as the most formulaic of the genres, the most deeply-bound to conventional tropes of character, background and plot-structure. This is, I'd say, because the melodramatic use of boulomaic modalities is the one strange methodology allowed in general literature because it was formative of it. Most of Victorian "Realism" hinges on the most melodramatic twists and turns of fate. Thomas Hardy, anyone? So the contemporary realism born of that has always had to accommodate the strangeness of the boulomaic modalities and subjunctivity levels underlying Romance (the "should have happened" desires, the "could not have happened" coincidences that make or break relationships) or it might have little to hold the reader's interest at all. So if you're a Romance writer who wants to be "high-brow" you can pretty much jump ship to the "mainstream" without a problem. Leaving Romance to be the deeply formulated genre that it is. (Or, at least, that it appears to be; I'd be happy for my assumptions to be corrected by someone with more knowledge of the genre than myself.)
With SF, Fantasy and Horror, the opposite is true. The full-on breaches of the "laws of reality" here are the most noticeable markers you can get in strange fiction and therefore the most quickly and deeply rejected. The result? Way more would-be writers and editors who wanted to use those techniques and had little choice other than to ally themselves with the genre ghetto. With writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft directly carrying on the proto-Modern idiom of their predecessors, the dynamic fuckedupness of this three-in-one genre of "weirdness" that was not yet divided working against the pressure towards symbolic formulation, and the influx of a new generation of writers and editors utterly serious about the potentials of the form, the struggle to hammer this pulp genre into a legitimate mode of literature was over before it began. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Philip K. Dick, and so on through an A to Z of writers and editors -- the field, even when it's been marked by bad prose, cardboard characters and other such flaws, has never been wholly formulaic.
Of course, the struggle to force a recognition of that legitimacy has been going on ever since, and the pressures towards symbolic formulation have unrelentingly undermined that struggle by reinforcing the wide-spread association of the key combinations of subjunctivity levels and boulomaic modalities we find in SF, Fantasy and Horror with the most derivative and formulaic pulp. This is one hugely important shared feature of the three weirdest genres of strange fiction -- the external struggle for recognition and the internal struggle against formulation. In some ways the division of forces has helped (allowing us to attack the "mainstream" on three fronts -- think Army, Navy and Airforce) but in other ways it has weakened us, too often set us against each other, squabbling and bickering like cretinous children.
The infamous Benford article is, I think, symptomatic of the worst kind of internal feuding. By entirely missing the fact that symbolic formulation is how every fucking genre works he points us away from the real internal problem of symbolic formulation, the real "infiltration" of hack writers and fans with uncritical loyalty (the Fifth Column that is spread throughout Army, Navy and Airforce, to extend the military metaphor). Worse still, in pointing us toward Fantasy as the culprit here he squanders his own energy and forces others to squander theirs in a pointless brawl over his insult to honour (like a group of infantry grunts and sailors kicking the shit out of each other because one drunken moron from the Army shouted that all sailors were fucking cowards, scared to go where the action really is).
The esprit-de-corps is all very well in the battlefield. But make no mistake, Benford's rhetoric is counter-productive, because it turns that esprit-de-corps into boorish pride and ignorant animosity. As such, to any Fantasy writer or reader who knows that their genre is engaged in the same struggle with the same level of commitment, it reads as a profoundly insulting, throughly ignorant and deeply arrogant attempt to hierarchise the genres, to assert a greater legitimacy for one section of the field by scapegoating another as the source of all failures. It's fighting talk. I've said it before and I'll say it again...
Fuck that shit.
Thing is, we have a shared battleground of (dis)respect that binds these genres inextricably. And at a deeper level we have a shared technology of literary techniques (everything I've been outlining in my model of strange fiction) that binds us even more. In fact, I think, there's this huge force that exists across the genres, a sort of "Sixth Column", a Special Forces of Speculative Fiction, drawn from Army, Navy and Airforce, trained in using every aspect of that shared technology, and out there fighting on all fronts beside the soldiers, sailors and pilots of SF, Fantasy and Horror. I'll confess to a bit of esprit-de-corps here in terms of my own loyalty to that section of the field. As much as I recognise the skill you get with specialisation, I'm invested too heavily in the "Special Forces" ideal to be truly objective when those arguments kick off; I may well tend to go into a... well... "take on all comers" stance, bullishly and foolishly ready to try and prove that my crowd can kick anyone's arses cause, yeah, all the Fifth Columnists are weaned out from our ranks by the rigours of training.
But I know my own bullshit and I'll cop to it freely. Ultimately I'm way more concerned with slapping down the bitch-fights because I do believe, with a fucking passion, that each of the three genres have more in common than they have against each other. Much of that faith is founded on having come up through SF as a fan, being transferred to Fantasy as a writer, and realising as a critic (of sorts) that many of the techniques I was using were Horror. So because so many of the old "genre distinctions" between the three often seem little more than ciphers for hierarchical/territorial assertions of legitimacy, my core impulse is to focus on ripping those apart. I'm happy to reformulate afterwards, try and take account of how all this strange fiction can and does take radically different paths, but that hasn't quite led me back to the old trinity of SF, Fantasy and Horror as essentially distinct forms. Instead I see various forms distributed between the marketing categories -- Symbolic Formulation, Scientific Fancy, Soul Fiction, Scientistic Fiction (the one form solely limited to SF, I'd say), Spectacularist Fiction (as central to SF in the form of Space Opera as it is to Fantasy in the form of Heroic/High/Epic Fantasy), Structural Fabulation, and so on.
Crime has, I think, a similarly complicated history to our genre, with writers like Chandler reforging it early on into an innovative rather than derivative mode, but with a constant struggle against external prejudice and internal formulation. Hell, one of the innovations of Crime fiction, the idiom of Noir, was stolen lock, stock and barrel by SF and played a major role in the revamping of SF that took place with cyberpunk in the 80s, so I think we owe that genre one big tip of the hat. Ultimately though, I'd have to say I'm just not well enough read in the genre to feel confident making generalisations about the genre from a comercial/historical perspective. The combinations of subjunctivites and boulomaic modalities used by it, though -- those are widely enough disseminated into the mainstream that their importance is, I think, self-evident in something like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN which, as you might gather, I rate pretty fucking highly.
The same caveat holds true for Western, which is another interesting case. It seem to have pretty much died out in the written form, and I can't think of the last time I read a pure-bred genre Western story. But it saw a radical overhaul in the cinematic form in the 1970s and every so often you get these major works like THE UNFORGIVEN. (Although I prefer the awesome Gnostic parable that is THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, or the original bleak-and-gritty revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone (or THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES) which did the same thing, I think, the later Eastwood flick did but just didn't get the same recognition.) I sort of wonder if the Western had to die as a distinct genre before those contemporary examples of it, coming out of the mainstream of the industry, could be accorded the kudos of Greatness.
So the way I sort of look at it is that genres develop during the "proto-Modern" period, come into existence with the Modern period and develop during that period through an internal struggle against symbolic formulation. Where they win you get truly Modern(ist) writers (like Bester in SF and a few hundred other writers) who manage to reforge that genre into something that has deep relevance to the present day. Or you get anti-Modernist writers (like Tolkien in Fantasy) reacting against that aesthetic but at a comparable level of commitment. (As much as I hate Tolkien he's not the symbolic formulation that his imitators are.) I suspect the cross-fertilisation and reunification of genres, the mainstreaming of pulp in the work of Palahnuik, Tarantino and so on, the whole New Wave fusion of SF, Fantasy and Horror -- all of that stuff -- is part of the whole "post-Modern" period.
Anyhoo, that's my thruppence worth.