Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Thinking About Genre

I’m currently working on a paper for the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference at the University of Sydney in early December. It’s partly an attempt to solidify, and articulate, some of the ways I’ve been thinking about fantasy as a genre in this project. Being from a literary studies background means I come to it from a perspective which depends very heavily on texts, and on critical theory about them. This is problematic – it’s widely acknowledged that fantasy is more tricky than most genres to define this way. Or at least that critics have struggled to do so, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. Right from the beginning of this project I knew that just doing textual analysis wasn’t going to be sufficient to really understand all the different ways in which race and fantasy intersect – I’ve always planned to talk to authors and fans and have spent a lot of time this year reading blog posts, fan forums etc.
Reading and thinking around fan studies has been useful for me lately. Even if fantasy fans haven’t been the subject of a major work (yet, it’s in my head for when the current project ends), science fiction fans have always been a significant topic. I’m thinking of Celia Bacon-Smith and John Tulloch here, although there are plenty of others. What I’m finding most helpful at the moment though, is work on popular music genres. Jason Toynbee’s term ‘genre-culture,’ from Making Popular Music (2000) offers a framework for thinking about genre as a process that is socially constructed, not a fixed category. Studies of popular music also tend to take into account or at least acknowledge the role played by marketing and publishers, as well as fans and artists. Literary critics of fantasy – even those who defend it – tend to make derisive comments about boy wizards and vampires and have little else to say about the mass-market side of things. And as Steven Erikson pointed out in the New York Review of Science Fiction earlier this year, scholars have a tendency to fixate on Tolkien, but there’s far more to the genre, even to genre fiction, than that. It seems likely to me that a disjunction between critical engagement and what’s actually being written and read, is one reason it’s so difficult to taxonomies fantasy. Form and content necessarily depend on what is written, published and read, particularly in a genre that is as popular as fantasy at the moment.

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