A question from the Millions:
How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi?
It’s posed as a response to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where the adherence to conventions of detective fiction is said to “obscure the promise of a brilliant premise”. I haven’t yet read the novel, so I don’t know to what extent this is a fair characterisation, but I do know it’s not the way I would approach evaluating a genre-straddling novel.
I’m using “genre-straddling” to describe those books that obviously sit in multiple camps, such as the Chabon (alternative history + detective fiction + “lit fic”, the latter defined as ‘a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is “Western,” or “Sci Fi.”‘), or The Time-Traveler’s Wife (romance + sf), or Nova Swing (noir + sf), or Never Let Me Go (lit fic + sf). I’m not thinking of books that occupy blurrier territor, borrowing more fluidly from different areas of the literary gene pool.
I know what is meant by using a genre as an alibi, I think. It’s the sort of conversation that happens when a book like Never Let Me Go gets shortlisted for a science fiction award. On the one hand, I can see a valid argument against Never Let Me Go because it doesn’t work as science fiction: it is not extrapolative, the world it builds is not internally coherent. On the other hand, I can see a valid argument defending Never Let Me Go on the grounds that that’s not what the book is trying to do; but a rejoinder could be that that’s using a lit-fic assessment as an alibi for sf failings, that if that’s not what the book is trying to do then sf was the wrong tool for the job. In contrast, you can look at The Time-Traveler’s Wife and say that the romance works, and that the sf works, and that the combination of them works — the story is a romance that is made possible by the sf.
My problem, I think, is that such assessments don’t tell me much about the overall merits of the two books. The genre elements in The Time-Traveler’s Wife may be well-used, but they’re in service to a flabby book that doesn’t always feel in control of the effects it’s generating. The sf in Never Let Me Go may be terrible, but the book is also an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of repression and denial. This is not to say we shouldn’t be talking about labels: labels are useful, they provide places to stand, angles of attack, ways in. But one way in is not necessarily more valid than any other.
And yet, at the same time, the sort of synthesis you get when different genre elements play off each other and work in both directions can be immensely satisfying. To return to Chabon, I’d be interested to know from those who’ve read it if the potential of the premise is in fact obscured, or whether maybe the forn in which the story is told (pulpy plotting tricks) is at fault rather than the generic conent. Because it seems to me that in principle “detective story + alternate history” is an interesting combination: it means both the reader and the protagonist are engaged in solving mysteries as they move through the book.