World Con: Writing Across the Genres

This morning I went to a panel discussion about writing across the genres. The panelist were James Patrick Kelly, Michael Swanwick, Ellen Klages, Delia Sherman, and Preston Grassman. Delia Sherman has a new book out called the Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. She writes realistic material with folklore elements and is associated with the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Jim Kelly and Michael Swanwick are names that I am familiar with. They joked back and forth with one another and when Swanwick came in late, Jim Kelly shot a purple rubber band at him that almost hit me. Grassman is a freelance writer who has been living in Japan and is currently collaborating on a new novel with KJ Bishop. Klages described herself as writing the type of stories that people get in to bar fights over what they are not.

In this panel various different ideas for writing across genres or not were presented. The main reason for not writing across genre was economic. Swanwick described an article that Piers Anthony wrote where Anthony advocated for writers to write one funny fantasy story and then another and build up a following. In Anthony’s model the writer would create fiction that was similar to what they had written before and with each successive book they would pick up readers and earn more money.

Kelly brought up another point in that authors who write across genres are sometimes viewed as not being serious and lacking focus.

Another reason that was discussed for not writing across genre that was discussed was that if the fiction is not easily categorized it may not easily find a publisher or a place in the bookstores. Klages pointed out that short stories is a place where writers usually can write across genre and play with things. She relayed an anecdote however where “Green Glass Sea,” a short story that she wrote, she could not get published because the story was not considered “science fiction”– it was about science and was fiction. Swanwick told about hanging out with Dozois and Dozois telling him that whenever Dozois published something that did not have the impossible he got flack.

From this point came another set of ideas.

Genre categories in some ways ghetto-ize fiction. Klages pointed out that Chabon had won a Pulitzer and then he won a Hugo. She asserted that he might not have won both if the order had been reversed. It was also brought up that in science fiction circles the word literature is said with a sneer. Swanwick talked about problems in defining categories. He mentioned that in biology, species are defined by type specimens. Type specimens are dead. You cannot define a species until after you have killed it. In order to define a genre you must first kill it. He says that he tries to defy every possible rule and play with people’s expectations and minds. Boundaries are redrawn every time that someone does something that no one has seen before.

So. What are the benefits of writing across genre?

Sherman said that art is always a moving target. There is nothing wrong with staying within genre— such as Patricia McKillip. Practitioners of the epic tradition are writing beautiful things and she does not want that to stop. However, she would like to move past formula fiction. The genre has to grow in order to provide something that will be talked about in fifty years. It used to be just that literature grew. The way that things grow is that you create things that people do not have the rules to know how to approach it and have to approach it on its one terms. If it does not fit these rules– then how does one unpack it. How does one examine it? The thought process inherent in this is what keeps a literary tradition alive.

Klages said, “You have to have people who are not easily pigeon holed or else all you have is pigeon holes.” She went on to say that we learn by being exposed to new things.

A lot of the people on the panel are trying to write something else because they want something new. Writing boring fiction is boring. Swanwick said that he pays a price for writing things that are not easily classified, but he wants to do different things. He said that he could make more money in advertising or by writing the same things over and over. Swanwick said that he thinks the rules of genre pull the stories down. He says that he is not trying to break the rules but he doesn’t want to tailor down to expectations. He aims to produce something satisfying and new.

Swanwick told this joke, “What is the difference between a science fiction writer and a large pizza? The pizza can feed a family of four.”