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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, January 17, 2008

the same--but different

Yesterday I visited my mother and her sister for our weekly lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches on fresh bread). Afterwards, Mom and I got talking about writing, and we again visited the topic of genre, which I might define casually as the family to which a particular work belongs.

Does genre really matter to the writer? Or is it a thing of interest only to critics or to those who are selling the work--such as bookstores who need to know what shelf to stock a book on? To the extent that genres are patterns, are they not formulaic, and therefore uncreative? Isn't writing to a genre simply a paint-by-numbers approach?

I'm not an expert on genre--I'm just learning all this myself--but my first gut response is: no, writing to genre is not necessarily uncreative. It can be uncreative, perhaps, if the genre conventions are very strict.

But even here I'm not sure. I was thinking about the old-time romance plot, in which the poor, unassuming, beautiful, and principled maiden becomes the seemingly impossible love-object of a wealthy, powerful, handsome, and forbidding man. After a couple of more or less standard plot complications, they wind up married happily ever after. If you don't happen to be a fan of this genre, then these romance stories quickly become stale and repetitive, and their fantasy elements, so removed from real life, start to cloy.

But are the stale and cloying aspects of these stories the fault of the genre? Or merely the skill of the storyteller? The romance premise that I described above is essentially that used in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a book still in print and therefore, by definition, a classic. I haven't read the book, but the famous BBC miniseries based on it, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, remains one of my favorite pieces of filmed entertainment.

Why? I think because Jane Austen makes me believe it. Her skill in crafting the situation and the characters defeats my skepticism and resistance to being drawn in. The characters are not stale types stamped out of a mold; they seem more like vibrant, actual people. The liveliness of the characters makes their feelings and their values matter. The story comes alive.

To me this says that the story itself--the genre--is alive and well. It triggers real interest and emotions in the audience; it speaks to us. I suspect that its durability is due to the fact that it is saying something profound on many different levels. Unconsciously, we read it or view it on all those levels, and from this comes the feeling of being fulfilled or satisfied by the story.

As T. S. Eliot put it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to the utmost--and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

Not just in storytelling, but all through knowledge and in life itself the mystery of Same and Different confronts us. We recognize Different things as being the Same, and the Same things as being Different. In some strange way, the more strongly you emphasize Sameness, the more poignant and powerful become the Differences that arise.

Genre tells us how to make our story the Same, so we can find interesting, powerful ways to make it Different. It tells us where on the great family tree of stories we are. For no matter how unique, individualistic, or even solitary we are, we are still somewhere on a family tree. Like it or not, you've got parents, maybe siblings and cousins. You can deny it--but why?

It's better to acknowledge who you are and where you're from, and work from there.


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