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Genre, Movement, Trend: The Irresistible Urge to Name Our Stories

I had the delightful opportunity to participate in a Mind Meld over at SFSignal recently, one that was of my own creation (and tweaked into a better object of conversation by John DeNardo). I asked a question that was open, but framed, and the answers were very revealing about how some critics, authors, and editors think about the genre of science fiction literature. The discussion (that unfolded more openly in the comments) was a revealing exercise in how the wider genre of fantastika is defined , and how movements and trends work to not only produce genre, but serve as a sounding board for people to reinforce assumptions and sociality in the shared appreciation of the literature.

I am a genre nerd, and an anthropologist. Not only am I a huge fan of speculative fiction, but I love all of the stuff that surrounds it; concepts, tropes, social networks, subcultures, all of it. I love reading Brandon Sanderson’s take on postmodernism in fantasy (problematic as it might be) as much as reading reviews of a new book. I am fascinated by how we alternately try to separate this stuff from “the work” yet cannot, and I always wonder why people bother to try. These sort of conversations are as necessary to literature as the works themselves.

Notions of genre, movement, and trend flavor our reception of the literature we read. There is no undefined or even default category; “mainstream” is as loaded and contingent a category of fiction as “sword and sorcery.” They are conveniences, points of discussion, shapers of ideas, and a mode of engagement with the wordstuff that we read and ponder. Even a supposedly unloaded term as “literature” takes on its own meanings in cultural or social context: when you hear that word in relation to a college course, do you think Harold Robbins and Terry Brooks, or Toni Morrison & Jose Saramago?
The significance of these notions is dependent on the situation: as I have discussed before, some reading and authorial communities are far less reflective or argumentative about what their genre contains, or whether it should even still exist as a genre. I think George R. R. Martin’s (and many others’) contention that social change has made the science fiction genre less powerful as a lens has some merit, but having a discussion on its ongoing strength and relevance is quite distinctive, especially given its continuous vigor. SF in particular is always dying and being reborn, but the wider genre of speculative fiction (and the meta-genre of fantastika) are frequently questioned, remade, and contested, and are kept vital by that dynamic.
This is why movements (both the actual actions of authors and the characterization of what they do by readers) and trends are important. Identifying trends is both a spectator sport in SF and an engine of development. The former is often a more literary pursuit, even though movements are usually groups of writers intentionally enacting, reproducing, or playing with a trend. Trends are the building blocks of both understanding the literature, and fashioning categories to organize the products of authorial creativity. Whether a hoary critic or cynical editor coins one, they are at once identifying something recent and pulling together longer strands. Trends can be taken seriously, or they can be objects of satire (or satirical in their fashioning), but their purpose does not significantly change; to put a categorical gloss on a collection of works so that they can be appreciated, discussed, and evaluated for their inherent and contextual value.
Bringing this back to the Mind Meld, some participants answered the question quite seriously, even devising new terms for The Next Big Trend in SF (I particularly liked Gary K. Wolfe’s “New Cacophony”). Others went in a more humorous direction, such as Sue Lange’s hilarious send-up of both trends and The Singularity. There was some snark, provided in serious form by Angela Slatter, and in sarcasm-laden satire by Jeff VanderMeer. A few, like myself, formulated our aspirations for the genre through the question.
In all of the responses the urge to categorize and show one’s position to the idea of trends was clear and evocative. From “grumpy old woman” to considered critic to over-educated fanboy/aspiring writer (that would be me), we all demonstrated that trends are not just things “out there.” but a topic of conversation integrated into fantastika’s mechanisms itself. Labels for new trends became observational standpoints for defining various works and points of contention; here I found Jeff VanderMeer’s comment most intriguing as he, an editor who is currently writing a “bible” on a genre trend, took a critic to task for pointing out “the obvious” about a trend. All trends are obvious when they are labelled, and are the culmination of dialogue and reflection that, while stated by one person at first, take on their own lives (even if very briefly) precisely through the larger community. Naming a trend points out a direction that the observer sees, codifying something in a more specific way, or in a way that invites more focused discussion.
All three of these notions serve this purpose at different conceptual levels, and all of them are not just valuable, but essential for energizing the creativity of fantastic literatures and the subcultures that love them.
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