Some Notes Towards A Meta-epistemological Manifesto

I had an epiphany today.

I have always mistrusted the concept of genre.  It has seemed to me to be both a hobble and a crutch.  By which I mean that by accepting a specific genre designation an author restricted her or his writing to an abbreviated range, while at the same time adjuring readers to carry the story past certain difficulties by imposing on an unearned suspension of disbelief.

This did not seem to be a good bargain to me–from either side.

Today it occurred to me that this unnatural division of stories into either this thing or that thing but never both at once mirrors the description that G K Chesterton gives of post-Christian philosophies in his book Orthodoxy.

Chesterton says it much more eloquently that I am about to (which is why I supplied you with the link) but in essence his thesis is that Christianity represents virtues in opposition and in balance. Charity is balanced by Justice, for example, neither subservient to the other, not mixing into some sort of compromise where only reasonable sins can be forgiven and only reasonable debts need be paid, but both burning fiercely and both necessary.  “Love the sinner and hate the sin,” is the Christian formula.

Chesterton goes on to say that both Charity and Justice, though good in themselves, can give rise to evil when separated. Charity that loves the sin ceases to be charitable, and is merely indulgent, while Justice that hates the sinner ceases to be just and becomes simple vengeance.

Adopting this schemata for a more humble and profane use, I can see Art, too, as a matter of virtues in opposition. In particular fiction should not, as is currently surmised, be either fantastic or reasonable, but must strive for both fantasy and reason.

What is more, the nascent literary movement called “Pulp Revival” is, in my opinion, a reformation that strives to return to a time when Art–at least the best of it–did balance on this tension of reason and fantasy. “This is the edge of the wild,” said the writers of the Weird Tales, “beyond this point abide monsters.” Implicit in that statement, however, was that it was also the edge of the tame, the reasonable, the sane. One cannot have monsters without heroes to oppose them, else they are not monstrous, but mundane.

And that gives me grounds to understand what I had always felt–that the classification of fiction gives rise to virtues in isolation.  Horror says, “Here you must have courage,” and Romance says, “Here you may feel tenderness”, but courage without tenderness is bravado and tenderness without courage becomes sentimentality. Virtue in isolation must walk softly or risk knocking down the edifice of story, but in company Virtues are free to run wild, the excesses of one moderated by the excesses of another.

In particular the division of Science Fiction from Fantasy has always bothered me.  One must have either a world of rules or a world of magic, but not both.  Determinism or Existentialism.  There was no such division in the Weird Tale, and there was neither Determinism nor Existentialism.

Instead there was the sense of Order Interrupted. The Universe does and should make sense, but it does not do so of its own accord.  Instead, it must made to be reasonable, it must be mastered. The heroes of a Weird Tale may fail in their efforts to impose Order onto Chaos, but that effort must be both necessary and laudable. One does not surrender to the unknown, if we go down, we go down fighting, secure in the knowledge that striking a single match in the darkness may be doomed, but never futile.

And thus will I end these notes–towards, as I said, but not yet in sight of my goal.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry, Who I am and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Some Notes Towards A Meta-epistemological Manifesto

  1. Green Embers says:

    This is perfectly stated. This should be Freshly Pressed or Discovered or whatever it’s called now. I really hate Science Fiction and Fantasy even being called genres. Other genres are moods or emotions — suspense, thriller, horror, romance but then suddenly you have science fiction or fantasy which simply don’t fit like the others. Makes zero sense to me.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. Consider also that there are genres defined by setting (Westerns) by intended audience (YA/NA/and so on) by type of conflict (Courtroom Drama)… the whole schema grows increasingly absurd.

      • Green Embers says:

        Yeah, the age rating should definitely not be considered a genre. I’m actually surprised there is no Parental Guideline for books like there is for every other form of media. This book is rated MA! lol.

      • riverrat2016 says:

        My imagination would have been sorely stunted if I had not been able to read whatever caught my interest as a young girl, instead of having to choose only books in an age bracket. I was reading Victoria Holt, a 1950s popular author of mysteries, when I was 8. I grew up with libraries, no restrictions, and that’s how it should be.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I had access to my mother’s books as soon as I could read and was exposed to very adult language quite young. I think that has helped my grasp of grammar, although it may have messed me up in other ways.

  2. Brian T Renninger says:

    Excellent post. Really hits the nail on the head. Ultimately, a synonym for fiction is fantasy. From the point of deciding to write fiction, It’s all distinctions of methods, goals, and desired effects from there. It’s turtles all the way down; all gloriously false. I’m all for science fiction writers deciding which tools to use and what effects to achieve but, there is a component of moral superiority smugness that some people have about the limitations they have chosen that is just wrongheaded and distasteful. Limitations in literature can have powerful effects to the good — look at haiku for example but, writing has for too long limited itself to certain effects to the point that it has forgotten that other effects are even possible. Or, somewhat better, it fools itself into thinking some effects aren’t worth achieving. That’s the value of the pulp revival — to remind people of other tools available to them and that they will not achieve some effects without them.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      “That’s the value of the pulp revival — to remind people of other tools available to them and that they will not achieve some effects without them.”

      Exactly. We are reclaiming the right to use the tools that we deem necessary for the job at hand.

      And I love the limitations of closed forms, but the form should be a choice, not an obligation.

  3. Dave Higgins says:

    Reblogged this on Davetopia and commented:
    Genre collapses if viewed too closely: urban fantasy has computers, smart-phones, and such, so contains both the science-fiction of a past generation and the seeds of the hard science-fiction of the present; action films have a handsome hero overcoming obstacles before getting the girl at the end, so are romance. Genre boundaries don’t exist.

    And this article shows we should perhaps be grateful they don’t.

  4. I think those genre boxes are a marketing tool used by trad publishing. Now that we have indie publishing, we can throw out the boxes or squash them into new shapes.

  5. mirymom says:

    Reblogged this on Mirymom's Blog and commented:
    I have thought these thoughts myself, but Misha said them better.

  6. Stephen J. says:

    An interesting and well-written post, and I agree with much of it.

    At the same time, I think perhaps there is more value in the divisions of genre than seems to be considered here, as long as that value is placed at the level on which it properly belongs. It can be rightly argued, after all, that steak and chicken are ultimately merely different forms of protein, both tasty and nutritious and even more so when balanced with vegetables and the other food groups, and that really the “difference” between them is “merely” one of superficial taste . . . but I strongly suspect that if you try to cook one using the spices recommended for the other, or covertly serve one to a customer who has asked for the other, or even more daringly create a composite meat made of blending the two, you will more often get negative feedback than positive.

    Taste is often a far more deep-rooted and ineluctable determiner of our reaction to things than our merely metaphysical appreciation of those things’ properties, and it is ignored at one’s peril, I think. Genre marketing definitions developed for a reason.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Granted, but I think that taste is a very individual thing. There will always be things that enjoy more popular support than others. And there will always be people who are more adventurous in matters of taste than others. The market for fish tacos is smaller than the market for burgers and fries, but there is room for both.

  7. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Clean Limbs, Leaden Eras, Bland Old Dinosaurs, and Insinuating a Background –

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