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.