By Indrasish Banerjee
I mostly read commercial fiction and novels the first eight to ten years after I started reading. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of genres and didn’t know – much less cared – about them. I was taking my first steps into the world of books and reading a new novel and finishing it was all that mattered. A decade or so later, now much more comfortable in the bibliographic world, I started experimenting with other types of books. Freakonomics (2005) by Steven Levitt was my first foray into non- fiction. Then I experimented with a few more history non-fiction books (history was one of subjects in graduation) mainly by William Dalrymple and Jawaharlal Nehru but also by other writers. Keen on territorial conquests of another kind, I experimented with Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, RK Narayan and a few works by a few more Indian writers. Further from home, I tried out Charles Dickens (had read some abridged versions of his novels in school), Thomas Hardy, EM Forster and more. I read their novels, short stories and essays whatever I found.
I had travelled very far from where I had started many years ago, crisscrossing genres. But my idea of what makes a good read had hardly changed. Whether it came to fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, it still revolved around ‘a story well told’. Of course, some characteristics had changed. I had become more patient with slower narratives, more adept at handling complex narratives, more comfortable with narrative calisthenics and more at ease with diverse types of writing. I had also developed an understanding about the basic differences between literary and commercial works. Even so, my idea of a good read had remained resistant to transformative changes, engendering the question in my mind: “Do genres really matter?”
The answer is both yes and no. Genres help categorise books based on what the reader can expect of them. There are millions and millions of books in the world and just imagine there being no basis to separate one book from another. The reader would have to go from the beginning to end of a book to understand what it was all about or start a journey without knowing what lay ahead. As much as it could be a delightful experience, it would bring in its own challenges. One of them would be to market the book.
Even if we don’t want to overlook the importance of commerce to art, let’s admit that no two things in the world treat each other with as much suspicion. Be that as it may, writers have, from to time, expressed their derision for genre. Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written many genre benders, once said in an interview that genres have no profound literary purpose or any substantial contribution to literature. They are creations of book marketers and their purpose is solely to sell books.
But is literary genre’s relevance to literature only archival and commercial? Maybe a minor digression will bring in a new perspective.
In Hindustani music, genre plays a vital role: it adds variety and richness. There are multiple gharanas (schools) in Hindustani music. Their identity is based on their geographical regions (Lucknow gharana, Carnatic gharana) they come from, the distinct musical heritage and ancestry they represent and the musical form they practice. However, the uniqueness of each gharana is determined by the raga it engineers by combining several suras (pitches). There are seven suras (notes) in Hindustani music.
Film genres contribute to films, of course, in terms of variety but also by creating slots based on audience preferences, social anxieties, aspirations and various other factors which allow filmmakers to address the associated emotions by placing their films in the predefined categories which helps to find a ready audience. Film genres are more fluid than Hindustani music genres. They come and go and also get clubbed creating a hybrid genre where different genres are built into one narrative to appeal to a wider audience.
On the other hand, traditionally, book genres have had rigid boundaries with very minimal or no cross-genre exchanges. In fact, the boundaries have been so rigid that authors of one genre have never shied away from expressing their disdain for their counterparts in another genre. Broadly speaking, the two warring factions have been literary and commercial fiction.
In The Naive And The Sentimental Novelist (2011), Orhan Pamuk says commercial novels (detective, crime, romance, sci fi novels) lack a ‘centre’ – a profound reflection on the meaning of life – which is integral to literary novels. This absence of a centre in commercial novels makes almost all of them same with nothing substantial separating one genre novel from another except their characters, plot twists and the murderer. This lack of substance makes it important for genre novels to always provide excitement to their readers, he alleges. On the contrary, according to Pamuk, a literary novel is a constant quest for the centre not just for the reader but also for the writer.
Some writers may not know the centre to start with discovering it while writing the novel as an act of serendipity. Some may structure their plots such as to illuminate the centre. Tolstoy had to change War and Peace (written in 1869, Translated in 1899) many times to discover its centre. Pamuk informs that Dostoyevsky had suffered epileptic attacks, after writing The Devils (1871-72, translated 1916), when he had realised that he had made a mistake leading to the sudden appearance of a new plan. And he had changed everything radically, Dostoyevsky had claimed.
Howevee, in The Miraculous Years, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer had said Dostoyevsky was exaggerating. The new plan had indeed changed the novel from a mediocre novel with one dimensional characters to a brilliant political one, but Dostoyevsky hadn’t changed more than forty pages of the 250 pages he had written the previous year. Apparently, it’s the ‘centre’ of the novel the great writer had referred to when he had said he had radically changed it, Pamuk concludes.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh blames this obsession of serious literature with daily humdrum, or the ordinariness of life has traditionally kept it away from dealing with subjects which are not considered ‘serious’ leaving them for the humbler genre fiction. Climactic events like a gale flattening a town or massive rains drowning it were considered too incredulous, not making the cut for nineteenth century literary gravitas.
Until 19th century the division between fiction and non-fiction was fuzzy. In the 19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution, there was a profusion of factories – moving workforces from unorganised, ruralized setups to more disciplined and controlled environments. What followed was people constructing their lives around their workplaces. This transformed rural and agricultural societies into orderly and urbanised ones bringing about a new kind of society which was far more cloistered, sober and unexciting than earlier societies which, being agricultural and rural, were far rougher and exposed to vagaries of life and nature. The colourful stories of pre 19th century couldn’t adequately capture this new reality; it needed a new kind of literary tool. In came the serious fiction or what we call today the literary novel.
Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), Shamela by Henry Fielding (1741) and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1760) were the first attempts at literary novel dealing with such solemn themes as social differences, inner conflicts and women’s sexual autonomy. This style of writing travelled far and wide. Among others, it was adopted by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, among the earliest practitioners of the novel in India, digressing from the earlier traditions of storytelling in India, the Jataka tales and so on, informs Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Over a period of time, puritanism around contours of literary fiction set in, and it’s difficult to say when the wall between serious and literary fiction collapsed – in fact one can say it never did. But just as literary novels had emerged to accommodate a new kind of reality in 19th century, breaking away from genre fiction, genre benders have accounted for another kind of changing reality which is presenting challenges hitherto unimagined within the conventional boundaries of human life, like the effects of climate change and technological advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning.
To capture the idiosyncrasies of modern life, many literary writers have flouted the boundary between literary and genre novels by setting their plots in the genre format while retaining the treatment of literary fiction. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), Christopher Banks, now a private detective in London, sets out to investigate how his parents disappeared from Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The novel is about life’s profundities like memory, nostalgia at its heart, although it’s written like a detective novel. The plot constantly moves from one incident to another keeping the reader waiting for the end, even as it draws a detailed picture of Shanghai society during the war. In Ishiguro’s recent book – Klara And The Sun (published in 2021) – he explores what separates human from robot even after the robot has acquired human-like intelligence. The book has a children’s book like element to it which is its main charm.
Many writers have experimented with multiplicity of forms, but among the notable books are Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel, Inter Ice Age 4, which starts as a hardwired sci fi but slowly evolves into a political thriller and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) whose plot bifurcates into two in the middle of the novel. There on, in some chapters, the reader is solving literary mysteries while the other chapters are the first chapters from other novels of varied styles.
The novel like any other art form has survived and moved ahead through adoption from within its various forms or external influences. When a new form arrives as a reaction to a social change or occurrence or an enterprising writer pushing back the boundaries, puritanism sets in to preserve the form in its purest state if it achieves literary acceptance and fame. Novels with magic realism and migration are some examples. When the form outlives its utility or is made obsolete by emerging trends or excessive repetition, it gets subsumed by another form and survives as part of it or slowly dies out. And thus, a new form, a mix of the two or many more, emerges. And the novel lives to fight another day.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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