Monday, September 10, 2018

Blending Genres

Blending genres? Why not? You’re asking that question of one who cut her college teeth on genre smashing things like Nouveau Roman, Gertrude Stein, Happenings, and foreign films at the Surf Theater in San Francisco.

My brain awakened in the 60s, but my feet were also firmly planted in the immediate post-WW II era, a time when any belief in reason, justice, or humanity was blasted into micro-bits of dust. Neat, logical boxes were bad jokes at best, obscenities at worst. The world had to be reformed out of chaos, and many believed that was no longer possible.

Of course, the world has been reformed in ways or we wouldn’t even be having this discussion of blending genres. And, being a person owning many decades beyond my college years, I have some thoughts, pro and con.

The concept of “genre” has merit. Cutting up bookstore stock into divisions of form, style and subject matter is good business. Since I don’t understand most poetry, I rarely read it. Much modern American “literary fiction” doesn’t grab me for a variety of reasons so I skip past that segment. But label a section “biography”, “plays”, or “mysteries” and I come running.

Besides, who has time to wander along the walls of an unlabelled bookstore, picking up books because something just draws you? Yet I remember when it was fun. I even picked up some poetry that way as I browsed through the City of Paris basement (when I could still read French) and those rickety-staired or below-the-sidewalk bookstores I haunted in my youth.

So, from a business perspective, keeping to the defined genre is good. From an artistic or intellectual point of view, it is deadly. So what’s a curious soul to do in an era when business loves boxes, but brains don’t?

Take the mystery. Make it a puzzle, as in the Golden Age, and it is the literary form of the New York Times crossword, a challenge and a delight. Turn it into a novel, like P.D. James, and you are reminded that murder is brutal, ugly, and terrifying. Add the concise word choice and poetic lilt of language, in the manner of Ken Bruen, and you face the insanity of violent death and smell the foulness with the intensity of walking into the face of an ice storm.

In short, the mystery is rarely just one genre. As a blend of story, poetry, theater, and puzzle, it makes us think about justice, society (ours and others), the lessons to be learned in history, and, like biography, what forms one person into the creature they become. This blending has captured me because it shakes up my preconceptions and makes me ponder stuff I might not otherwise question. It is why I have learned to love mysteries best.

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