The Second Confiscation

by Ray Davis

"Hithertofore the public has been offered literature only after it was no longer literature. Or so murdered and so discreetly bound in linens that those regarding it have seldom, if ever, been aware, or discovered, that that which they took for an original was indeed a reconstruction."
- Djuna Barnes, Foreword to Ryder
Censorship does harm only if you intend to do something with your freedom. However, most of us, lacking a job which satisfies the natural human urge to enforce arbitrary rules, form a police state of one and expend immense energy on looking cool in our designer blinders. In fact, the opportunity to safely lay down the law even seems for some people to be the major attraction of art -- or at least of genre.

To the irritation of taxonomists and other amateur thought police, each genre is a loose bundle of:

Marketing term
The origin of any genre: it's easier to sell a known quantity, particularly to customers who've bought into the other aspects of genre. In turn, a professional group forms to supply product to the marketing division.

Debate club
Shared interests always lead to a focus on differences and gaps, at least when you're dealing with geeky but combative personalities like writers. The impulse to respond ("How could anyone mention nanotechnology and leave out its potential effects on hookworm evolution?") in turn supports the genre with new (but not too new) works.

Ways of reading
Any interesting work carries its own ways of reading; that may be one point of "literature". But genre entices us with the promise of being able to re-use the skills previous works have taught us. Of course, such an approach may bring diminishing returns and blind us to the genuinely new aspects of new work, but there's such comfort in expertise....

Comfortable retreat
As noted. I should also note that there are few retreats more comfortable than those defended by self-righteous carefully-directed iconoclasm, which brings us to genre as....

Beleagured territory
Fascists are voted into power to preserve the family hearth, and they love their work. Similarly, those of us who've settled into a genre must defend our hard-won comfortable retreat against any internal enemies who debate too fiercely, not to mention the immigration of furriners from other genres.
Genres not only provide handles for explicit censorship, but also for implicit censorship via restricted distribution, and for self-censorship via genre allegiance. Thus, in the 1930s, the genre and industry called "mainstream fiction" protected itself less efficiently against Ulysses by legal barriers than by burying a psychiatrist-written review of the novel in the back pages of the New York Times. After all, it's not insurmountably difficult to smuggle a book into the USA -- unless you have no desire to read it. And the New York Times continues to bury work by writers such as Samuel R. Delany by the simple expedient of treating it as naively unimportant.

Admittedly, I find such behavior perverse only because it conflicts with my own perversity. Pat Califia has written that she's queer for queerness; similarly, I'm queer for the eccentric and disturbing (but not "the transgressive", an adjective which currently marks just another reactionary genre), even for that which just befuddles.... Like any good perversion, mine feels integral and endlessly justifiable: Thurber and White define "love" as "that pleasant confusion which we know exists," and I could define "literature" in just those words for just the same reasons.

This doesn't mean I'm "against genre." As should be clear from the bill of materials above, genre is inescapable. Those foolish readers who believe they avoid it merely restrict themselves to relatively uninteresting genres such as "mainstream fiction" or "canonical masterpieces." No, as a marketing term, genre is unavoidable; as a spur to conversation, genre is useful to the writer; and as an easy pre-packaged assortment of reading methods, genre is useful to both writer and reader.

Genre remains useful only while one bears in mind that it's a bundle easily unbound and that a marketing category does not fully define a work of art. Just as one may in school be forced to apply mainstream fiction's rules of reading to works written far outside the genre of mainstream fiction, one may (outside of school, if you value your degree) approach Djuna Barnes as dark fantasy, or Robert Musil as hard science fiction, or Patricia Highsmith as gender outlawry, or Alexander Trocchi as high modernism. Such perversity is not without its satisfications, and we may profitably indulge from time to time.

But only with your permission, of course.

Copyright 1996 Ray Davis