The Novel Way: A Discussion on Genre
2013 is seeing the new literary term ‘cli-fi’ (climate-fiction) trending. On Friday May 31st 2013 The Guardian’s Rodge Glass gave a concise history of the genre cli-fi which has been said to have been the cause of debate regarding its place in the literary world.
Glass considers all literary terms to be reductive and all labels simplistic and questions just how far the new term can go to encourage people to read fiction on the subject of climate change. The debate revolving around the confinement of (fictional) literature to a genre or multiplicity of genres has been of great interest to me and I will go on to discuss how cli-fi can work within the general debate. Some (non cli-fi) literary novels that fuel the debate for me in particular are:
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Classified by some as a Victorian novel and by others as a romance novel, as well as many other options, there is no clear cut genre in which this novel is placed in. Critics often choose to focus their views on the novel’s most popular genres (these possibly being Romance, Bildungsroman and Victorian as well as a consideration of Gothicism being present.) Critic Jessica Cox notes that a response by Bronte to G. H. Lewes’s “offers one possible explanation for the confusion of genres in Jane Eyre, and suggests that while Bronte favoured realism, she was forced to adopt the conventions of more sensational genres in order to find favour with publishers.” As a female writer Bronte was faced with patriarchal opposition with regards to her career and not only did she have to write under the alias of a man (Currer Bell) but also had to impress publishers by writing about subjects that would be favourable with male readers.
2. Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden (The Tomorrow Series: Book One)
Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, the classification of the novel as a children’s book is questionable, what with the mention of group orgies as a possibility on the camping trip at the beginning. Perhaps classifying it as a novel for young adults is more suitable.
Fictional literature, if any good, is written with a view that it should be open to a degree of personal interpretation from the reader. One person might for instance, perceive William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to be about a struggle to maintain law and order on the island where a group of boys are confined with little or no hope of rescue. Another reader might choose to examine the postcolonial aspects (i.e. the negative perceptions that the colonisers (England) had against those they colonised) that the text offers. And of course some readers will not consider the two aspects as mutually exclusive, but see them as working in tandem. Therefore the same room for personal interpretation should be allowed to exist for genre classification.
Genre classification does have its place in literature as Rodge Glass explains that “whenever a literary term gains traction it is a chance to examine not only what it says about the writers who explore the new ground but also the readers who buy it, read it, discuss it.” Understanding the target audience for a novel is important if novels are to be read and if the writers are to get the credit they deserve. Genre classification serves this purpose quite well.
Does it look likely that novels dealing with climate change and global warming will become popular now a label has been attached to them? Nathaniel Rich whose novel Odds Against Tomorrow appears to be acknowledged as cli-fi believes that “we will increasingly see more novels that incorporate ecological themes as more people begin, or are forced, to contemplate the catastrophic ways in which we have transformed the planet.” However it seems that some people are apprehensive that the subject matter presented as fiction will gain the interest of publishers who have been said to ‘glaze over’ when climate change is mentioned, according to Caroline Michel. It is hard enough to sell non-fiction books on the topic!
Both sides of the argument regarding the general necessity for genre are equally interesting. Personally I believe genre classification does have a tendency to increase the potential for some novels to go unread by people who would readily consider reading the novel if they knew that their favourite topics were covered in the novel but are put off by certain genre types they personally consider to be unfavourable. However without some classification of sorts it would be hard, if not harder, to determine who is reading what and how they come across what they are reading. This is the case particularly with the emergence of climate-fiction and it is essential for the survival of the novels that deal with climate change and global warming to have a classification in order to give some indication of its popularity or possible lack thereof. Perhaps our libraries and bookstores need to be a bit more liberal with where they place their numerous copies of novels so they serve all the potential genres in one novel and can reach more people. This ought to be the case with underrated or emerging novels in particular.
What do you think? Leave a comment.