Friday, March 20, 2009

The Cult of Genre

I write from a soft beige chair, afternoon light coming through slightly dirty Riverside windows. I'm impatient with Italian adjective exercises, restless from staying home all day, perpetually hungry for chocolate, trying to work, getting distracted by the sweet air outside, thinking about Jon Stewart.

Last week I watched almost a half-hour of Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer. (link is to Pt. 1, don't forget to watch 2 and 3 as well.) I've never seen Mad Money, and so I had to do some research to understand what was going on, at least insofar as I could understand the criticisms Jon was leveling at the quasi-contrite Cramer. I did do some research, and I think it's clear that Jon is heroically representing us all in his anger over the secrecy, elitism, and exploitation embedded in our financial crisis.

What I knew beforehand, even before I was totally clear on the content, was that Stewart had decided not to be funny for the entirety of the interview. Who knows what Cramer thought would happen--but likely not the investigative journalism he suddenly had to face. Brava, Stewart, for that crassly irreverent move.

I call it such because of how much I see the Cult of Genre running the opinion machine. Comments on the clips generally run from--and these are paraphrase-- "you're so AWESOME" (which is useless as it contains no analysis) to "you aren't a real journalist, you're a comedian, shut up." This is the notion that is most problematic to me.

If Jon Stewart is smart enough to get an investigative staff together (let's assume he's not the one doing ALL the homework), smart enough to conduct this interview, and smart enough to articulate himself as well as he does night after night, it's ridiculous to say he's "just" a comedian. He's brilliant--and I do offer credit to all the people who make it possible for him to do what he does. It's nearsighted to wish he'd stick to one genre when it's clear that he's better, his art is better, his word is better, and therefore we're all better, when he doesn't. Yet the "stick to your field" argument follows even him.

The cultish attachment to keeping works and people within genre extends to music, literature, academia, anything. I'm not defending people who cross genres poorly--I don't like dillettantes, anti-education arguments, or people who get public attention for crappy "side projects" just because they're already famous. What I'm defending is the creative act of operating actually outside the system of genre. What WAS that episode of the Daily Show? It wasn't exactly news, wasn't exactly comedy. But it was great--and whether or not something is great is much more important that whether it can or should be categorized.

This issue came up recently after a crew of Sacred Dicers all went together to see The Watchmen. Most of us had read it, a few hadn't, and suddenly at the end of the film I had to face my own attachment: the moviemakers changed the ending. I had to let go my love of the graphic novel's ending in order to see clearly that the movie ending actually worked better. That's right, I said better--and Linz had to say it aloud before I could even think it. What's admirable about the graphic novel is still admirable. What's pertinent and brilliant about the movie simply outshines it. The novel's ending is absurd; horror and comedy, which have been paired throughout the book, are juxtaposed most extremely in the last pages as a sentient squid-beast explodes over New York and kills thousands. You are made to feel part of one very large, very sick joke. The movie ending retains some of this absurdity, but follows through also on other themes: Jon as a Christ figure, framed for the fatal explosions in many of the worlds' cities and ready to martyr himself for world peace, Laurie and Dan's addiction to being masked adventurers, the fact that warring nations would likely need to suffer similar casualties in order to work together so quickly.

But if I had stayed in the Cult of Genre I wouldn't have seen that. (And if any of you are still members of the Cult of Plot, and annoyed with me for "spoiling" we can discuss that later). As a Cult of Genre member I would have been so blinded by the lack of squid, which I'd loved, that the movie ending would have seemed like a cop-out. No absurd squid? Who do these guys think they are!? This is isn't THE WATCHMEN!!

No jokes? Who does this Stewart guy think he is!? This isn't COMEDY!!

No stories about ex-boyfriends? Who does this Vanessa think she is!? This isn't a BLOG!!

And so on. I read many academic papers in grad school that spent paragraph after paragraph attempting to define a genre or category in order to defend a particular piece of work's position in or out of it. This seems a limiting pursuit, and possibly evidence of the arts/humanities insecurity about big brother Science. See, Science? We have structures of classifaction too!

So maybe I'll take the line out of my query letter that calls my novel "literary fiction." The line actually reads "this is literary fiction with the colors too bright and the sound too loud." Remember back in January of 2008 when I saw Susie Bright and decided I wanted to start a genre called "Philosmut"? Walter Mosely published a book he called "Sexistentialist" and I'd like to keep that project going, except instead of only inventing new categories, I'd like to try changing the systems of categorization to being more like webs. So each text would have a number of tags, just like they do online. I think it's possible, and I think it's already happening, and everyone had better start thinking this way or they'll just walk around in a constant state of outrage that their world isn't conforming to their assumptions.

It's all true, and it's all fiction. There. Now we can keep working.


  1. Hell yeah. There's so many good sentences in this blog, it's like it's not a blog. Oops, I just fell into the cult of genre...

    Other good examples of the tyranny of genre and field:
    *my classmate who loves puns but not in her poetry because 'puns are so out in poetry right now'.
    * the constant criticism of Bono's politics,as well as the Dixie Chicks: "shut up and sing". I like musicians who are good politicians and I like politicians who are good artists, such as Havel of the Czech Republic
    * films, such as Speed Racer and the Star Wars PREQUELS (that's right) that so thoroughly tangle up high and mass culture that fans of both hate them.

  2. In the middle of your essay, you state, "whether or not something is great is much more important that whether it can or should be categorized." I couldn't agree more. I've always been curious as to why some academes insist upon banging their heads upon walls, debating on the categorization of art. We are all well into creating braids with our thinking and art, hopefully we are, and I would think that overlapping genres or using a variety of media would assist us in the delivery of those braids.

    In graduate school at Boston College, I took an Asian-American cultural studies course, and one text under consideration was a book called Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a brilliant Korean-American performance artist who was unfortunately killed in 1982. I own two editions of this book. One edition is categorized as "Literature/Art" and the other is not categorized at all. I remember some of my peers found their books categorized as "Memoir/Art." I bring up this book within the context of this genre discussion because Dictee is all of these things and much more...more than just a braid. It's more like a fish tail, or perhaps more of a spider's web!

    In Dictee, Cha utilizes the languages of English, French, a bit of Korean, a bit of Chinese, and a bit of filmic language (as if giving direction behind a camera). She also incorporates photography, maps, medical charts, and film stills (a couple in particular are from Carl Dreyer's silent film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc).

    The text is completely fascinating and it forever changed the way I read and see experience. In some ways it's a total mind fuck, but it's a text that must be considered and discussed! If you ever pick it up, let me know!

  3. Just wanted to say that the opening sentence made me smile; much needed. It's gorgeous.

  4. The last two sentences are my favorites. It reminds me of my imaginary religion, Discordianism. It's a religion worth having, and one of the only great ones, for it's embrace of the absurdity of nonempirical faith.

    I think you may have stumbled across a neo-zen practice: the paradigm-destroying binary.