Thursday, July 21, 2011

Brief thoughts on genre from my vacation

Even on vacation, genres interest me, whether they be genres of food, of music, or of fiction.

Let me explain what I mean by genre: a set of common basic ingredients and techniques. And when I say basic, I mean basic. I think of pizza as a genre of food, wherein a topping of some sort--typically involving fat and vegetables or meat--is cooked on top of a yeasted bread as the bread bakes (simultaneity is crucial, by the way; sorry Englsih muffin pizza of my youth). Does this create some overlap with other food genres, pies and tarts for example? Sure, but there are more distinctions than overlaps.

Within the genre of pizza there is a huge range, of course--Neapolitan to Chicago-style to tavern pies (of which I had a fantastic exampe on this trip at Star Tavern in Orange, NJ). I'd call the groups on this range sub genres. But the bottom line is they're all pizza, and they're all interesting to me, sometimes as much for their membership in the genre as for their individual excellence.

For example, if I'd spent my life eating eating tavern pies, I probably wouldn't be a pizza fanatic. I don't love tavern pies enough for them to have created a pizza obsession in me. fortunately, I had good Chicago style pizza in Chicago pretty young. And then I had Neapolitan pizza, and basically I was off to the races.

So now when I have a really stellar bar pie, like the one at Star Tavern (a pizza for which I drove quite a bit out of my way, risking the eternal contempt of wife and son if it turned bust), I appreciate it because it's good pizza, but also because it's playing with the basic ingredients of the genre in a way that's interesting in the larger context of my pizza-eating life. It's good food connected to context.

This is how genres in literature work for me, too. The very first YA novel I acquired, edited, and published entirely was a realistic YA (How It's Done by Christine Kole MacLean). Novels like Christine's were a prime entry point for me--they're the Neapolitan of my YA reading life--but I pretty quickly branched out, and now I value all of the ways the various YA sub genres riff on the basic YA ingredients and techniques: teenage experience and character-driven storytelling. For example, I like paranormal YA because they are an interesting way of manipulating and exaggerating the ingredients. Sometimes the most outrageous paranormals reveal the most about normal teens.

I think this way of looking at genre works for the traditional genres as well. Mystery has murder and puzzles. Sci-fi has tech, speculation and world building (I'm not a connoisseur--please forgive my poor recipe). And each in turn has its subgenres (mystery, in particular, seems to have a million). Subgenres may rise and fall in popularity. They may even grow more prominent than the genre (as is often the case in YA). But if you look at the recipes, the commonalities become clear and so does the genre-ness.

Or at least I think so.

(I've also been asked if YA lit is a genre, then must adult lit also be a genre? I say no, not at all. Adult lit is simply cooking, if you'll allow me to continue the metaphoric parallel. I find this a nice explanation because it allows me to enjoy a picture book as much as a novel.)

OK. BAck to vacation.