Terminology fascinates me. Of course it does. Words are what I use daily to build worlds; words are what I use just as frequently to try and unpack in a professional-sounding manner the worlds created by others. So I’m hardly going to stand – make that sort of recline awkwardly – here, pretending the way we choose to define things is not of paramount importance.
Yet if there’s anything I believe, it is that the operative word in the above sentence is “choose.” Definitions aren’t Platonic ideals signifying x, just x, and nothing but x, because we’ve plucked them out of the sky pretty and pre-packaged. They are stupendously useful, what with all their help decoding the world and its fictional manifestations; yet were they ever-fixed as the mark in the sonnet of yore, they wouldn’t be half as functional.
That’s not to say we can make words mean anything that pleases and serves us...
Or is it?
Language is a powerful medium, so much so I find I want to swear like a sea-bound sailor to punctuate precisely how powerful it is. But its power is not of the dictatorial kind; it is not by turns tender, inflammatory, heartbreaking because it is peremptory and prescriptive. Rather, it is infinite in application because it can be deployed in an infinity of different ways. Granted, there must be islands of stability in this fluid state of affairs, else we would not be able to grasp tales written yesterday, nevermind years, forget about once upon a time. Still of fluidity we speak, for – if words truly meant nothing but the appearance of themselves – the enterprise of writers would be rather dull and daft.
Now, genres and their subs may well rank amongst the most stable islands in my nautical metaphor. To writers seeking to chart their place along the literary continuum, they can spell the difference between carefully crafted trope and dreadfully dry cliché. They may salvage readers, pressed for time before the imminent gate closure, from being stuck on a long-distance flight with a book that’ll bore them to the edge of doom.
Instrumentality, however, doesn’t warrant a gag and straightjacket. To dive back into my metaphor: one may build bridges across islands. Apparently, fantasy ≠ magical realism ≠ urban fantasy. My inner inquisitive explorer couldn’t disagree more, and not because the novel in progress attempts to bridge those pesky genre divides. More like, the novel attempts to bridge divides that I have always believed to be a posteriori constructs, useful yet not omnipotent, insightful yet not omniscient.
Genres are cosy, in that soothing milk and whiskey when ill kind of way, yet comfort zones are also meant to be stepped out of. I cannot fail to namedrop Jasper Fforde, whose mind-melting combination of literary satire, dystopian science fiction and detective story defies all common sense to run like a clockwork dream. Jasper, I know, collected 76 rejection slips before being snapped up; myself, I write for publishers of the 77th persuasion.