Keith Snyder
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Repost: On Genres

This is from June, 2000, but considering the arguments I'm getting into lately about interstitial arts, it seems approriate. Some of the links may have broken since I first posted it.

Here's this essay's sister.


I was doing some maintenance on the page I administer for The Cosmic Debris, the spoken-word-and-electronic-music group I used to be in, when I noticed—again—the dozens of little subgenres of dance-oriented electronic music. Ambient, illbient, trip-hop, trance, drum-n-bass, abstract, techno...just at first glance, it looks as though there's so much creativity in electronic pop music that it's overflowing its containers. Judging from the need for all these labels, it must be that this burgeoning art has burst its borders, not just a few times, but in dozens—maybe hundreds—of distinct ways.

The only thing is, to someone who's not an aficionado of one or another of these subgenres — subgenres? hell; they're microgenres — it all sounds pretty much the same. When the only difference between one genre and another is that one's got a driving dance beat, 2-bar ostinati, and layered samples, and the other has a relaxed dance beat, 2-bar ostinati, and layered samples, that's really not two "genres." It's just two songs.

In mystery publishing, there are cozies, and hardboileds, and softboileds, and amateurs, and PIs, and police procedurals, and cat books, and so on. Again, you'd think this would indicate teeming creativity. A good, unassailable, logical case can be made that it does. But actually *reading* the books reveals that, for the most part, there aren't as many significant differences as there are subgenre labels. For the most part, it's the same formula with a different character type plugged in.

Yes, there are exceptions. They're not what this essay is about.

Genre artists hate the word "formula." But that's what it is; it's the 4/4 dance beat with a Nord Lead filtered monophonic lead ostinato and vocal samples, or it's the plucky amateur with the cop boyfriend/girlfriend, the dead body by chapter 2, and the naming of the murderer at the end.

Yes, of course, there is creativity in how these frameworks are filled out. I'm not saying it's uncreative. What I'm asking is this: if the same framework is filled out in three ways, does that really count as three genres? Isn't the box itself the genre? Isn't there really just one?

So why assign a distinct label to something that isn't actually that different?

One reason may be that a lot of the people making these products think they are doing something different. They say so publicly, and then people who think creators must know what they're talking about repeat what the creators have said. Now, it's my opinion that most people who simultaneously (a) work solidly and consciously at the core of an established genre and (b) claim to be completely original are missing some vital cognitive resources, but I'm told I tend to be elitist on these subjects, so maybe I'm wrong.

That aside, here are my three explanations for the existence of distinctions-that-aren't:

  1. If the categories didn't exist, most creators would get scared.
  2. If the categories didn't exist, retail stores wouldn't be organized.
  3. If the categories didn't exist, consumers wouldn't know what to buy.

Which boils down to:

  1. We love rules. (The blank vista of an un-begun art project is frightening enough without the added paralysis of lack of guidelines)
  2. We love money and convenience. (We want there to be a Jazz section, and we want to be able to go straight to it. If we're music store owners, we know this about people and arrange our stores for maximum profit.)
  3. We love predictability. (To a large extent, we want to know exactly what's on a CD or in a book before we buy it. As a rule, we don't go to the store to buy things in a style we've never heard of, by someone whose name we don't know, packaged in a way that doesn't immediately inform us of the contents.)

Let's see, then: rules, money, convenience, and predictability. Now there's a sturdy foundation for good art.

Once a creator says, "I want to do something with, you know, that trance vibe," or "...with that gritty, noir PI feel," it seems that at least on one level, innovation has summarily been forfeited. (We can argue about whether innovation is necessary to good art, but that's a different discussion.) If it already has its own bin at Tower Records—or its own section at Barnes and Noble—it's too late to be doing anything original by doing it.

If it has a name, it's not new.

* * *

But what if its name is "fiction" or "music?" Are we, simply by dint of writing something with a plot and characters, or putting one note after another, just rearranging other people's furniture?

Innovation, obviously, is doing something nobody's seen before. That's a straightforward statement, apparently simple, but it's impossible to apply as a yardstick in any pragmatic way. The difficulty doesn't revolve around defining what may or may not be inherently innovative; it revolves around defining who counts as "nobody." No matter how new something is to one bunch of people, there's almost always another bunch to whom it's not.

Sampling, for instance. It was new to the general public when, exactly? Figure 1995ish or so? Wow: you can incorporate "found sounds" and bits of other people's music into yours. That's new, right? But recorded sound collage has been around for fifty years, so was using bits of recordings innovative in 1998 or wasn't it? How about 1988?

How about 1948?

How about the relatively recent tendency toward the protagonist-oriented story in mystery fiction? Previously, mysteries were about the case, not about the detective. Marlowe had no personal life; the Continental Op didn't have a name; Archer barely even had a body. Spenser, Kenzie, and Millhone have relationship problems and personal crises. Is that innovative? In the larger field of general fiction, a main character with relationship problems isn't exactly something we haven't seen before, right?

So how come it was considered new when it happened in mystery? Mysteries are just a subset of fiction, aren't they?

* * *

Here's my theory.

If "genres" are a grid of boxes butted against each other, each of which has a label in it ("romance," "ambient," "jazz," "mystery"), then "new" is when somebody grabs a border and displaces it. It's the tension of the new position of the border against its previous position that gives stuff life. What yesterday we thought of as two separate boxes, we've now been shown is one. Or one and a half. Or still two, but shaped differently. And then that's a new box that maybe abuts some that it didn't previously, and now there are new borders to grab and displace.

(This is why "think outside the box" is idiotic. There is no "outside the box." There's only "inside a different box.")

Still, some boxes are bigger than others. The boxes "music" and "fiction," for instance, are bigger than the boxes "reggae" and "Regency romance." For that reason alone, an artist who successfully warps the boundary between music and fiction in a new way has accomplished something bigger than an artist who successfully warps the boundary between blues and bluegrass, or between romance and science fiction. Less immediately popular, it's likely, but still a bigger accomplishment.

And if that's true, then it's also true that an artist who successfully warps the boundary between ambient and illbient has accomplished something smaller. And to interpolate even further, an artist who successfully warps the boundary between "Love's Fiendish Fool" and "Love's Foolish Fiend" (or between any two Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band songs) has accomplished still less.

Is it art? Sure, maybe, I guess. I dunno. At some point, though, the next question becomes "so what?" At some threshold, the differences fall below the level of significance to anyone but collectors, aficionados, and people who write columns for them. Even an educated, discriminating lay person can't necessarily tell much difference between the mysteries "Murder at the Ball Park" and "The Ball Park Murders" or the ambient pieces "Silver Spaceships Glimmer in the Twilight" and "Dusk Over the Second Moon of Cygnus III." That may not mean the person is ignorant or insensitive; it may mean we've entered the scale at which differences aren't different enough to count as differences. These differences are the same.

* * *

In a few dozen or hundred years, given the explosive advancement of genetics and biology, the two boxes that great artists play with will probably be the ones labeled "art" and "life." Another scalar step after that, and we may not even be debating creativity anymore; we may be debating theology.

After that, I can't even imagine.


Keith Snyder
Motel-6, Buffalo
NY, June 7, 2000

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