Make Your Bones

"Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones", Gustav Doré (1866), the biblical passage that also inspired the song "Dem Bones."

Fiction is a mutating rat king of genres writhing in an oversized trenchcoat, yet many of them have different readerships with little overlap for all that their tails are tied together. This thought originally came from seeing (yet another iteration upon the endless samsaric wheel of) commentary about “YA fantasy” vs. “adult fantasy.” I won’t rehash the arguments, they are familiar. But some thoughts on genre’s functioning in general. How “YA fantasy,” for example, is a genre, if a broad one, to the extent that there are specific expectations when you pick up a YA novel: protagonist age range, coming-of-age narrative, &c., and “adult fantasy” is not. If anything, “adult fantasy” is merely a negative marketing signal to clearly identify things that are not YA, so that nobody gets mad about buying the wrong thing. To set expectations more clearly in novels (for anyone) a broader vocabulary of genre is needed, and so the signals rapidly escalate into marking comedy and tragedy, into tropes and settings and devices and even entire recognizable plots.

A great many things tell us what to expect from a given book that we might have in our hands, and as readers and book-buyers, we are all quite adept at navigating these signals. Many of them are obvious—imprints, presses, and authors become known for the kind of work they produce. Cover design, marketing, and bookstore placement send many messages. And of course, genre. A common objection is that genre is “only” marketing, and yes, sure, do we not all live within the hellmarket? What is interesting about genre is that it is there, and visibly doing some kind of work, and it is one of the simplest ways that readers encounter intertextuality.

Genre is not neatly diagrammable or mappable precisely because maps make gaps, and that summons Things to arise in the gaps and change the territory. Genre is necessarily vague. A sort of thing, a kind of thing. To say that something is a genre is to say that it’s a particular kind of thing, that you can have specific expectations of it. You can read Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and move on to Clare’s City of Bones and then to Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and they all have more in common than bone-themed titles: they have the same broad plot about an alienated young person who discovers themselves to be not only empowered but central to intrigues. Which is not a criticism; the pleasure of a genre is precisely that it reproduces pleasure. City of Bones is also the title of one of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, for instance, and that’s a different genre that’s equally repetitive, if not more so, and whose reproducible pleasures are even more tightly wound. (A mystery that is never (re)solved can be a novel, but it’s no longer in the genre of mystery novel.) Or consider Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, which employs this reproduction of pleasure, this setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, at multiple levels: in the classic ghost story it retells, in allusions to Rebecca, and most of all in a recognizable subgenre of King himself, stories about blocked middle-aged writers with fucked up family lives and supernatural midlife crises.

A work is within a genre to the extent (all sets are fuzzy; crispness is an illusion) that it sets expectations and meets/subverts them so that the reader’s experience of the pleasures of that text include the reproduction of the strange into the familiar. This provides a vast array of highly specific prefabricated options, some of them vast Kirbytech machines (“big rocks that do magic”—for example, the time travel in Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth) and some plot structures well-known enough to rate as tropes that readers can ask for (“enemies to lovers” &c.). This is also the logic of comps and loglines: to anchor the new in the known and predict the pleasures of the text in advance. You can see this as a buyer’s perspective—the reader deciding how to spend their money, the acquiring editor trying to predict those decisions, the agent trying to predict those decisions, very marketplace, so capitalism—and that’s true, but I think much the same dynamic would apply even when substituting time and attention for money. That is, this isn’t necessarily about hellmarket rules. In any world, the mortal reader must choose what to read next, and that decision is predicated on their prediction of the pleasure that text will produce.

Texts get called literary—as pejorative or plaudit, being either low culture or high culture snobbery depending on speaker; there is no non-snobbish way to refer to such texts, so I am employing it in both senses at once for maximum snobbery—to the extent that the text’s pleasures are not rooted in the setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, or rather, since expectations are inevitable in the florid multiplying of signals in all directions from all sources, to the extent that the text uproots itself from this concern and orients itself to a different plane. For example, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, an undeniably literary text says Messrs. Nobel and Booker, is indeed a crime novel, but its signal pleasures are not in the plot, where it sets and subverts expectations in a familiar way otherwise indistinguishable from a genre crime novel in the subgenre of unreliable quirky narrators, but in the prose, and in what, from the perspective of moving the plot forward, as in getting us from A to B as effectively as possible, is extraneous: the astrology, the William Blake, the character’s perspective. Either way it’s a good book, but what makes it literary is that reading it to find out whodunnit is not the greatest pleasure of the text.

Of course these things are not in fact extraneous. There is no necessity to get us from A to B as effectively as possible, merely the possibility. You can go from A to B via a detour through the rest of the alphabet, you can fake out B with C or Q for that matter; you can not go anywhere at all and simply explore the world of A itself: what a strange character this is, bipedal and arms crossed, a buffalo stance. All that matters is whether it works. (Itself the most complicated possible question that can be asked about a text, I know, but we shall gently contain its tremendous radioactive fallout to this aside. Run and save yourself—I’ll stay behind to close the parenthesis behind you.)

I am trying to avoid a hierarchy of snobbery in either direction by arguing that there is no flat plane upon which to build it. The reason that literary and genre are not mutually exclusive definitions is that they are concerned with different things, different planes set at odd angles to each other: they may intersect and overlap in various places, but as terms, they are not the same kind of thing. That is to say, literary and genre are not in the same genre, and to say so is a literary concern. The literary concern is whether words matter, whether the familiar instruments of language are made strange. It is quite normal to have texts where the words very much do not matter, as anyone who reads enough novels knows. Sometimes such texts translate easily to television because they were already television: the novel that is actually a screenplay in waiting. Those are simple examples of texts that are definitionally not-literary.

This is orthogonal to genre’s definitional playing with expectations because it is easy for a text to do both things. Consider Garner’s Boneland: a decades-later “adult” sequel to a pair of classic fantasy novels that would probably have been marketed as YA or children’s literature if they had been published somewhat later. It is a book that is burdened with formal expectations, and yet it is a book where the words matter so much that, as Le Guin wrote of it, you read it to figure it out gradually, “as with poetry, learning another language, learning to see and think differently.” Boneland is a book where the words matter from beginning to end, a book that absolutely delights in what is extraneous to structured plot in prefabricated units, while still visibly working within structures derived from a well-worn magical children’s adventure fantasy tradition worked before by many writers, from Susan Cooper to Dianne Duane to Garner himself. That is to say, it addresses both literary and genre concerns. Many books achieve this quality only in fragments, or perhaps not at all; even more books never intended to achieve any such thing, and so meet their own expectations.

A book—as a commercial product ensconced in the paratextual full three-piece suit of cover and blurbs and marketing—sets expectations relentlessly, but it is not a given that the text it contains will always meet them in a predictable way. Outside of the most neutral-tasting extruded product made from recycled mush, many texts are still at least a little wild, suffering themselves to be dressed up in order to be permitted onto a shelf in a store. To find that wildness in a text, even if brief and fragmentary, to find the places where it plays with the expectations in unexpected ways, to find those moments where the words matter, to me this is the pleasure of reading.

This essay brought to you by my patrons and was posted early access over on Patreon a month ago. (See also my most recent Readings post, which went on my Patreon as a patrons-only post and I forgot to post about it here.)