I’ve asked my English 440 class to think about genres this year, and their posts made me think about my own genre expectations.
Primary among those, I think, is that I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that I increasingly expect writers to be willing to commit all kinds of horrific acts on their protagonists in order to somehow prove that they’re not in love with them (and thus conforming to the Hallmark-card version of story-telling). My wife and I are watching Breaking Bad, which we missed live, and the physical punishment that Walter and Jesse take proves something in my mind about the seriousness with which the writers are taking their characters. I don’t think that’s right in a literary sense, let alone a moral one, but that expectation is one that I’m finding I put on the texts that I read.
I also find that expectation bleeding into genres and their borders. Much like (in my mind) Neal Stephenson ends cyberpunk with Snowcrash, I thought that Colson Whitehead might well have ended the zombie novel (at least as a serious exploration of cultural anxieties and work) with Zone One, a novel so powerful that I read it twice (and that conforms to my rule that the author be willing to beat up her or his protagonist, as Mark Spitz describes himself as ‘average’ and then proceeds to live up to those expectations all the way to the end). Whitehead works overtime to let us know that Spitz only survives because he is willing to divorce himself completely from his emotions, and not because he’s some sort of Denzellian superman wandering the wasteland, and the complete hopelessness that overpowers all human relationships throughout the novel (and his intense literary talent and profound imagination) make me wonder how anyone can write another zombie novel.
And yet, of course, the genre persists, in ways cyberpunk never will. In part I wonder if that persistence is caused by its crossing mediums and moving to graphic novels and teevee in the form of The Walking Dead, a series that meets my expectations for beating up characters both physically and emotionally.
It’s an age-old question, of course, that delicate balance that writers and readers try to maintain between innovation and expectation, and perhaps the idea lies more in how circles of audience overlap, and in how certain stories seem to endlessly need retelling.