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Night Shade Message Boards » Interstitial Arts Foundation » It's interstitial, duh!: can't decide where it goes? It goes here. » Between Genres or Between Markets? « Previous Next »

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003 - 11:44 am:   

I decided to take up an issue here because I see it coming up again and again in this discussion. When we speak of interstitial arts, are we speaking of works which emerge between genres, or are we speaking of works which are difficult to market without misrepresenting their generic content/form? In other words, does interstitial really refer to genre, or does it instead refer to the current culture of the markets for art?

I've tried to address this in other posts in other threads on this forum, and I decided to start this thread to prevent my constantly roadblocking other productive discussions in those threads. And anyway, I have a sense that this discussion deserves its own venue.

I've made a drive-by attempt to get at the nature of "genre" as the academy understands it in the Music thread, and I've taken up what I perceive as some slippage in terminology on other threads. I invite rebuttals, demands for clarification, and other such comments/complaints. I'd like to get more fully into what this phenomenon means, but I'd also like to feel we're standing on level critical ground.

So I'll start with a question directed to writers, editors, and readers alike. When we speak of interstitiality, how are we understanding the things between and among which these "interstices" are formed? Are they marketing categories such as Fantasy and Horror? Hierarchical terms such as high-/middle-/low-brow or popular/literary? Or formal genres in the academic sense such as Fiction, Bildungsroman, Fairy Tale, and so on?
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Chuck Hogle
Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003 - 12:47 pm:   

I think of "interstitial" as referring to works which do not fit into a particular marketing category--really, the works that don't fit into the big, safe categories which have established consumer bases. I would think that there is a demand for almost any kind of work, but some works are in more demand than others. An interstitial work would be a work that doesn't fit into one of the large-demand categories. That isn't a reflection on the work's quality, just a reflection of current consumer trends and the marketing of businesses.
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AliceB
Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003 - 01:31 pm:   

Hello Neal,

This is a poor stab at answering some of one question. What makes a genre? I think a genre is made up by people giving arbitrary rules about what to expect in a kind of art. In other words something fits a genre if it meets certain criteria that have been attached to it, frequently by people who are not creating the work.

So, for example, in the genre I know most about, something is called a children's book if its primary audience consists of people under the age of 18. But that's slippery, since you might not know the audience until after the book is published, and this kind of definition depends on the market to define the genre for you. (E.g. HARRY POTTER was written as a children's book, slipped into the adult market when adults bought it for themselves, then was shoved back into the children's genre when "adult fiction" decided it was hogging too much space.)

Yet, despite the slipperiness of this definition, most people can figure out what a children's book is -- there are characteristics to most children's books that a reader can recognize: a use of language, structures, kinds of characters, and so forth. Eventually these characteristics were classified, and now there is a field of study in children's literature and an entire industry in teaching writers how to write a children's book.

Different fields have different kinds of identifying classifications. Art historians distinguish between cubists, impressionists, pointillists, neo-classics, pop-art, and on and on. There is an understanding of musical patterns that distinguishes the blues, from New Orleans Jazz, from hot jazz, from cool jazz, and more. There are people devoted to these areas of study, capable of making classifications, and who, as a result have "codified" what makes a cubist painting, or a cool jazz piece.

So I think that "genre" means an area that has somehow been codified.

Of course it's a lot easier to codify art history than the contemporary world. To go with my previous example: where will HARRY POTTER fit in the literary world 50 years from now? Will it be considered a children's book, or like HUCKLEBERRY FINN slip into literature, or will it be a footnote in one of Norton's compilations? Beats me.

When I think of interstitial works, I'm looking at works that somehow don't meet all of the criteria for a genre, as currently codified (the codifation will continue to change over time), fit the criteria of more than one or don't quite fit the criteria of any other. In the future, what I now think of as "interstitial art" will be codified and become a genre of its own or join a new genre or will change the definitions of the genre its closest to.

All the best,
Alice
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2003 - 11:08 am:   

It's an interesting question you raise, Neal, especially to me. One semester I did a very interesting independent study on genre theory from ancient times through to the present day (obviously I didn't get to do more than just scratch the surface, but...). One of things I came away with was the idea that "genre" doesn't actually refer to a stable, definable thing. "Genre" is a way of interpreting how we categorize a given art, say literature, because that's the art I'm most comfortable talking about. And not only have the categories changed over time, but the way we categorize has changed over time--children's lit being a prime example, as it didn't really exist outside of etiquette manuals before the 18th century. But during the 18th century, children read *Pamela*, for instance, with great passion. And genres can die out--when was the last time anybody wrote a history play, for example?

Even now, we have several different categories of genre. Genre can refer to content: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, western (I'm pretending for the moment that content and style can be separated--bear with me!). Genre can refer to form: novel, short story, drama, poetry. Genre can refer to combinations of form and content: comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy.

I think that's why genre is so undefinable--it has a multitude of meanings depending on when and where you're discussing it, and what you mean.

With respect to Interstitial arts, my gut feeling is that marketing categories are the most relevant to us, because part of the IAF's "mission" is to celebrate and draw attention to work that is often neglected by those in control of publicity, acclaim, and general worldly rewards. Interestingly, I think, marketing categories take in a number of the different kinds of genre. Novels are integrated with short story collections (often at the expense of short stories, if you ask me, but that's a different topic) and then broken down into content-based sections: mystery, science fiction, chicklit. Poetry, on the other hand, no matter what content-elements it has, is all lumped together and separated from novels, drama, etc. And then there are marketing categories that I refuse to recognize as genres, like sections labeled things like "Cat/Dog interest" with anthologies of stories about cats in them.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 06:36 am:   

Okay, a round-up...

Chuck -- I think you're right on the money, and I think it's good we're talking about marketing categories. There are always far more genres (in the academic sense) afloat in the literature of any time than there are marketing categories, for what should be obvious reasons: availability of shelf-space, economy of publishing categories, popular understanding of generic boundaries, and so on. Thus, extant categories tend to engulf more precise generic identities, to the detriment of our understanding of genre, but to the benefit of most writers. Imagine a bookstore not stocking a text because it doesn't have a space for Domestic-Tutelary Fiction; nah, they'd just stick it in the Children's Lit section with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, or in the Literature section with Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, depending upon the publisher's characterization of the accessibility of the book's diction and style. That's okay; the book gets to the shelves and (one would hope) into the hands of readers who desire such product.

As Richard Brodhead writes in Cultures of Letters, "The array of genres operative at any historical moment is always bound together with other cultural organizations and differentiations" (85). The most powerful of these arrangements is precisely the one you locate: demand. Writers don't become writers through inspiration or divine intervention; they enter a social locus which has already been (at least in part) made available to them. When we begin to talk about marketing categories, we can begin to discuss ways of opening up -- and keeping open -- more of those social loci.

Alice -- I think your characterization of genre as a way of codifying text is quite useful. Genre is made up of codes and conventions which can be either more or less restrictive than the marketing categories which often derive from formal genres. Reasons for this odd relationship are laid out neatly in Veronica's post above.

Also, I think you're on target when you say it's easier to codify already-extant works than it is to corral everything as it comes out. Ideally, generic identification would take place only in hindsight. That would relieve us of the annoyance of categories such as "Postmodern Novel," which means virtually nothing in any real sense. It would also alleviate some of the prejudice which influences not only a reader's selection of text, or a publisher's or retailer's placement of text, but also a writer's decisions to write what he or she writes. Let's face it: most writer's write for a market or to an audience, even when they freshen the niche they place themselves into.

Finally, one quibble... I think you're right to say that generic definitions are "arbitrary," but only in the sense of their being "discretionary," and not in the sense of their being "haphazard" or "whimsical." Now, marketing categories are sometimes a different matter, and books can be placed into a category in which they demonstrably don't belong, simply by virtue of the normal generic identifications of their authors.

Veronica -- I'm glad you and Alice brought up Children's Literature. As a phenomenon, it is a perfect demonstration of the way marketing categories often precede the works placed into those categories, unlike true generic identities, which are crafted and debated in hindsight. Children's Lit in the U.S. was unknown prior to the 1860s, except in the household story papers and (as you point out in what I assume is a British instance) conduct manuals; children before that time read whatever adult texts their parents deemed appropriate, from your example of Pamela to (gasp) Milton's Paradise Lost. But with the rise of the child-centered middle-class home in the middle of the 19th century, publishers saw a potential market, so they gave it a name and solicited appropriate work from likely writers. Louisa May Alcott (who claimed to find domestic fiction and children's fiction "dull") wrote Little Women because her publisher told her to "write me a girl's book." The point is that the market was based more on the conjunction of publishorial vision and perceived consumer demand than on any body of work lying unclassifiable in a slush pile.

Another quibble: While you're right that genre can take into account anything from the form of a work to its content (and more besides), I'm not comfortable calling it "undefinable." Difficult to pin down? Sure. Scaleable? Absolutely. Subject to change over time? Certainly, and with good reason. But not exactly undefinable. Still, as someone once sang in a different context, "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll."

The Round Up thus far -- So, as I see it, we're really talking about marketing categories, which are often based on genres, and which can even be shorthanded as genres (especially when we're making hierarchical value judgments, or when we're identifying stuff that won't go on the Fiction/Lit wall, as in "genre/non-genre"), but which are not genres in the formal/academic sense. This is an important distinction because I think it's harder to imagine a new genre than it is to imagine a new marketing category, and while I could never tolerate an interstitial genre (genre resists interstitiality by its nature), I don't see a problem with setting aside shelf-space for unclassifiable or multiply-classifiable texts. However, I think "Interstitial" is a poor choice for a marketing category -- It sounds self-consciously intellectual, and that's usually off-putting to the average reader, as though it said instead: "Books For Smart People" or "Books You Don't Understand." Besides, not many people know what it means, so they're not likely to see such a term and say, "Hey, that sounds great! I've been looking for just such a thing."
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Delia Sherman
Posted on Saturday, November 22, 2003 - 11:55 am:   

Neal--

As I've said elsewhere, we're not looking to make a new marketing category in a bookstore. We're looking to start a conversation in which assumptions which "everybody knows" and nobody really understands are questioned and stirred up. We're also looking for ways to do end-runs around the desire for marketing entities to keep things in neat, predictable pigeonholes.

Yes, it's kind of fuzzy. It's supposed to be fuzzy. I prefer to think of it as flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of artists and the market place.

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