"Genres Do Not Exist"

From a New Inquiry Q&A with Eileen Myles:
What ‘bad’ genres did you grow up readingscience fiction, fairy tales, romance, etc.or read as an adult?

I resist the question entirely. I don’t think quotes ['...'] dispense with the idea of putting writing into good and bad genres. Let me say and I probably mean this in the most manifesto-ing way that genres don’t exist. They don’t exist at all. They serve the needs of marketing, of academic specialization, even as modes of work, but in terms of meaning or content or associative formations they are like traffic lights—not so interesting and most adamantly not what we are doing today. Genres for me are just a way in which we are controlled, protected I suppose but I’m not a writer to be protected at all. I love science fiction, have all my life and it’s where I met Kafka. Angela Carter is swimming around in there too. Science fiction propelled me into poetry and writing in general and if I think of the children’s books I was exposed to I can’t see the difference between sci fi, poetry, Kafka or Angela Carter. Yet they all know each other very well. That’s all I’m saying. Are there good and bad writers? I’m not sure about that either.
While I generally agree, I would offer various footnotes of minor disagreement (or nuance), most of which would just be me paraphrasing my introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and review of Gary Wolfe's Evaporating Genres. Genre is not merely something that "serves the needs of marketing", etc., but rather has been something produced by a variety of publishing practices — genre-specific magazines and book publishers, fan clubs, fanzines, conventions. Those are real, and they exist, and they profoundly influence, for better and worse, how all sorts of different texts are created, shaped, distributed, and received.

Otherwise, yes, exactly. I, too, met Kafka in science fiction. As have others.


  1. While I agree that genre is not merely a marketing convention, I chafe at the limitations and strictures imposed by the 'discourse community' perspective. Aside from the fact that this theory of genre has become so ubiquitous and commonplace to have lost much of its usefulness, mostly because it then goes unexamined, it screams - to quote a certain Cheney - 'Get off my lawn!'

    SF - or any form of genre - doesn't discourse just with itself, but with the culture at large - and this by necessity includes literary fiction.

  2. "Genre" exists somewhat as "race" exists. It's an ambiguous label with varied time-and-place-and-person-bound motives and effects. And if you've been around many reifiers, the temptation to claim that such an existence is no existence at all is understandable.

  3. My own preference to see genre as a discourse community is neither an endorsement nor criticism of the limitations that follow from it -- for some writers, the insularity has been a great boon, for others a disaster. It just seems to me factually inaccurate to say genre identities only serve marketing needs or academic specialization (I'm not sure what Myles means by "modes of work"). I think the search for genre-defining elements within the subject matter of a text is a fool's game, because genre's power (whether good or bad) is not inherent to a text. I entirely agree with Myles -- as an essential, transcendent quality, genre does not exist. As a regime of practices, or a discourse community, or just a set of assumptions that can be historically and geographically located, it has a powerful effect, and that power can be described and analyzed.

  4. As someone whose work breaks genre boundaries, I can attest to the fact that there is a price to pay for not being pigeonholed.

    Thanks for this post.

  5. 'As a regime of practices, or a discourse community, or just a set of assumptions that can be historically and geographically located, it has a powerful effect, and that power can be described and analyzed.'

    True that it has a powerful effect, and equally true that it can be described and analysed. But the whole concept of a discourse community presupposes a common language(s), which at least in part is the language of the genre itself. Hence it is impossible to ignore the text.

  6. Oh, I entirely agree, Lee, at least up to a point. When it comes to communities, though, the discourse around texts is as important as the discourse about specific ones. The letters columns of magazines, the fanzines, the book reviews, the blogs (ack!), the convention programs, the marketing copy, etc. all produce the community -- and do so, as you say, via a common language: a common language they also create and distribute. (And of course there are also communities within communities, and so communal languages gain dialects and idiolects, with their own benefits and limitations.) And then individual texts are read differently within communities, or at least communities produce different ways of discussing and valuing what they read and see, different ways of finding/making meaning. (For another, more Heideggerian, take on the text/genre/community relationship and effect, see Philip Wegner's Imaginary Communities -- a good excerpt is available via Google Books. I've never been able to decide how convinced I am by his argument [depends on the weather...], but I find it fascinating.)

  7. Thanks for the Wegner suggestion. I'm pretty ignorant about the whole thing, am just reacting - more or less - from the gut, and tend to be something of literary hermit. I would never attend a conference or convention, for example, never give a reading, though I understand their usefulness - at least in theory!


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