“I like many comics, and I like many romance novels” — Noah Berlatsky on eclecticism

When you are a kid and your older cousins have huge comic book collections, you think they are the coolest people in the world. Imagine how much cooler it is when they both grow up to be actual recognized experts in comic books? THAT HAPPENED TO ME. My cousin Eric Berlatsky is an English professor, but he’s the kind who publishes books about Alan MooreHis brother Noah, meanwhile, is not only a prolific freelancer but also the proprietor of this insane website about superheroes and…well, superheroes and everything else—here, I’ll let him tell you…

thehoodedutHey all; I’m Noah Berlatsky, Ben’s cousin. I write at the Atlantic and edit a comics and culture website called The Hooded Utilitarian. (or sometimes HU for short.) Ben asked me to contribute to his reverse blog tour, and since I have known Ben since before he was born, I figured I should say yes. So here I am!

As folks here know, Ben’s Last Policeman series is a detective/sci-fi genre-crossing extravaganza. Ben saw a bit of a parallel there with my criticism, since I write about lots of different genres (YA, and comics, and sci-fi, and literature, and romance, to just stick to print ones.) And, for that matter, for a blog that’s ostensibly about comics, HU is quite eclectic when it comes to what genres we cover. We have posts on wine, posts on fashion, posts on film and posts on music, just for starters.

So, Ben asked me, what’s with that, exactly? Are there benefits to crossing genres? Or does it just sow confusion?

Unknown
This is not a comic book.

The answer is maybe some of both. There are definitely disadvantages to eclecticism. The main downside is that aesthetic experience in our culture is organized, often quite intensely, around genres. Lots of folks of course have different genre interests — but nonetheless, if you go to a comics website, you tend to want to read about comics, not fashion or music or wine. So just in terms of marketing and retaining an audience, crossing genres as often as we do at HU can be a bad idea. You confuse the brand.

Crossing genres can also be uncomfortable in other ways. Genres aren’t just category designations; they’re communities. Refusing to embrace one genre means to some degree that you’re refusing to fully occupy one community — and that means people can end up seeing you as untrustworthy or as an interloper. I’m interested in romance novels and comics, for example, but I’m not exactly in the fandom of either, which means I haven’t necessarily read as much as people who are more fully committed. I’ve had both comics fans and romance novel fans be super-welcoming, and interested in what I have to say. But I’ve also had people from both communities basically argue that I don’t have enough expertise to speak, or that I’m morally compromised when I talk about the genres because I’m an outsider.

I don’t mean to dismiss those critiques. It be difficult, or uncomfortable, or problematic, to write as an (at least partial) interloper. Just as it can seem needlessly alienating, I suppose. to write fashion posts on a comics blog. Still, I think it’s worth doing both for a couple of reasons.

First, I get bored writing about the same thing all the time. I like many comics, and I like many romance novels, but I don’t want to just read and write about comics, or just read and write about romance novels. I doubt that that’s especially unusual or anything — most people have different interests and like to dabble in different things to some extent. But fear of boredom is a big part of the impetus for me to try new things and write about new things, so I thought I should mention it.

detective comics
This is not a romance novel.

The second reason is a little more involved. Maybe I can explain best through a book by Carl Freedman called “Critical Theory and Science Fiction.” In the book, Freedman points out that while we usually think of art being broken down into genre, it’s actually more accurate to say that genre precedes, or defines art. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are art. Shakespeare’s laundry lists are not art. The genre of plays are seen as aesthetic objects, worthy of analysis and fandom. The genre of laundry lists are not. Recognition of genre, then, precedes the perception of art. For art to be art, it needs to be in the right genre.

I think this is true beyond just laundry lists and plays. Freedman points out that sci-fi, by virtue of its genre, has often been seen as lesser or marginal — Samuel Delany isn’t a laundry list, but he’s not quite perceived as (say) Borges either. Romance novels are even more denigrated. Wine often isn’t exactly seen as an aesthetic experience at all — or at least not as one that can be usefully discussed alongside film or television or literature.

The question here might be, so what? Why does it matter if people want to think about comics rather than fashion, or literature rather than romance novels?

Sometimes, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much. But, as genres are social constructions, the way they’re manipulated can also have social effects, for better or ill. Freedman notes that African-American literature, for example, is often treated as a specialized genre, marginal to capital-L literature. Romance’s denigration has a lot to do with the way it is perceived as art by and for women — which is why fashion is often seen as not-quite-art as well. Genre designations tell us what is important, what has quality, what is of interest. And they do so in a way that is often beyond analysis, because the recognition of, or use of, genre, precedes, and creates the grounds of, the analysis itself.

trollope
Trollope’s beard is considered by some to have been its own genre.

Which is why I’m interested in trying to engage with different genres, and to think about the ways (for example) in which comics fandoms and romance fandoms are similar and different, or to include posts about video games alongside posts on Trollope. Genre shapes how we look at art, and so at life. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily— but it seems worth shaking it up occasionally too, if only to see who’s being left out of which landscapes.

As in Ben’s books, a different investigator can maybe help you see where the world ends, and where others might start.

 

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Thank you, Noah!

This, dear readers ,is the level of discourse you will always find at The Hooded Utilitarian, though very rarely here on my website. We do keep it classy with our next guest, though: Laura McHugh, a fellow midwesterner, whose fierce debut novel is  The Weight of BloodLaura will be here later in the week to talk about another odd crossing of genres: “author” and “parent.”

Onwards!

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“We rise, we fall, we gather”–Hugh Howey on trilogies

My Reverse Blog Tour is designed to promote the release of the concluding volume of my trilogy, so I figured I’d start by asking someone to explain for us the enduring appeal of tripartite fictions—do trilogies make some inherent mystical sense, somehow, or do we just do it because it’s always been done?

Who better to meditate on the question of threedom than science-fiction author Hugh Howey, whose Wool novels were a genuine self-publishing phenomenon in 2011 and 2012 (so much so that they are now published by Simon & Schuster), and who is co-editor of The Apocalypse Triptycha super-cool series of end-of-the-world anthologies to which I am a proud contributor. 

Here’s Hugh:  

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First up on the Reverse Blog Tour:
Mr. Hugh Howey

Bad things and fiction have this in common: They both seem to come in threes. This is not a recent phenomenon. The superstition of threes dates back for centuries. And even two thousand years ago, theater often came in the form of trilogy. Classical music is fond of triplets as well. And both film and novels have displayed this tendency for as long as the mediums have been popular.

Stories are fractal in a way. Every proper novel has a beginning, middle, and end. But if you inspect just the middle of most books, you’ll see that it has a beginning, middle, and end of its own. As does each of those scenes, and so on. All of these embedded trilogies combine to form a single novel, which we often lump into larger trilogies of three distinct books. And it doesn’t stop there. If you are a fan of the Star Wars universe, you are eagerly awaiting a third set of trilogies. Each trilogy becomes its own single story, and one story just isn’t good enough.

Conflict, denouement, resolution. The rising action, the climax, the aftermath. Our brains are sensitive to patterns, even where they do not exist. When something bad happens, we brace for the next tragedy, and then claim the cycle is closed with the third. But it always starts again. We just keep counting in threes.

3furies
Three furies.

Look at the Holy Trinity. Or Freud’s id, ego, and superego. You have the Three Furies and the Three Fates from ancient mythology. There is some speculation that three holds sway as the first prime number, the first number that isn’t easily distributed. It sits like a triangle in our minds, the sturdiest of shapes and also the first circular structure. Thinking on a set of three is like studying a well-balanced painting, your mind cannot rest and finds itself roaming, circulating, considering.

The Walpiri of Australia are said to count: One, two, many. And in that way, they are our kin. We refer to the entire alphabet as the ABCs. As Monty Python puts it, the Holy Number of Counting is Three. Thou shall not count to four. And Five is right out. (Don’t tell this to Douglas Adams or Isaac Asimov.)

As a reader and a writer, why am I drawn to trilogies? They don’t exist because of 3-book deals from publishers; it’s far more likely that those 3-book deals exist because of the innate allure of the number. When I finished my first novel, I immediately set out to write a sequel. Now that I had characters introduced, I could jump right into the action with them. And then a third book was needed for mopping up. A fourth book served as prelude, providing origin stories. This pattern of 3+1 has a long history, both in Greek Theater and classical music. Tolkien’s classic works followed this form. Or am I just looking for patterns in noise? Do we all tally the coincidental?

I tend to be a skeptic on these things. I don’t believe that bad things come in threes. We just group them that way. We strain to find that third bad thing so we can put a bow on our tragedy and seal it away, keep it from haunting us further. Until the next tragedy strikes and starts the counting again.

But with storytelling, I can’t help but see the rightness of the triptych. We rise, we fall, we gather. Stories are peaks and valleys, a sharp sine wave, the shape of the angry sea. And looking closely, the sets of three are made up of threes. This is as much as we care to hold of a story. Until we’re ready to start all over again.

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Thanks so much, Hugh, for kicking off my inverted tour, and thank you, dear readers, for playing along. Feel free to comment if you think Hugh hit the nail on its three-pointed head, or to tell him he’s off his rocker (Hugh is no stranger to controversial discussions)—and then drop back by on MONDAY JUNE 23 when Noah Berlatsky, a.ka. The Hooded Utilitarian,  will be stopping by to talk about the blending of genres.

And (what the hell, it’s my stupid website), don’t forget to PREORDER WORLD OF TROUBLE and win fabulous prizes. There, I said it.

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