Pass the Salt: The Art of Blending Genres
My latest novel, We Are Here, is a thriller set in New York City. It’s about friendship and the role it plays in our lives; the plot revolves around interlocking series of events in which people come to believe that not only are they being stalked by figures from their past, but that there might be something rather odd about these followers. Inevitably, this has raised questions of why I so often choose to blend genres.I read a nice quote recently in Bernard Mergen’s illuminating Snow In America:“As to all questions of quiddity, the answer to the riddle of identical snowflakes lies in defining the degree of similarity. The more interesting question is why we continue to seek twin snowflakes.”I guess that’s where I’m coming from when it comes to genre manipulation and advancing the case for mixing and matching elements from different strands of fiction in order to best tell the story I have in mind. The question is not why some people want to bend genres, but why others are insistent on keeping them so damned straight.
Look out your window. Go on, do it now. I’ll wait. Observe the trees, clouds, the shape of
raindrops, the path of any cat that may happen to wander past. There’s not a straight line to be found. Nature—with a few rather tedious, crystalline exceptions—abhors straight lines.
It enthusiastically mixes materials, too: rain into soil, oxygen into blood, the genes of our mothers and fathers. This is precisely where transformation and growth and new life come from. Keep things rigidly apart, on separate couches or on different shelves, and no new life or books will come—or at least, few interesting ones.
The distinctions between genres are strange, rigid, and relatively recent. As Neil Gaiman has pointed out, when D. H. Lawrence wrote “The Rocking Horse Winner,” no one accused him of becoming a horror writer and commanded him to start wearing a black T-shirt. The genres are not like foreign languages except in that their genesis and etymology support manifest unique cultures and histories. They’re not impenetrable to each other, mutually inexplicable. Languages habitually deploy borrowings from others, using words like Schadenfreude or élan to leverage meanings that are both precise and pregnant with meta information and nuance.
It’s not merely individual words, either. There are some things that are simply more elegantly and concisely conveyed in other tongues. Take this admirably brief quote from Proust: “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.”
The best I can express that in English is: “He (or she) who seeks to excuse himself (of his actions) is implicitly admitting there is a case to answer.”
That’s still an interesting observation, but it’s long. And dull. The verb structure of French, in particular the reflexive form, enables it to say this particular thing better. Genres can be like that, too. Borrowing from horror or science fiction or the supernatural or humor or any other randomly sliced subdivision of what is, in the end, all simply “fiction,” can enrich the mystery and thriller genres immeasurably.
Notice, too, how the enclaves of foreign nationals in every major city are what turn these presses of humanity into places worth living, fueling and driving the engines of their vivid life, enlivening and transforming everything from vernacular speech to cuisine in ways that often change the world.
In the end, there are only two genres, fiction and nonfiction, and even there, the boundaries are permeable. Genres are not discrete, separate entities. They’re more like flavorings. Mixing or bending them is as essential to creative freedom as allowing yourself to add a little salt or sugar to your meal, or putting soy sauce or Sriracha on the table even when the food’s not Asian, or stirring in some finely chopped flat-leaf parsley for color and a subtle, peppery pop. The dish is better for it.
I’m aware that I’m mixing a lot of metaphors, but you know what? There’s no law against that either. It’s up to the reader to decide whether it’s been successful. I don’t enjoy food without seasoning, and I don’t want to write novels that aren’t open to the whole of human experience. We owe it to our readers to give them more than that.
We’re cooks, not waiters, after all.