We don’t know the purpose of art. You’ll often hear this line in discussions of subjective vs objective criticism. We don’t know the purpose of art.
This is true.
It’s one of the more interesting facets of art.
What is it? Why do we do it? How did it come to be?
It’s one of those weird little clusters in the human mind that is almost entirely incomprehensible to us, but we do know that it makes us human. We want to create things that don’t exist – science. Or. We want to create things that don’t exist – art.
Whether you’re painting some abstract landscape, or writing a work of speculative fiction.
You’re creating something that doesn’t exist.
And that… does something. To whatever part of your mind made you want to be an artist, whatever kind of artist you wanted to be. So too are people compelled by the art they experience as an audience.
Me? I’m an author. So I’ll be looking at this discussion through the lens of literature. At least this time. Maybe I’ll come back to it in the future and look at this through another lens. But for now – books.
So we don’t know what purpose art holds – but we do have some ideas.
For instance, to make us feel. To explore ideas. To offer something, be it escape or inspiration. To ask questions. Or answer others.
But really, art generally has no purpose. That’s not the point.
Let’s have a little discussion on subjective vs objective. Because it isn’t a very interesting conversation. At least, when discussing whether a review can or should be objective or subjective. That’s silly.
The answer is obviously both.
An objective thing is usually defined as factual, and a subjective thing is usually defined as something emotional. That’s not helpful. You could define them as something being either influenced by personal feelings (subjective) or not influenced by personal feelings (objective). That’s not helpful either. It could be subjective if it relates to you, objective if it relates to others. That’s also not helpful.
In the context of art, something is simultaneously emotional and factual, influenced by personal feelings of both the creator and everyone else. It is, to quote several authors, the truth within the lie.
The subjective element of art is the emotions it wishes to produce. It’s the beliefs it wishes to explore. It’s the possibilities and imaginings it wants to pretend are real.
The objective element of art is the way these things are achieved. The presentation, prose, syntax, paragraphing. The structure and pacing.
Of course, there is also a transitory space between the two, where prose is poetic, characters are accurate, and no one cares about the difference between the two anyway.
Because the really important thing with all of this is quite simple – objective stuff and its truth is only important insofar as it affects that which we feel strongly about. And subjective stuff is only emotionally significant if it can be explored and discussed using terms and concepts that are universally agreed upon to mean… something.
Which brings me to the core of this so far confused essay.
You might be wondering why an essay about genre is talking about subjective vs objective.
Well, I said earlier that art generally has no purpose, and that that is not the point. What I mean by this is that, taking into account all of the objective and subjective and purposeful and non-purposeful… what you’re left with is a long series of arguments that make no sense, make no point, and make me personally very tired.
No one cares what the purpose of art is generally.
Art generally cannot be narrowed down like that. It can’t be defined, for goodness sake, let alone argued to have one specific purpose. So we don’t care what art is or is not, in a general sense.
But here’s what we do care about – this piece of art.
Just, imagine I pointed to a book or something. I don’t know, your favourite. Or your least favourite! Although I don’t know why that’s on your bookshelf, to be fair.
Anyway, the point is this. What we care about is not art in a general sense, which barely exists, let alone matters. What we care about is the individual work of art, the one work of art which we are discussing right now, in whatever instant of time we happen to be talking about.
And that work of art. That one piece of art. We do know what its purpose is. Or rather, we can. And without getting into ‘death of the author’ stuff, too. The purpose of one work of art can be figured out through reading it. Emotionally, analytically, critically.
And that is what all of this has to do with genre.
Because genre, it seems to me, is unfairly maligned. On the one hand, you have elitists claiming that any work of fiction that can neatly fit into one or more genres (or even in some cases, if it fits into ‘genre’ at all) are objectively inferior to those that cannot, and thus have no literary merit whatever. This, of course, is silly. Because every story fits into a genre. Especially the ones you say can’t fit into a genre.
But on the other hand, I see people saying that this line of thinking is silly because genre is almost entirely meaningless. Is it, though?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone might say that. Because you see, genre exists arguably as a marketing thing, more than a reader thing. It exists, essentially, so that publishers and writers can put a book in a given category so the people who want that thing can more easily find it. I half agree with that sentiment.
But in that case, it matters more than some people would have you believe.
If I want to read a fantasy book and you recommend a dictionary then I… I mean, what are you doing, mate? What the hell are you talking about? A dictionary is not a fantasy book.
And the fact that everyone agrees a dictionary is not a fantasy book means it is true. And it’s important that it’s true because…
So the people who are looking for X book can find it and enjoy it.
You could argue that which genre a book falls into is the last important decision, made purely for marketing reasons… but I would strongly disagree.
I would argue that which genre a book falls into is the first decision a writer makes for their book. It should be a conscious choice. Their first conscious choice for this book. Not in an “I’m going to write a science fiction book” way because, yeah, that kind of decision at that point in the creative process is almost meaningless. The decision is made in a more specific, narrowed down way, an ironically less genre-obsessed way. It’s made with decisions such as, “Hmm, this is a cool idea for an alien.”
You’ve just started writing a sci fi book with that one thought, probably without even realising that was what you were doing.
Because genre is not a ‘thing’ in and of itself. Like mental schema genre is a thing because the mention of its name causes a person to subconsciously think of many more things to which that greater label applies. It’s like a linguistic daemon crawling its way into your brain at the merest mention of its name.
Did that simile make you think of horror?
Right – because this works in reverse too.
This is what I mean when I say that genre is the first decision a writer makes when beginning a new story, not the last decision after the story is all finished up. Even if the name of the genre and subgenre only gets used at the end, it was an integral part of the writing process before that point. An author comes up with a thing to write about, they make some decisions surrounding that core ‘thing,’ they are writing in a genre.
It’s almost subconscious – except, it is also a conscious decision.
The next logical question happens in the background while you are writing, even though you are not aware of it at the time. Because what does that first thought determine? Everything.
Settings. Characters. Plot points.
It all starts with genre.
Of course, none of this means it’s a one dimensional thing.
That’s something else genre gets unfairly criticised for. Limiting an author’s creativity. But I find this even more ridiculous.
For one thing, have you heard of these little creatures called subgenres? Each of the three subgenres of speculative fiction for instance, which are so broad and vast in their potential stories they’re now no longer considered subgenres most of the time. That said, they also have their own subgenres. Hundreds of them. Thousands, probably, at this point.
Genre can be mixed and matched, and each of those subgenres can either expand, minimise, subvert or totally reimagine what the greater whole of the genre ever meant to begin with.
There’s an additional argument to be made that limitations breed creativity, an idea that I quite like too. During discussions of story briefs and anthology calls, people talk about how the statement, ‘Write a story’ opens up so much potential that it leads to brain freeze. Like, there are literally so many possibilities that you can’t think of a single one. But by being more specific, for instance, ‘Write a story about a vampire,’ well, now it’s somewhat easier to get started, because you’ve narrowed it down.
But narrowing it down doesn’t limit creativity, it gives the writer a starting point. It allows them to open the story in one place, so they can smirk, and think to themselves, ‘Okay, I know how to break this definition in an interesting way.’
There’s one additional thing I love about genre, that I think warrants its defence, and it brings us back to that subjective vs objective discussion we all just love so much.
See, the fact that genre lets you objectively (to a point) discern the purpose of a story, also allows reviews, analyses and essays to become more compelling, since their author can focus in on a specific angle, and analyse the work through that lens. It makes it easier to write more thoughtful, more interesting thought pieces on a specific work of fiction, because it makes it easier to understand that specific work of fiction to begin with.
In short, genre does three important things that it deserves a lot more credit for.
Although figuring out the purpose of art generally is impossible and unhelpful, the use of genre helps us figure out the purpose of an individual work of art.
This also links back to the original creative process, where that first decision an artist makes, leads to a series of brainwaves that eventually culminates in the creation of their next great masterpiece.
This in turn also allows reviews and analysis essays to become more compelling, as they can more easily determine what a work of art is trying to accomplish, and can thus more accurately explore its successes and potential improvements.
So, yeah, leave genre alone, alright? It didn’t do anything wrong.
There are about a hundred genres. On this blog, as in my own creative endeavours, I’m specifically interested in speculative fiction – the meta-genre comprising horror, science fiction and fantasy. At this point, you know that even those three genres have vast amounts of variety and depth. All open to a specific author’s unique way of exploring them.
But, for a moment, remember that each of those three genres does stand for something.
And while you’re thinking of that – I will return to each of those three genres over the course of this month to explore their identity in more detail. What they mean, what they include, what kind of decision leads to their summoning.
Next week I’ll talk about the fantasy genre. After that it’ll be the genre of science fiction. And last but not least, the horror genre will get its turn.
It’s a conscious subconscious decision, choosing a genre. And it has lots of important implications. Perhaps you know that, perhaps you don’t. Either way, I think genre is a more important and more interesting topic than maybe some other people do. And hopefully, this essay, and its three children, make someone out there reconsider what genre means to them.
It’s not a villain. It’s a crucial part of the core of your story.