Noah Berlatsky on Genre in Music and Fiction

My guest today is Noah Berlatsky. Noah is a cultural critic who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic, Salon, Splice Today, and other publications, including his own comics blog, Hooded Utilitarian. He is the author of a book on Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, which will be out in early 2015.

Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Bertlatsky

It’s wonderful to have you here, Noah. You’re work has challenged me on a number of occasions and forced me to rethink some assumptions. For me, some of your most interesting work has been about genre. You’ve documented how rock music is categorized on the basis of race, and talked about how by neglecting romance, as a genre, the literary critical establishment marginalizes women writers. At the same time, you’ve mentioned that genre serves a purpose.

How is genre formed? Do artists have any significant control over how their work is classified and marketed, and thus any responsibility to address the shortcomings of genre?

Genre’s formed in a lot of ways I think. A good bit of it is marketing; some of it is historical happenstance; some of it is artists intentionally working within a particular tradition. The main point here for me is that genres aren’t formal constructions; a romance novel isn’t a romance novel because it has a happy ending per se; it’s a romance novel because people — marketers, fans, authors — agree it’s a romance novel. That’s usually done on the basic of generic similarities which may have some formal elements (like happy endings) but nothing is hard and fast. 

So with that in mind, I don’t think there necessarily has to be any particular moral or ethical problem associated with genre designations. Whether you classify Insect Ark as electronica or metal is fun to think about intellectually, but it doesn’t have many ethical implications either way. Where it does start to be an issue is in the way genre is linked to different communities, and can become a deferred way of expressing various prejudices. So, when the Allen Brothers in the 20s expressed horror that they were classified as race records rather than hillbilly records — that’s obviously an example of racism, routed through genre. 

So I guess I’d say it’s not that artists have a responsibility to address genre shortcomings, so much as the fact that questions about genre can sometimes (though not always) touch on other ethical issues.

One of the ways genre works in commercial music is to define what people get exposed to. With musical becoming increasingly distributed and discovered via Youtube, Spotify, Pandora, etc., this is less of a problem, but pop music in America is still constrained to a fairly limited set of sounds and styles. Do you think genre conceptions work to keep certain communities out of the pop discussion?

Ummm…well, genre always limits discussion to some extent. I feel like pop music is pretty omnivorous in terms of styles, and also quite integrated, both in terms of gender and race, compared to other possible genres (country, for example, or rock, or metal — the last of which is remarkably internatonal, but not necessarily diverse in terms of gender or race.) Not that pop is always great or ideal in every way, but compared to, say, big budget action films, or even television, I think pop has fewer problems with exclusion in terms of traditional social forms of marginalization.

Let’s talk about romance and how genre assumptions impact (the mostly) women who write it. My understanding of your arguments about this is that you think literary critics need to start reviewing romance novels if they’re going to take women writers seriously. It’s not enough for the Paris Review, for example, to have as many women as men critics, nor to review similar numbers of books by both men and women.

Romance is one of the best-selling genres, so authors working writing books that get tagged “romance” aren’t suffering financially for that notation. On the other hand, authors who write “literary fiction,” usually toil in the mid list, and their books are marketed to much smaller groups of people. So my fear would be that if the New York Review of Books started to review romance or other books marketed as better-selling genre categories, it would further marginalize the authors who don’t have other marketing channels.

Is there something about how romance is understood by the critical community that permeates into the broader understanding of gender and women writers? Can literary critics recognize the accomplishment of writers creating brilliant, challenging works within the boundaries of romance (or other “genre” genres) without undermining the support for literary fiction?

I don’t know that the NYRB needs to review more romance per se. I think it would be helpful if there were an acknowledgement that it’s interests are genre interests. That is, literary fiction tends to be defined as “good or important or thoughtful books”. In that framing, it becomes problematic to ignore romance, because the implication is that the books are being ignored because they’re not good or important or thoughtful. Whereas if the NYRB just owned the fact that it’s a fandom publication for folks interested in the genre of literary fiction, you’d avoid those problems, and woudn’t end up implicitly saying that women writers writing mostly for women aren’t good or important or thoughtful.
That’s something of a separate issue from the question of not having women reviewers or books by women reviewed. Opening out genre-wise would be one way to address that issue — that is, more reviews of romance would mean more reviews of women authors, and probably more women reviewers. But it seems like you could address it in other ways as well if it was important to you.

I guess I should say too…I don’t know that I care that much whether literary fiction manages to market itself effectively. I’m not in that fandom, and, with some exceptions, I’m not especially impressed with that approach or with the quality of the work in the genre. It’s maybe worth thinking about what would happen if romance readers started reading the NYRB. Would that be bad for the writers reviewed there? It seems like opening up to other genres might have advantages as well as disadvantages.

That’s an interesting point. I’m not sure it would alter much. Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union won a hugo, but I haven’t encountered anybody in the SFF world quoting him as an influence. Where I see out-of-genre influence, its Jane Austen. Mary Kowal Robinette, who is a past Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ of America Vice President and a Campbell winner for best new (SFF) writer has a series of novels that are Jane Austen with magic. I know there are some other writers mining that territory, too, but nobody who looks to Nabokov.

I think the virtue of literary fiction—as a community of publishers, magazines, and reviewers—is that they provide a viable way for minority ideas to get discussed, and valorize moving away from the blockbuster-focus that infects a lot of publishing. But maybe that’s not a good analysis. I mean, Samuel Delaney was published by Bantam!

Speaking of Delany and other writers of unusual fiction, can we talk about your work on Wonder Woman? I found your argument that the world of super hero movies doesn’t need Wonder Woman interesting. You think the original Wonder Woman is too fantastically tied up in fetish and unusual notions of female power to be put into a multi-hundred-million-dollar film without being stripped of everything interesting about her. Are super hero films kind of hopeless now, as a medium for challenging cultural assumptions? Did the triumph of geek culture co-opt the outsider elements?

I don’t know that superheroes were ever exactly an outsider phenomena, or that there was ever a moment where they exactly challenged cultural assumptions. I think as with anything there’s good superhero genre work and not so good superhero genre work. I think the 60s Batman TV show and Watchmen and the original Wonder Woman comics are interesting, wonderful, great art, that makes me think and makes me happy. I think Twilight uses superhero tropes in really interesting and bizarre ways. The recent big budget superhero films I’ve seen are sometimes entertaining but rarely especially thoughtful…but I thought Chronicle did interesting things with the daddy issues at the center of a lot of superhero narratives. The Shadow Hero, which is a recent graphic novel about a Chinese-American superhero is pretty good; the current Ms. Marvel comic, with a Muslim girl as the hero, thinks about assimilation narratives in interesting ways. So, yeah, I think there’s good work being done in the superhero genre. Lots of not so good work as well, but that’s the way of such things.

Now to the most important question: what is your favorite Brazilian song or artist?

Hah! I’m not super knowledgeable about Brazilian music. I love Virginia Rodrigues, so she’d probably be the person I’d list as my favorite.

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