Friday, October 16, 2009

Crossbreeding Genres

(I wanted to title this post "Matt, you ignorant slut," but was afraid that was taking things too far...)

Yesterday, our own Matt Sturges posted his most recent salvo in his ongoing tete-a-tete with James Enge over at the Borders blog, title "Zombie Ninjas on the Moon." Some might have seen that title and assumed that they were in for a bit of fun, but I knew better. See, Matt and I have been having this particular disagreement for a while. A friendly disagreement, please bear in mind, but a long-running one.

See, Matt's tired of what he's calling "mashup fiction," which he defines as "stories whose genesis is the intentional combination of unrelated tropes, historical figures, or characters from previously published works." I know just what he's talking about. That's not just my bread-and-butter as a writer, it's the primary staple I consume as a reader. That's the stuff I live for.

Naturally, as one might expect, I disagree a bit with Matt's assertion that such stuff is getting stale, and past its sell-by-date. And not just because "mashup-fiction" includes the vast majority of all of my favorite books, comics, music, and movies. "Mashup-fiction" isn't simply a viable approach to entertainment.

Entertainment needs "mashups" in order to survive.

That may sound like a stretch, but work with me for a moment. Perhaps it would help to think of it not as "mashup-fiction," a term of relatively recent coinage suggestive of splicing together the songs of one musician with those of another. Think of it, instead, as "crossbreeding."

(A note on terminology: Back when Matt and I were in college we called this kind of stuff "intertextuality," a term we picked up in a postmodernism seminar, but I think we had the definition wrong, as we meant something entirely different than semioticians and postmodern scholars mean when they use the word. I've also tried "metafictional," but that carries connotations beyond my intended meaning. More recently, Willingham has referred to such things as "Wold Newtonry," a reference to the playful intermingling of genre fiction and history that Philip José Farmer pioneered in Tarzan Alive and elsewhere [you think it's mere chance that Matt has included an image of my own personal Bible, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, in his essay lambasting mashups?], but Wold-Newton has a very specific meaning for Farmer fans, and the use of the term for more general metafictional play tends to raise their ire. I'm using "crossbreeding" at the moment, but I'm not entirely happy with it as a solution.)

I tend to look at genre as functioning like gene pools. Remaining within the confines of one genre for too long leads to the serious risk of inbreeding, and producing anemic works with all sorts of congenital problems, barely fit to survive. (Does this make a tenth-generation xerox of Tolkien on par with hemophiliac European royals? You might say it does, and I wouldn’t argue with you if you did.)

Crossing genre boundaries expands that gene pool, producing fit fiction with all sorts of interesting new traits. In time, the hybrids most fit to survive might even emerge as full-blown genres in their own right.

The “mash-up” that Sturges decries, the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES and such like, are just the most obvious types of crossbreeding, and like the offspring of a horse and a donkey are mules fit for one generation, but not healthy enough to sustain offspring of their own. Which isn’t to say that mules don’t have their uses, from time to time, but you wouldn’t want them to be the only members of your breeding pool.

The preceding represents only my initial thoughts. I'll stop here, and continue in another post in a few days. Maybe my next salvo will cover the ways in which crossbreeding genres will save us all, and to illustrate I'll explain the little known fact that Arthur Conan Doyle was directly responsible for the creation of the Power Rangers...


  1. Well, since this sort of thing has only been around for ~300 years, I can see why he'd be growing tired of it....

  2. Uh oh, Matt. Now you've Jess to wrath. Or to sarcasm, at least, which is just as bad.

  3. Erm, that's "Now you've *stirred* Jess to wrath," that is.

  4. Now, now. I think we're getting away from my original intent. My weariness is reserved for the most flagrant and of-the-moment variety of this sort of thing. When I say "mashups", I'm not referring to cross-genre fiction. I'm writing a spy novel set in Faerie, for Heaven's sake.

    What I'm getting tired of is the Wold-Newtonism in extremis. Those works whose sole intent seems to be answering the question, "Wouldn't it be neat if Sherlock Holmes and Puccini flew to the moon and fought Pteranodons?"

    It was funny at first, but now it bores me. That's all I'm saying.

  5. There are folks, or so I hear tell, that don't consider other forms of mashup entertainment (the sampling in hiphop and electronic music, collage and pop-art, etc.) as viable either. I try not to invite them to parties. :)

  6. That's ridiculous, Matt. Everyone knows it was Sarah Bernhardt who went with Sherlock Holmes to fight Pteranodons on the moon.

  7. Matt, that sort of thing IS what's been around for 300 years. It didn't go away for a while and suddenly return. It's ALWAYS been here.

    If it's not your thing, that's cool. If it bores you, fine. But it's not a recent developmment.

  8. I'm with Matt and then inevitably I get sucked in to the actual work. I find myself *constantly* bored until I'm not bored. Consider: I went to see Batman Begins when it came out and I remember I was sort of dreading it: here we go again, the Bruce Wayne story. But then, but then.

    I don't think it's your boredom with the concept of concepts, Matt-- I think it's your dread of poor execution. But in practice, at least some of the time it's But then, but then. The Sherlock/Dinosaur mashup turns out to be brilliant. The zombie politics thing has a clever scene or two. Someone takes over a forty-year-old team book and manages to make it fresh. :) Oh, I weary, but it works out.

  9. So... like Chris said, "Wold-Newton has a very specific meaning for Farmer fans, and the use of the term for more general metafictional play" ... isn't accurate.

    And then an off-the-wall example is trotted out and labeled "Wold Newtonism in extremis." So I guess Chris' point somehow got lost in the translation? :-)

    Wold Newtonry is centered around a specific mythology and is not a general catch-all term for what Chris is calling "crossbreeding."

    As I think Jess will appreciate, the general catch-all term should be "League of Extraordinary Gentlemanism."

  10. Gotta disagree with you, Win - League of Extraordinary Gentlemenism is solely that alla panna form of this crossbreeding that Moore and precious few others do. The majority of creators are less... enthusiastic than Moore.

  11. Then.... Anno Draculaism? ;-)

    Anything but constantly using the term Wold Newton in association with the most ridiculously derisive examples one can imagine...

  12. Here via Chris's blog.

    I think it'd be worthwhile to distinguish between crossbreeding genres and combining characters from multiple existing works. Writing something that mixes the western and horror genres isn't necessarily the same as writing a "Lone Ranger meets Dracula" story. By the same token, you can have a "Dracula meets Frankenstein's monster" story without crossing any genre borders at all; both characters come from Gothic horror.

  13. You raise a good point, Ted. And to be completely honest, I didn't play *entirely* fair in this first rebuttal, since it was clear that Matt was talking about the latter, by and large. But since he invoked the former in passing, I took advantage of that and broadened the argument.

    In a day or two I'll be posting my Arthur Conan Doyle and the Power Rangers bit, which actually falls somewhere halfway inbetween, a little bit of crossing genres and a litttle bit of combining existing characters.