Sunday, July 4, 2010

I have not read this book

Following the massive buzz surrounding South African stadiums--er, Justin Cronin's incredibly well-publicized book "The Passage"-- I have found myself reading many, many reviews of the book. Most are positive. Some are not. But one book blogger sentiment that seems to crop up again and again is that the book has an "undefined" genre, that it's a difficult book to classify. Finally curious to know a reader's take on the matter, I posed to the question to Rachel of "A home between the pages", who kindly responded in full. The response:
It’s difficult to understand why I would say that it doesn’t fall into a category if you haven’t read it, and I can see how, with the plot synopses out there, why it would be easy to say it’s strictly sci-fi. The problem with that is that, yes, it does have elements of sci-fi or paranormal, but there are elements of literary fiction, romance, fantasy, scientific drama (think Michael Crichton), history, horror and many more. I think because Cronin’s background is in literary fiction, there’s depth to the writing and to the characters that’s unexpected and unusual for a straight sci-fi novel. There are things about it on the surface that would place it in sci-fi, but it bends that genre so drastically that it’s hard to keep it with two feet planted under just that umbrella.

I understand that not every buzzy book is going to be a hit for everyone. But I caution people from staying away from a book just because of the buzz. Everyone will read the same book differently, and this is certainly outside my normal comfort realm, but for me, it paid off. Even going by the official definitions of sci-fi — good sci-fi — I still think it’s a good book. I loved it, and that doesn’t change just because of the genre it may or may not fall into.

However.

Elements of romance, "literary" fiction, etc. - these things do not disqualify a book from being science fiction. There is no contradiction. Depth to characters and writing... also not contradictory to the genre science fiction. And as I discovered in Sci-Fi Month, the science fiction genre covers just about everything.

I can't really discuss the book because I haven't read it, but something about this response seems to come from the wrong angle. It's as though (and I interject here to invite any and all other interpretations, especially those of the author) to justify the popularity, one has to distance the book from the "standard" sci-fi genre. Yet what exactly does that mean? Elements of horror, romance, deep characters... this all still sounds strictly sci-fi, but as though to detract me from ignoring the book (because the label "sci-fi" is still something bad to many readers...), readers who themselves would have otherwise ignored the book find themselves calling it genre-bending. And of course, I may be entirely wrong.

But I can't shake this feeling that the reason this book defies genre isn't really because it's actually falls into multiple genres (very possibly because I've grown to believe that most genres blend together and are virtually indistinguishable - a different topic for another day), but because publicists (and subsequently, bloggers, readers, reviewers, etc.) do not want it defined. The term "science fiction" doesn't do much for the intended audience, especially when it has grown to mean much more than its official, you know, genre.

Rachel's response indicates this as well. There is an impression that once labeled "sci-fi", "The Passage" will also be labeled as "not for general public", as though describing the book as precisely what it is will deter readers. I am curious to hear more views on the matter from readers of the book, and from those like me who have only read numerous reviews. There are so many reviews and thoughts on this book that it's hard to keep track, but it could be that I'm wrong in my impression, and that I entirely misunderstood Rachel's response. I open the floor for discussion.

10 comments:

  1. I didn't think of The Passage as sci-fi when I read it. Probably because as fanciful a plot as it is, it actually seems plausible. Maybe not the vampire part but the experimentation of humans on humans. Cronin doesn't build a world full of strange creatures and unrecognizable places. There is only one sci-fi element and that's the creatures- which are humans affected by a virus.

    All he did was change one thing and then imagined the consequences. I don't think it's sci-fi enough to be just sci-fi. I'd say it was fiction, but I'm not very good at labelling things.

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  2. Totally agree with you - it's awful that the label scifi can kill a book. It' so undeserved! There is a very funny passage along those lines in Robert Sawyer's WWW: Wake. He says:

    His (blind) protagonist writes in her LiveJournal:

    "Back in the summer, the school gave me a list of all the books we’re doing this year in English class. I got them then either as ebooks or as Talking Books from the CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind], and have now read them all. Coming attractions include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Canadian, yes, but thankfully wheat-free. In fact, I’ve already had an argument with Mrs. Zed, my English teacher, about that one, because I called it science fiction. She refused to believe it was, finally exclaiming ‘It can’t be science fiction, young lady –if it were, we wouldn’t be studying it!’”

    But the good side of the problem is that if authors eschew the label (even though they should be in it) and gain readers who then say, hey, this is a pretty good genre, maybe it will have a beneficial effect.

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  3. I've been thinking about how to respond to this post, because I appreciate that my review in particular got you thinking and, whether someone agrees with me or not, I always enjoy debate.

    That being said, I agree with parts of this post and disagree with parts. It's also difficult to explain my position since you haven't read this book. But I'll give it a go. The reason I don't classify this as sci-fi in the strict sense is because when I was reading it, and thinking about how to write my review, sci-fi is not the term I would have used. By that, I mean that some books do fit with their genres, genres I wouldn't necessarily have read normally, but they fit. For example, someone recommended the Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin to me, and when I recommended it to other people, I said, "Yes, it's high fantasy, but it's really good," knowing that the fantasy label would dissuade some people from reading it. I'm not NOT categorizing The Passage as sci-fi because I think people won't want to read it otherwise (but you are correct on that point -- sci-fi keeps people away). If I felt like that descriptor fit, I would use it.

    The Passage though, as Chris said above, didn't feel like sci-fi to me when I was reading. I think a big reason for that is the way the book is structured. There are sections of the book that are totally and completely literary fiction, sections that are completely sci-fi, sections that are post-apocalyptical (very much like The Road), and sections that are very dystopian. The book isn't all of those things at once, which I think is probably what you're thinking it is. All of these parts work well together, but they do exist quite separately, which is why it's difficult to classify. I hate that sci-fi is such a turn-off for some people -- it can be for me, which is why the girl that recommended I read it, told me that she wasn't going to tell me what it's about. She knew that I would hear a couple words in that description and be turned off. As I said in my original review and in my reply back to you, yes, I do believe this is genre-defying, but I also don't care what the genre might be, because I liked it no anyway. Calling it sci-fi, if that's what you want to do, doesn't make me enjoy the book any less. But if I have to categorize it myself, I'm not going to because I know what the "sci-fi" label means to some people, and because I can't completely get behind that definition.

    I hope that better explains my position. I don't feel like I need to categorize every book I read (you'll notice that I don't label anything with a genre in any of my reviews), but a lot of people that read my blog trust my opinion about books, so if I say something is good -- given a genre or not -- they'll pay attention. But whether they read a book I recommend is totally up to them.

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  4. I was a very early reader of the book (I posted my review at the end of February as part of my dystopian theme month) and I tend to agree that it doesn't feel like genre sci-fi fiction. I (and many others) compared it to a mix of Stephen King's THE STAND and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, neither of which is classified as genre sci-fi. Definitely NOTHING against genre sci-fi which is rich and worthy of reading in its own right.

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  5. In my review, I labeled it apocolyptic dystopia, but that was just my best guess. To be honest, I never even thought of sci-fi or even fantasy since the creatures were the result of the virus. (Maybe I should have thought of these) I'm fairly new to the fantasy genre (Tolkien and Harry Potter being my only other forays into the field, lol) and I have found some astounding books. I assume that once I take the plunge into Sci-Fi that I'll find similar "wow" books.

    As for The Passage's comparisons, I had never read The Stand and recently a couple of friends and I tackled the "uncut" version at 1000+ pages. Whew. I plan a comparison post in September, but as similar as the books are, at this point I couldn't say whether one is better than the other. But being one of the few who absolutely hated The Road, I can say that both The Passage and The Stand had far more meaning for me than McCarthy's novel.

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  6. I haven't read the passage, so I can only say that I prefer not to have books defined for me. I would rather just read and enjoy a book regardless of its genre.

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  7. I would call THE PASSAGE science fiction/dystopia with litfic appeal- that is, very well written and very character- as well as plot-driven. Not to judge science fiction, but there is a difference between scifi and other kinds of literary fiction, and I understand why selling the book is easier if you can capitalize on the appeal factors that don't revolve around experiments-gone-wrong and quasi-vampires. The vampire thing in particular is very off-putting to a lot of readers so if you can bring up the fact that hey, it's beautifully written and has wonderfully drawn characters, you might as well, depending on to whom you're talking. Obviously the people marketing the book are going to use every advantage they can to market it and it just happens that THE PASSAGE has many good qualities from which to choose.

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  8. I haven't read this book, but like you, I have read many, many reviews of it. I think hearing that it has elements of science-fiction actually makes me want to read it a little bit more than before I had heard that. I am aware that labeling something as a science-fiction book does turn off a lot of readers though, just like labeling something fantasy does. I have been reading a lot of posts about this lately, and had realized in the midst of them, that I fell into this trap as well. Since discovering that I harbored such genre prejudice, I have gone out of my way to try to expand my reading as of late, and I am really excited to discover that I was wrong about all that. That being said, I think that The Passage is something that I will probably read sometime soon. I will have to come back and let you know if I consider it science-fiction when I am done. Great discussion post!

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  9. I can see why you'd say that a sci-fi label would kill this book, but I honestly don't believe that publicists (and thereby bloggers, reviewers, etc) wouldn't want a sci-fi label placed on this book because it would dampen the excitement. I think the reason this book didn't take off as quickly as some (me included!) had hoped is partly due to the vampire aspect, not because this book could (and I'd argue against this) be construed as sci-fi. The vampire thing is a turn off to more people than not, from people who hate them to people who've OD'd on them to people who enjoy more literary books.

    I think others have done a great job of describing why this book is so hard to label, so I'll stop while I'm ahead. :)

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  10. I haven't read it either, but I agree with your instincts on why this book 'defies genre.' Once a novel is put in a genre category, it automatically cuts out a wide swath of possible readers. A number of people simply *don't* read genre fiction, so it makes sense, from a marketing perspective, to keep the categorization of any given novel as broad as possible. I find it funny, though, that people are even falling into the trap of "genre defying, " and I"m glad your questioning them. Books are never 'genre defying;' they always fit - predominantly - into one category or another.

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