Tag Archives: Classic

Genre-less Genre

Genre-less Genre

As a childhood fan of genre fiction—from Science Fiction and Fantasy, through to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and a dash of horror for good measure—the discovery of non-genre fiction came late to me as I fell out of my teenage years.

Having spent my youth in the wilderness, I took to reading historical and contemporary classics with a vengeance. With little to guide me apart from the dogged maxim that genre was wrong, I ploughed through endless books, desperate to make up for my wasted youth. I’m not sure where the thought came from, but in the back of my mind I knew there was something wrong with genre fiction. Something debased about it that marked it as a lesser form of writing, to be shunned by civilized folk and, at best, to be read solely for the amusement of minors.

However, as I matured, I slowly rediscovered genre fiction. Like a dirty secret, I kept the rediscovery to myself, but gradually my desire to read magical realism and speculative fiction grew stronger, until I could no longer keep my reading habits to myself, and finally had to come out as a through-and-through fan of genre fiction.

Although I’m now comfortable with my literary inclinations and I’m well-adjusted enough to read whatever I want, I still can’t help but wonder if there’s a fundamental reason why so many dislike genre so much? Is there some intrinsic property that separates genre fiction from real literature, or is the separation nothing more than the bias of cultural elitism? After all, one generation’s genre fiction can become another’s classics, and in practice genre is little more than a categorization of literary style. Indeed where would some of our most compelling authors be without genre? Where would Margret Atwood be without speculative fiction, or Salman Rushdie without magical realism?

For some genre might be the price of making reading accessible to the masses, for others it’s the stench of cultural elitism, but for the rest of us it’s a compass that helps us navigate  through the literary landscape. Just because a book is written according to the informal rules of a particular genre it doesn’t, by any means, stop it  from being an original or significant work, or, indeed, a cultural masterpiece.  While the debate over genre and literature is unlikely to die out soon, given the significant number of books that willingly shun the shackles of genre, who’s to say that Genre-less fiction hasn’t become a genre in it’s very own right?

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Book CoverSimone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sat on my bookshelf for 5 years. It was picked up, dusted off, and thumbed through many times, but even after 2 serious attempts to read it from cover to cover the book sat defiant, its secrets safe and its intellectual rigour uncontested. If I’d conceived of a way to maintain my honour and consign the book to the bin, or worse, a charity shop, then it would have gone years ago. However, the pig-headed male in me couldn’t accept  a philosophical tract could be beyond my reading ability or intellect, and so I stubbornly picked up the book again and forced myself on the tome once again.

Having now finished the book, I’m ready, nay forced, to write something of my experience, because although not an easy read The Second Sex is a book that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days. Its blend of history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology makes it an encompassing tract on Women’s place in history and contemporary life, and as such it’s an enticing read for anyone wanting to understand or at least investigate the social division between the genders.

But however enticing the book may be, it is also a hard book, and not because it contains ideas that sit uncomfortably within contemporary male-oriented society, nor because it lays the blame for gender inequality squarely on both genders, but because of the depth of its underlying research and the sheer volume of ideas it generates pertaining to the female condition.

Before my praise becomes indefensibly obsequious, I should point out the book has—like most philosophy books—many rough edges and fallible arguments, including frequent subjective musings from De Beauvoir that are based more on her whim than on reason itself, but these meanderings do nothing to diminish the intellectual spotlight that the book shines on the subject matter.

Although there are many later feminist books and books on gender studies that expand or contradict The Second Sex, this is a book that, above all, extols the feminist virtue of freedom: women’s freedom from sexual service; women’s freedom from the chains of marriage; but also men’s freedom from their gender’s historical role as the counterpart and gaoler of women.

This is not an easy read, but like a mountain there are many routes through the book, be it as a required text for students, or as a dusty tome to be pecked at gradually over years. Although the gender landscape has changed massively since De Beauvoir published The Second Sex, as a thorough examination of woman’s place alongside man in history and society this is a timeless and a critical read. For anyone that wants to grasp why the physical and physiological differences between the genders doesn’t excuse or even require the mental divide that cuts through the ages, then go get yourself a copy and a darned comfy seat.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review


Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

One of my personal goals for 2010 was to read through all the books on the unread books shelf in my lounge, the home for books that either don’t grab my interest, or that are heavy enough  to require significant bravery or brandy before opening. Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse dwelled on the shelf for a year or so, as did Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and an anthology of  Isiah Berlin’s essays, The Proper Study of Mankind, has grown dusty in the corner for at least 3 years.

I was therefore happy to pluck the Hyperotomachi Poliphili, or, as it is sometimes known in English, Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, off the shelf a couple of months ago. A 500-year old text written, purportedly, by Venetian monk Francesco Colonna, it tells the story of Poliphilo as he journeys through his dreams searching for his dream lover, the entrancing Polia. With a recursive plot and a cast full of beautiful nymphs, the text is as charming as it is colourful, and as Poliphilo, and then Polia, wend their way through the fantastic dream-scape, the symbolism builds from a classic veneer into an intricate and integral seam that runs contiguously through the book’s pages.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating and notable facet of the book is Poliphilo’s obsessive focus on architecture. Hardly a page passes when he doesn’t marvel at some form of stonework, architecture, or other construction-based aesthetic  ideal, which coupled with the text’s deep descriptive style would be challenging to even the  most architecturally adroit of contemporary readers. While the architecture is occasionally tempered with narrative flourishes on couture and music, the text is nonetheless a normative example of the Renaissance style and serves as an apt illustration of the cultural revolution that sired it.

Although  my general taste  for simplicity meant the endless symbolism and ceaseless ode to architecture dulled my interest the more I read, as an exposition of the Renaissance Zeitgeist the book serves as a priceless window into a bygone cultural age. So while I’ve now moved the book from my unread books shelf, I’ve been left wondering if I should create  a new shelf for books I’ve read but failed to understand apart from as cultural artefacts, which, of course, would also make the perfect home for Virgina Woolf’s insane ramblings.