Genre-defying has become a popular description for a certain kind of artist, whether they are working in literature, in movies, or in music. But is the term something more than just a lazy journalist’s inability to be decisive about classification?
Perhaps the most fêted genre-defying work of contemporary fiction––although technically it should be described as multi-genre––is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The book contains elements of science fiction, thriller, humour, epistolary and historical fiction. It is a bold and ambitious work, which, for me, doesn’t work. My problem with Cloud Atlas is that I have read better examples of each of the individual genres it appears to ape. It is like eating a Four Seasons pizza when you would actually prefer a decent-sized helping of Ham and Pineapple.
However, Cloud Atlas does have many of the attributes, which I believe define the genre ‘genre-defying’. Principal among these is someone writing in the style of ‘literary fiction’ but writing about a subject, which might more typically be classified as ‘popular fiction’. For some reason the most common crossover involves ‘science fiction’, perhaps because it is the genre most easily scorned. Literary authors who have dipped their pretensions into science fiction and, as such, have become classified as ‘genre-defying’ include Geoff Dyer, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.
It is a similar story with music: genre-defying artists include St Vincent, P J Harvey, even Radiohead. What they have in common is an intellectual approach to their music. They may draw from sources, which span a wide range of other musical genres, but it is this scholarly synthesis, which defines them as genre-defying.
So, we now have a definition for genre-defying: scholarly synthesis. Schol-Synth: it is a new genre. But does this make the term ‘genre-defying’ redundant? Never: it is just looking for a new home.
© Fergus Longfellow
Book expert, Fergus Longfellow, lives his entire life trying to defy genres.