Friday, May 7, 2010

Genre, Audience, and Defying Expectations

I am sneaking in one more post. I have found that when I tell people that I have been working on Neverwhere I get two different responses. Those who know the novel say, “That’s great! I want to see it.” This is rapidly followed by, “How are they going to do that on stage?”

For those who don’t know the play I get, “Oh, What’s that about?” Which is actually a trickier question.

How do you describe Neverwhere? Most people rely on certain genre descriptions to help people understand what they might experience when they read a novel or see a play. It is a mystery, a comedy etc. Some works defy easy descriptions. It is a fantasy in that it has fantastical elements, but many think of elves or dwarves when they hear fantasy. Two categories are often used. Urban Fantasy, which as the name implies puts fantastical elements in an urban, modern setting. Magical Realism, has also been used which generally describes fiction in which a recognizable world suddenly has magical events described with a journalistic distance, that is, in the narrative there is no surprise at the fantastic things that happen it is the reader who encounters the description and finds it surprising because it does not fit expectations of how the world is. Magical Realism has also been more closely linked to Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. However, as often happens with descriptive words, that use has broadened to include non-Latin American writers like Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. Certainly, Neverwhere could be described by either term.

While categories can be helpful shorthand can contribute to a convenient shared understanding of a work they can also be reductive. Genres often imply something about literary merit or seriousness of a work that I have always found distressing. Perhaps it comes from having been a voracious child reader who did not put aside childish books. Frog and Toad are still two of the best commentators on human (or amphibian) experience that I have encountered. By the same token I fall prey to the same judgments about genre. When I see a bright pink book with a woman’s legs in high heels or a shopping bag I cringe. I don’t know about the book and it’s relative worth, but it is being marketed under the derisive genre of “chick lit” and I do judge it on its cover and decide I don’t want it. It may be that I am simply not as interested in the complexities of dating and shopping but it may also be that I am ignoring a book because of what I assume it will be.

Genres also ignore the fact that there are fascinating works of literature in all time periods that simply don’t fit expectations. The Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish wrote a novel called The Blazing World in which she imagined fantastic creatures, a utopia, submarines and equality of the sexes in the 17th Century. G.K. Chesterton regularly worked fantastical elements into his novels at the turn of the last century. R.C. Sherriff wrote a heart-rending play, Journey’s End, about his experiences in World War I and a fantastical and satirical, 1939 novel, The Hopkins Manuscript in which the moon falls into the Atlantic Ocean and examines humanity in the wake of the catastrophe. How does one define genres in places we don’t expect them or when a work uneasily resides in several genres: feminist treatise and utopian fantasy; mystery and allegory and fantasy; or satire and science fiction.

Similarly, in theater there are assumptions about what one will see and what sort of audience goes to the theater. Part of what I have loved about watching previews is how the audiences and the production defy expectation. Of course there will be a fight with the beast of London in a tiny theater. Of course audiences will range widely in age and appearance (truthfully most of these audience members are look way cooler that I have ever been).

All of this explains part of the enjoyment of Neverwhere. It defies expectations. On some level the references and the journey may feel familiar but there are also countless surprises. What happens when you can’t be seen? What happens when you see something for the first time or the 999th time?