I was presenting my undergraduate thesis along with a panel of five other film majors when an audience member stood up and said, “You kids have sure put a lot of time into this. Aren’t there more important things to worry about than movies?”
Our department head later shared with us that, in the moment, she cringed, worrying that we would stutter or apologize. I think we made her proud when all six of us took a turn politely telling the gentleman, “So’s your face.”
Of course, we used more words than that, because we were freshly minted Bachelors of Arts, but that was the general idea.
My thesis was about the relationship between literary style in Gothic novels and visual style in Gothic horror films of the 1930’s: how each was used to express the central themes and build the conventions of the genre, and why we had to keep going back and doing it over again in subsequent horror cycles. It was about why Dracula never stays dead.
There are all kinds of theories about why particular genres capture our attention (from Freud’s sex and death to theories of identification and fantasy-fulfillment, to the theory of derivative crap that assumes stories won’t get made if they haven’t been proven to make money in the past). But what was really, really clear at the end of my project was that there are certain things we think about, a lot, and those things get expressed through genre fiction in an unusually accessible form.
No matter why they get made, we keep reaching for those stories. Plot lines may become overly derivative and audiences may get bored — for a while — but the core of the thing is always there to trouble and intrigue, because it taps into concerns that are at the root of our social consciousness. Genres coalesce around the things that worry us and the problems that arise as we try to relate to each other and the world.
In Gothics, people think about displacement, nostalgia, paralysis and progress. In Westerns, we worry about nature and culture, savagery and sophistication. Sci-fi tends to look at the future and ask, “what if?” as a means of commentary on what we’re like right now.
Each genre has its own conventions for dealing with these basic concerns, and the sameness of the genre is one reason it may be dismissed as a lower form of fiction. You can set a girl in white and a cursed villain loose in a moldering castle and let them chase each other around in circles until sunrise and call it a Gothic. It’s fun for a while; eventually it can get boring. But what makes genre great is its ability to adapt to new times and circumstances. The girl should be someone we care about under contemporary value systems. The villain has to be something we recognize as evil (and simultaneously a little bit sexy). Genre needs new ideas to survive just as much as it needs recognizable set pieces.
So that is what we hoped contributing authors would do with their original stories for Birkensnake 6: Wild Conformations: put fresh eyes on an established genre, dig into what makes it tick, fall in love with it, and then hammer it into a new shape to fit their settings and narratives.
Wonderfully, as submissions came in, I started to doubt that I knew anything about genre at all because the writers, stories and styles were so different. We were also excited to see several non-Western genres represented, offering fresh light on what turns our crank as social creatures.
I was going to end with something like, “… because what’s more important than exploring how we relate to each other and the world?” You know — something punchy that ties back to the opening. And then I thought curing cancer might be in close competition, along with clean water for third world countries and so on and so forth.
Here’s the thing: we could all grow up to be oncologists and take sabbaticals to join the Peace Corps and that would be well and good and admirable. But what would we all read at night?
Liz Hahn was once told she had found a new way of speaking, and she’s pretty sure that’s a compliment. She writes in Seattle, Washington where the galoshes are tall and the salmon are mighty. You can find her short story “Chrysalides” online at Scape and hold her accountable for it on Twitter @lizziehahn.