How to Recognize Genre-Challenged Texts, My Favorites

During a discussion with the head of my department, we realized that I like genre challenged works.

What does that mean? It means that I like to teach, and do teach, works where the genre is either unclear or where several different genres (whatever you mean by that) are mixed up together.

Is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland adult literature or children’s literature? People argue for adult literature because of the preponderance of the minor theme of death, of the scariness of the tale, and of the narcotic using caterpillar. They argue for children’s lit because it is fantastical, was written for a child, and was originally children’s lit.

Then we have the fact that saying a work is an adult or children’s lit genre doesn’t exclude the application of other genres to the work.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is clearly speculative fiction, but is it fantasy or horror?

If it is fantasy, is it low fantasy or fairy tale fantasy? (Carroll clearly was leaning this direction himself because he added a “fairy’s” comments at the beginning of the work.)

It is clearly an implausible story, one of Princeton’s definition of fairy tale. (They also said this was told as an excuse. An excuse for what?)

And it is clearly a smaller part of folklore, as Heidi Anne Heiner at Sur La Lune indicates. It was first told to Alice Liddle on July 4, 1862 and changed at least three times even once it was written down, until its publication on July 4, 1865.

According to Tolkein’s presentation of fairy tale the work is one since the story does take place in Faerie, the diminutive size (which he says we may reject but which it is not necessary to reject in this particular work) simply emphasizes it.

And at Heiner’s site, I find a quote that details just my problem with presenting “genre” to my students, in a quote from Jack Zipes’ “Introduction: Towards the Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University, 2000.

…[I]n fact, the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author.


So, what are my other “genre challenged” favorites?

Frankenstein. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it gothic? (And is that a genre?) I would say that it is definitely romantic (tradition) gothic (sub-tradition) speculative fiction. Whether it is sci fi or horror probably depends on your definition of those sub-genres. So…

Gulliver’s Travels. It is speculative fiction and fantasy. But what kind of fantasy is it? Is it a fairy tale? It is clearly an improbable tale, but is that its main point, its focus? Is it part of travel literature? (A very popular genre at the time Swift wrote, but pretty much non-existent now.) It is satire. (That’s a genre too, but of a different type.) It’s a social statement. … But what is it specifically?

Note that I wrote my dissertation on genres and attempted to define the genre of missionary newsletter. (So I’ve been doing this a while.)

Speculative Fiction

One of these days, I want to teach a speculative fiction course. What does that mean? It means science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Okay, so it will be light on horror. Or only use old horror. Old horror is much less scary to me, though I don’t know why.)

I already have several works that would help me prepare for that class:
The History of Science Fiction, though I don’t know where on the shelves it is
Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy
a couple of actual texts used by colleges, including the one I used in my sophomore class. (No, I didn’t keep that. I found a copy of it at the library book sale.
Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (subtitled: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Children)
Philosophy and Science Fiction
Writing Science Fiction
and several Narnia, Tolkein discussion books.
(books updated 2/26/08)

What recognized literature falls into this category?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Lewis Carroll’s
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Do you see a theme there? I do. Except for Stoker, these are all works I’m already teaching or have taught. Maybe I’m doing my speculative fiction course in bits now. I still think it’d be fun to finish it, though.

If I ever do this, I might want to refer to this post I wrote on speculative fiction, a note on genre.