Medium and genre

An essai on chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Poetics.

A third difference in these arts is the manner in which each kind of object is represented. Given both the same means and the same kind of object or imitation, one may either (1) speak at one moment in narrative and at another in assumed character, as Homer does; or (2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or (3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Here Aristotle arrives at the fundamental distinction of genre, in the older sense of the word. In the Greek system of classification (which he here describes), all poesis is divisible into three genres: drama, dithyramb, and epic. The dithyramb is pure narrative, without any direct dialogue; it is very rare in modern fiction, though it sometimes occurs in popular songs. As writers, we are likely to use this mode mostly for writing synopses or outlines; and then we will use prose narrative, rather than the dithyramb proper (which is a particular verse form, in one of those Greek metres I mentioned earlier, which will not go into English).

Tradition holds that the dithyramb was first developed as an art form by Arion of Lesbos. With apologies to his (now very dim) memory, I should like to borrow his name for an artistic fault that beginning writers often fall into, and even wise and experienced authors occasionally. I shall call it arionism, which is not the same thing as Arianism, a different kind of error. By arionism I mean the habit of falling into pure narrative or outline, and not rendering the chief incidents of a story in scenic form.

Orson Scott Card, if I remember correctly, once recounted his first attempt at writing a novel, at a time when he had had some success writing and selling short stories. He had the idea that if a novel is ten times as long as a short story, it must therefore have ten times as much plot. In fact this is almost never the case. The virtue of the novel is that it affords more room to expand upon details, to multiply details and scenes, to be discursive. A short story has no room to be discursive. So Card wrote a fantastically overcomplicated draft of what he thought was a novel. The plot was complex and tangled and thoroughly bewildering, it wrecked planets and bestrode the ages, but for all that, it only came to 120 pages in manuscript. He lent it to a friend to read, and was told: ‘I couldn’t finish it. It was so long.’ Then he learnt something about the rhetoric of the novel; he threw away about half the plot of his first draft, and rewrote the rest, fleshing out the bare-bones narrative into scenes, adding dialogue and description and other such things to make the story go. The second draft weighed in at 300 pages. This time the friend said, ‘It still isn’t very good, but at least it’s shorter.

Written Greek poesis, and prose especially, tended to be dithyrambic in this sense; it had this fault of arionism. This works well for something about the size of Christ’s parables or Aesop’s fables, but it lacks the immersive quality that makes poesis a viable art. On hearing a parable or a fable, you feel that the incident beautifully and economically illustrates the moral; but it is the moral that stays with you — you have never had the feeling of being inside the tale. It is that vicariously sensuous experience that chiefly attracts people to poesis, and arionism wrongly excludes it.

Let me furnish an example, though — I admit this in advance — not entirely an honest one. Mark Twain broke into national fame by writing and publishing a comic story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. Years later, in his ‘Private History of the “Jumping Frog” Story’, he told how he was informed that the same story occurred in an ancient Greek work. The same story in essence, that is, but not in detail; the difference was that the Greek story had no detail. It is told in bald outline, not a dithyramb indeed (for it is in prose), but what I am calling an arionism. Here it is in full:


An Athenian once fell in with a Boeotian who was sitting by the road-side looking at a frog. Seeing the other approach, the Boeotian said his was a remarkable frog, and asked if he would agree to start a contest of frogs, on condition that he whose frog jumped farthest should receive a large sum of money. The Athenian replied that he would if the other would fetch him a frog, for the lake was near. To this he agreed, and when he was gone the Athenian took the frog, and, opening its mouth, poured some stones into its stomach, so that it did not indeed seem larger than before, but could not jump. The Boeotian soon returned with the other frog, and the contest began. The second frog first was pinched, and jumped moderately; then they pinched the Boeotian frog. And he gathered himself for a leap, and used the utmost effort, but he could not move his body the least. So the Athenian departed with the money. When he was gone the Boeotian, wondering what was the matter with the frog, lifted him up and examined him. And being turned upside down, he opened his mouth and vomited out the stones.

That story contains just over 200 words, and gets the facts in; but it contains only one vivid descriptive phrase — ‘gathered himself for a leap’. Now, here is a passage of comparable length from Mark Twain’s version:

Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had travelled and been everywheres all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.

Well, Smiley kep’ the beast in a little lattice box, and he used to fetch him down-town sometimes and lay for a bet. One day a feller — a stranger in the camp, he was — come acrost him with his box, and says:

‘What might it be that you’ve got in the box?’

And Smiley says, sorter indifferent-like, ‘It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, maybe, but it ain’t — it’s only just a frog.’

And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says, ‘H’m — so ’tis. Well, what’s he good for?’

‘Well,’ Smiley says, easy and careless, ‘he’s good enough for one thing, I should judge — he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.’

The feller took the box again and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better ’n any other frog.’

‘Maybe you don’t,’ Smiley says. ‘Maybe you understand frogs and maybe you don’t understand ’em; maybe you’ve had experience, and maybe you ain’t only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I’ve got my opinion, and I’ll resk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.’

That is slightly longer than the whole ‘Athenian and the Frog’ story, but it only gets us about a quarter of the way through the anecdote. Twain’s version of the incident takes up over 1,000 words; the full story of which it is the central part is 2,600. But see how much better it is! Instead of the nameless Boeotian, we have Smiley — a vivid character, with a distinctive dialect and style of speech, and a compulsive gambler besides. (‘He was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides.’) We have dialogue; we have motivation — Smiley’s love of a bet, the stranger’s artfully dissembled desire to take advantage. We have visual detail — the little lattice box, in the passage above; there are many others. When Smiley’s frog tries to jump, he does not merely gather himself for a leap: ‘Dan’l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders so — like a Frenchman, but it wan’t no use, he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil.’ Then the stranger repeats his taunt, by way of a punchline: ‘Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better ’n any other frog.’ And when Smiley finds out the trick that has been played upon him, ‘he was the maddest man; he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketched him.’

The story opens up in the telling, and admits enough air to let the characters breathe; we see their individual psychologies at work, and they issue forth in vivid action. It is a better story for that, and funnier, too. The ‘Athenian’ version produces, at most, a dry smile; it puts the hearer in the position of the German professor who wrote a book on Das Komische, after which, whenever he heard an amusing story, he only nodded and said, ‘Yes, there is that joke.’ Twain’s version induced enough laughter to give him a national reputation as a humorist.

I said earlier that this was not an honest example; and the reason is that Mark Twain was deceived. In fact, there was no Greek story of ‘The Athenian and the Frog’; it was an English story, taken from a textbook by Arthur Sidgwick on Greek composition — a set-piece in English for the students to translate into Greek. But Sidgwick’s familiarity with Greek literature shows through. It shows in the few details — the Athenian and the Boeotian, and filling the frog with stones instead of quail shot, as in Twain’s version; and it shows more strongly in the telling — the bald summary of the plot, which might have come straight out of a Hellenistic epitome. In fact, the ‘Athenian’ story is a bald plagiarism of Twain’s original, with the serial numbers filed off just sufficiently to make it fit plausibly in an Ancient Greek setting. But it is a good example of the fault I have called arionism; it shows the excessive compression that makes so much ancient Greek prose read like précis-work, and makes it so dry and tiresome to get through.

This fault occurs in better authors than either Sidgwick or Card; and when it does, it is all the more glaring by contrast with its surroundings, and therefore, more to be deplored. As Horace said, even Homer nods. But in the worst case of arionism in modern popular literature, it would be truer to the point to say that even Homer dies.

The Silmarillion has been a failure with many fans of Tolkien’s other fiction, and only a partial success with the rest; this is largely because it is, as his son and editor, Christopher, said, partly a compendium in fact and not only in theory. In particular, it ends with the tale of Eärendil, which always had a special place in Tolkien’s heart. Based on Tolkien’s own outlines, it would have been something like a cross between a Sinbad story, a Norse saga, and the Odyssey: probably a masterwork of modern fantasy, if Tolkien had written it at the peak of his powers. But in fact he never wrote it at all. The story of the Nauglamír and the fall of Doriath (chapter 22 of the published Silmarillion) was to be only the first of seven sections of the whole Eärendil tale. So Christopher cobbled together what little he could from the outlines, setting aside everything that occurred only in the earliest forms and might be inconsistent with the later Silmarillion texts; so that the climax and ending of the published book is a dry, sad little summary, only a few pages long, completely lacking in the sensuous force and emotional depth that made the middle parts of The Silmarillion good reading.

All this may sound like a long version of the old advice to writers, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ In fact that advice was not originally given to writers of fiction, but to dramatists; it meant, shortly put, that we should see all the important action on the stage, and not merely recounted in dialogue because it would be costly or difficult to act it out. The problem of arionism is rather different. Every long story includes passages that are not important enough to set out in the form of fully developed scenes; every short story is forced to summarize important events, or it would not be short. It is vital in these cases to tell instead of showing — that is, to tell briefly, in pure narrative, rather than fully, in fleshed-out scenes. Arionism occurs when things are told in summary that need to be fleshed out.

To some extent, the space devoted to an incident must be proportionate to its importance in the story. I say only to some extent, because if an event is fully described in the form of a scene, it has been described enough. The assassination of Julius Caesar is the most important event in Shakespeare’s play of that name, but it does not take up much time; poor old Caesar does not get ten minutes to flail about and overact his dying agonies, like Peter Sellers in The Party. But it receives enough time to be shown vividly, as much time as it took to actually happen; that is enough. On the other hand, many events in Caesar’s last days that could have been dramatized were left unshown, for Brutus and Cassius to gossip about or for others to report in dialogue, because they were not important enough to warrant being made into scenes of their own.

So much for arionism and dithyramb. Of the other two forms of poesis identified by Aristotle, drama corresponds to modern plays and films, and epic to the modern novel. There are, of course, important differences of technique: to begin with, Classical Greek dramas and epics were invariably in verse, modern ones are nearly always in prose. But the division between stories acted and stories told remains primary and paramount today.

When modern literature began to generate its own critical vocabulary, the French word genre was used to refer to this (originally threefold) division. Drama was one genre, written fiction another. It is important to bear this in mind, because genre is a word subject to much confusion in modern usage. Nowadays the tendency is to take all the books that are shelved together in the bookshop for commercial convenience, and call those a genre; whereas in fact what they are is a category. (‘Category romance’ is one surviving usage of this more correct term.) If the distinction were properly observed, we should say that a genre corresponds to a genus, a category (within the bounds of that genre) to a species, as Aristotle used those terms (a usage still partly preserved in biology). So novels are a genus, or a genre (the words are etymologically the same); science fiction novels, mystery novels, literary novels, and so on, are species of that genus, or categories.

Since categories are commercial, they can be divided more or less arbitrarily; or rather, they are divided in whatever ad hoc way the customers may find most helpful. Horror is a category because some people want to read scary stories, so the emotion of fear is enough to identify which books they may wish to buy. Romance (in the modern sense) is a category because some people want to read love stories. Fantasy is a category, not because it evokes any particular emotion, but because some people want to read about imaginary places and mythological creatures. Westerns are a category, not because they appeal to particular emotions or contain particular imaginative elements, but because some people want to read stories set in the Old West. If it were not for the wide extent of that specialized taste, westerns would be shelved under historical fiction — which, again, is another category.

The whole business of ‘crossover fiction’ arises because categories are defined in such different ways. H. P. Lovecraft’s stories are primarily horror, but have affinities with science fiction and fantasy, because he derives the emotion of fear from imaginary creatures and from the ineluctable alienness of the cosmos itself. Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is primarily science fiction, since one of the lead characters is a robot, but it is also a murder mystery. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are primarily fantasy, since Harry is a wizard, but Harry is also a hardboiled detective of the Raymond Chandler school. Just as North America is in the Western and the Northern Hemisphere, depending on which way you divide the earth, Harry Dresden is a fantasy character and the detective in a mystery series.

A lot of nonsense has been written about which elements ‘trump’ others — that is, why Harry Dresden is shelved under fantasy and not mystery, why Lovecraft is shelved under horror and not science fiction, and so on. The plain truth is that ‘crossovers’ are generally shelved along with whichever category is biggest and most profitable. Time-travel romances, for instance, a large and profitable subcategory (or they were at one time), are always categorized with romance and not with science fiction. Romance is the biggest category in commercial fiction; something close to half of all novels sold fall in that class. So it is naturally easier to find that subset of romance readers who will appreciate, or at least not mind, a science-fictional element like time travel, than to find the subset of SF readers who will appreciate a love story. Romance is a wedding-cake, SF is a cupcake; of the two, only the larger one is worth the trouble of cutting up into slices.

One thing to bear in mind is that categories nearly always cross the lines of (Aristotelian) genres. There are romance novels, romance films, romance short stories, romance plays; and likewise with all the other commercial categories, though sometimes the dramatic form and the novel form have different names. Thus, when ‘literary fiction’ is adapted for the movies, the category is renamed ‘art film’. When a ‘mainstream’ novel is made into a film, it becomes simply a ‘drama’; for ‘mainstream’ and ‘drama’ are catchall categories, which include whatever does not particularly fall under any other heading. (If a mainstream novel is funny, the film will be called a comedy instead of a drama; this is because funny films are much more common, and much more profitable, than funny novels. Again, it is a question of which cake is big enough to slice.)

Aristotle tells us:

Sophocles will be on one side akin to Homer, both portraying good men; and on another to Aristophanes, since both present their personages as acting and doing.

This neatly summarizes the difference between genre and category, in the original senses of those words. Sophocles and Aristophanes both wrote in the genre of drama; but Sophocles in the category of tragedy, and Aristophanes in the category of comedy. Whereas Sophocles and Homer both wrote what we should call ‘serious’ fiction, stories told with some degree of gravitas and with unhappy endings. The Iliad is not called a tragedy, because it is not a play, but both Hector and Achilles came to tragic ends.

It is unfortunate that the word genre has become the cuckoo’s egg in the nest of category, so that most people take it for the genuine term and entirely forget that it originally meant something else. Even the cuckoo does not recognize her own child anymore. Since we are now stuck with calling the commercial categories of fiction genres, we need another term for what used to be meant by genre. Fortunately the resources of the English language are nearly inexhaustible, and we have a term ready to hand: medium. So the stage is one medium, and film another, and written fiction still a third; we could if we wished make poetry a fourth, because books of verse are rejected on sight by most readers of prose, and it would be helpful (both to them and to the few people who still enjoy poetry) if prose and verse were routinely published in different formats. The modern poet’s chapbook is perhaps a step in that direction. There are some technical grounds for treating poetry as a separate medium, too; for nearly all poetry is improved by being read aloud, whereas prose is usually just as good, and often better, when read silently.

But we must bear in mind that the word medium, if we use it in this way, has acquired a double meaning; and it is important not to confuse the two meanings. As a physical medium, an audiobook is one thing, a printed book another, and an ebook a third; but they all contain exactly the same words and can faithfully reproduce exactly the same work of poesis. So for the purposes of poesis, they are all one medium. It then helps to have yet another word to do the work of medium when we are talking about the mere physical form in which a story is delivered; for this I nominate format. If we had stuck to the old meanings of the words, we could say that the ebook of Catch-22 is in the medium of electronic text, the genre of written fiction, and the category of comedy or satire. With the substituted meanings, we should say that electronic text is the format, written fiction the medium, and comedy the genre. Every term has moved one place on, like the people at the Mad Tea-Party in Alice when the Hatter wanted a clean cup. As long as we are clear which set of terms we are using, no harm is done; except to Alice, who inherited the March-Hare’s spilt milk.

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