I was doing what you do: listening to a podcast episode to see if I should add the whole thing to my feed. The podcast was What Magic is This and the specific episode was with Nicholas Chapel and focused on The Kybalion. Now, I have no real horse in the race of whether The Kybalion is hermetic or not, but every expert in the field agrees it is not. But the conversation about that topic got me to think of something. Here’s how it went: Chapel said that, while he certainly knows it’s not Hermetic, and can absolutely tell you why, it’s still a difficult task to do, because the field of Hermeticism is so big and wide open now. Historically, there have been a lot of innovations and changes in Hermeticism, and so it is perfectly reasonable to call Agrippa, the Golden Dawn, and the Corpus Hermeticum “Hermetic” even though in some ways none of them look anything like the others. The thing this made me think of is that magicians need to learn something about genre. So here we are, with an entry in my Literature for Magicians series sub-classed as Theory for Magicians: genre theory and the horizons of expectations.
Genre Theory: More Complicated than Anyone Thinks, but still Simple
So I’ve written about this before. The most notable example is probably when I blogged about it in 2009. I’ll be referring to some of the same texts here. Genre is “more complicated than anyone thinks” because no one thinks about it. In the famous words of Damon Knight, science fiction is what makes me say “this is science fiction” when I see it. But that’s obviously an extremely bad definition. Just to signpost this a little, since we’ll be deep in the weeds soon: magical traditions are a lot like genres, in that it’s next to impossible to satisfactorily define one, since, well, people are messy, and they’ll use whatever is handy. Think of all the PGM spells where Jewish, Egyptian, and Christian spirits are all called on in the same spell. Is that spell Jewish, Egyptian, or Christian? Well, sometimes it’s Greek, since it was written in Greek and meant for Greek people to use. But you presumably see how that isn’t helpful even though it’s true. So the idea is that learning how to parse genre can help one more satisfactorily parse magical traditions.
First, it’s a good idea to talk about the words genre and mode. Most of the time, when people talk about “genre” they actually mean “mode.” A genre is, technically, a format: so literary genres include poetry, prose, and drama. You see what I mean though – nobody uses the word that way. Modes of prose fiction include science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mundane realism. Those are the things people usually mean when they say “genre.” It’s important to talk about this just because it can be even more confusing when you go look into genre and find there are two “levels” of it. And of course it gets worse since marketing means you can have three forms of fantasy: the mode, which is any example of prose fiction in which the setting is not the zero world; the marketing genre of fantasy, which is whatever publishers have decided it will be; and then the store shelves, which are mostly a bunch of too-long bricks by old white men about young white men becoming powerful for Reasons.
We’re using “genre” in its technically incorrect sense because that’s just what the word means. I wanted to be sure that was clarified though. So now that it is, how do you decide something is fantasy? Well, as above, anything that is not mimetic – mimicking the mundane world – is fantastic. But even that simplest definition gets complicated very quickly: what if an atheist reads a novel written by an indigenous American person who practices indigenous spirituality, and the main character of the novel encounters spirits? Is that a fantasy or mundane realism? The atheist will read it as fantasy, as they do not expect spirits to really exist. The author may have written it as mundane realism though, if they had personal experience with spirits.
So even the basic, simplest academic definition of fantasy doesn’t work. This is where genre theory really comes in.
The best simple primer on genre is a book titled, simply, Genre, by John Frow. In it, Frow says genres work through a “horizon of expectations.” That’s very similar to how we read at all, according to Brian Upton, whose book Aesthetic of Play is one of the best theory books I’ve ever read. In Upton’s model, our expectations are set by a work and our assumptions beforehand, and as we play (and yes, we play as we read), we shift our expectations to match the work. Think of a game: you start in the tutorial and learn how to position units, but not which positions are best. That only comes as you try and fail and try again and succeed and go “aha, the mages go behind the tanks!” From that point forward you always do that, it’s an expectation you have. And Upton even uses the image of a horizon, because we keep looking forward to see where we’re going, and as our expectations change, we reshape what we imagine the horizon to actually be.
Meaning itself comes, to some degree, from the ways our bigger expectations about art are stretched and shifted by a work. So the movies and games that really blew your mind are the ones that, somehow or other, moved your expectations really far, from point A to point Z, while perfectly good games that you enjoyed may have only moved them from A to D.
Genre also works through expectations. In this case, though, it plays with expectations that already exist. So now let’s consider a science fiction novel. Can a story be science fiction with no aliens, space ships, laser guns? Can a story be science fiction without any novum at all? A novum is a term for a “new thing,” a thing that doesn’t exist in the zero world. So can a work be science fiction and be exactly like our world? Most people would say no, but it exists. There was a movement in the 2010s to create something we might term “mundane science fiction.” I remember one of the examples was an astronaut struggling to see because lunar dust kept clouding their visor. The entire story took place within the confines not only of what could reasonably happen, but what has demonstrably happened: lunar dust was a bit of a surprise to NASA when astronauts first encountered it, and they had to engineer things not to get mucked up by it.
The thing here is that if someone encounters an astronaut in a story, they expect that the story will be science fiction. Even if there are no nova at all, the reader will still read the story as science fiction, because a thing in the story has led one to imagine a specific horizon. And the mundane science fiction movement took advantage of that. It wasn’t people writing mundane realism and getting misclassified; they were indeed trying to write science fiction and playing with the expectations of readers along the way.
Within the constructions of genre, the works that play with our expectations the most tend to be the ones we think of when we think of the greatest boundary-pushers of all time. Moby-Dick appeared to be yet another “nautical yarn,” a genre Herman Melville was well known for, and it turns out to be a kind of Gothic fiction, with a Byronic antihero lording over a ship instead of a castle. But it’s still a nautical yarn too, because it has the ship, the whalers, the whale, the careful little details about getting mail while at sea, how ships communicate with one another, and so on. Gene Wolfe said, throughout his career, that he was writing fantasy, not science fiction, even though his best-known works are considered science fiction: but The Book of the New Sun isn’t just a far-future narrative where the technology looks like magic. There’s also just plain old magic, and divine intervention, and saviors moving through time not via a time machine but via their feet. They walk and end up elsewhere but also elsewhen.
Works manipulate our expectations, even when they simply meet them. And so if someone wants to write a Gothic novel, they have a haunted house, even if it’s the weirdest example you can imagine – or even if it’s just kind of a gag at first. Richard Matheson wrote haunted house stories about newly-built suburban split-levels and vacation bungalows in Hawaii. There’s never a single trope that makes something part of a genre. But through family resemblance – an idea in Paul Kincaid’s criticism – a writer can include something that’s like something else, and then as they slowly shape the story around it, it reveals itself to be enough like a trope to turn the story into the genre the author is aiming for. And from that point forward, that thing itself is now “in” the genre’s set of expectations. So Gothic stories can be imagined like this:
Creepy castles -> haunted mansions -> haunted houses -> haunted neighborhood buildings -> Dead personalities running experiments on humans
That last example is Portal, by the way, which, if you take a second, you will realize is a haunted house story. The “ghost” is recorded in software, but it was once a person, and in its post-death “life” it is haunting the house, which itself turns against the main character trapped within it. You might consider Analog: A Hate Story” similarly.
Same Bat Time, Same Bat-Channel
Next time, I’ll discuss how to apply this directly to magical traditions. See you then!
Support this work
Your support makes the this work possible and I am thankful for your consideration!