At its heart, lasagna is a simple dish in concept. But if you have a version you love—your grandma’s or uncle’s, favorite checked-tablecloth joint’s, even favorite freezer box’s—you can taste the differences. Subtleties come alive in the taster’s experience, appreciable, even if not specifically definable. Crime stories across all subgenres (heck genre fiction in general) get castigated for being “formulaic.” But many of us fans view each subgenre as a beloved basic recipe, one that invites endless tinkering among aficionados.
That’s why “transcending lasagna” is how I think of the persistently irritating tendency of non-genre readers and writers to bestow “It transcends genre!” as a compliment.
I’ve actually come to think of that phrase as a Big. Red. Flag.
WARNING, UNSATISFYING CONTENT AHEAD!
Sure, genres are defined by the circumstances under which the stories take place and the tones of storytelling. (Historical mystery vs. futuristic military thriller, for example.) However, I’d argue genre divisions are also about essential story structure—the lasagna’s layers—and as long as those elements are recognizable enough, you can riff on and expand the ingredients, and fans will enjoy the variations instead of feeling betrayed.
Most often, the work I see promoted as “transcending genre” isn’t a mismatch in premise or even its tone for the larger group. In fact, it’s those more-obvious elements that are misleading non-genre commenters, readers whose biggest, ongoing failing is not understanding that there’s anything else to know about forms they don’t read.**
If all we genre fans cared about were getting the obvious ingredients (meat, cheese, flour-y something, and sauce), we could mindlessly substitute spaghetti bolognese or a meatball hoagie for lasagna instead. But those dishes aren’t the same thing! Just ask your grandmother! Less-obviously, but inescapably and tooth-grindingly wrong are the story structures of these “transcendent” tales. In my experience, they almost always have underlying narratives built upon assumptions that cluelessly offend the expectations and affections of people who really love that particular form.
Worse yet, when a book’s saucy cover and blurbs invite us serious lasagna fans over for dinner, its outside-the-genre arbiters of taste aren’t even apologetic about the bait-and-switch. We sit down (again and again), only to be proferred what look to us like bowls of punishment gruel. Meanwhile, our snobby hosts ignore or dismiss our disappointment, ranting on about their offering’s superiority. But it’s so much healthier for us, they say, assuming we’ll be grateful for the unwanted slop they’re trying to shovel down our gullets. No, thanks.
And so you know, I’ll be hitting my favorite lowbrow drive-thru on the way home.
**Reading Othello once doesn’t make anyone a Shakespeare scholar. Even if you actually read contemporary fiction of some kind like “literary fiction,” and then come slumming with us in the genre ghettos, you won’t know how a single work reflects or fits among its peers. Your opinion is as worthwhile and valid as any other reader’s, but it won’t be nearly as well-informed. Please surf a bit. Hardcore fans of various form are enthusiastic to chat, and you’ll probably find them mid-conversation. Such invested folks understand their favorite forms’ history, trends, and bests in class. You may even get inside scoop! No matter what you document as your final assessment of a genre work, at least you won’t say ignorant things. That would be positively refreshing, a veritable palate-cleansing sorbet for many of us genre readers.
Image via Fatherhood Matters.
Clare Toohey is Clare2e here and also at Women of Mystery. She had a mildly amusing, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She’s an omnivorous literary grazer who wants a taste from your plate.
See all of Clare Toohey’s posts at Criminal Element.