Genre Trouble: Acute vs Chronic (Notes from the Muse of Research)

Recently I was talking with an engineer-in-training about the leap from classroom theory to actual practice. It’s a gulf, and you jump hoping to make it; the blow is softened somewhat (but only somewhat) by moving some of the transition into simulation classes. There, the stakes are grades; in real life, it’s money and human lives.

Which brought me back to one of my favorite books, Ivor Kletz. What Went Wrong. On the subject of great titles, that one grabbed my attention when it appeared 5-10 years ago on the New Arrivals shelf at the library.

It’s a series of case studies of process plant disasters, on up to the Bhopal-Chernobyl level. I had just read the accident report from Chernobyl, which like many disasters was a man-made perfect storm, a confluence of hubris, flawed design, and just plain bad luck.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the kind of stories that mainstream American culture (and its publishing apparatus) honors. When the 35W bridge collapsed (more or less in my back yard), the news was full of pictures of firefighters and other first responders diving into the wreck. I thought: they cover this on the news, and our movies are full of crisis and rescue, but there are no thrilling dramas about prevention. Nearly every disaster of this sort is preceded by a quiet drumbeat of suppressed warnings; people risk their careers to warn of coming disaster, and like Cassandra of myth, are ignored. She came bearing prophecy; today she’d deploy an array of spreadsheets and would be about as well received. In America as other places, no good deed goes unpunished.

Acute versus chronic–that’s the question.

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4 Responses to Genre Trouble: Acute vs Chronic (Notes from the Muse of Research)

  1. Sue says:

    granted my brain is an egg – scrambled – but I didn’t see the connection between your topic of genres and waht you said in the post….. but speaking of genres an interesting article in the Globe recently discussed the advent of sick lit in the YA genre and questioned just how many genres what could or should have.

  2. Truant says:

    There’s been a small, but growing backlash of young readers on the tropes, in particular romance in the YA genre. All of the young readers that I knew personally really didn’t like Twilight because they thought that the, ‘im in ur house, watching you sleepz’ was more creepy and boundary violating than it was romantic. At the same time…tons of people ATE it up!

    Now I’m worried about how the younger generation will view romance and boundaries, especially when literature glorifies behavior, such as stalking as ‘romantic’.

  3. epbeaumont says:

    To answer both comments, the topic “acute vs. chronic” suggested itself because of the emphasis on crisis in contemporary storytelling. Very few happy endings depend on successful prevention of disaster; very few stories really trace the chronic build-up that precedes visible crisis. As mentioned above, I enjoy reading accident reports, but the really horrific things I’ve watched in real life have been slow-moving train-wrecks such as the American public health establishment’s response to AIDS in the 1980s and health disparities now.

    The twisted romance tropes, alas, have been with us for some time (see: last several centuries). What I find interesting about Twilight and its kin (including adult paranormal romances such as Discovery of Witches) is their laudanum-reverie pacing. We’re supposedly in the era of short, sharp, no-nonsense storytelling, but as Truant points out, those books have a substantial and passionate following. That’s a puzzle interesting in and of itself.

  4. Sumi Rebeiro says:

    I actually pulled this up because I made the mistake (from the point of view of publication) of writing cross-genre, and then (as so often happens with your writing) found myself looking at a vase instead of two profiles.

    The question inherent in the last paragraph of your reply is whether or not romance–the build to the establishment of something–is somehow inherently more interesting than the build of crisis or destruction. I don’t buy that sex and romance are inherently more interesting than danger or death; the 24h news cycle is all crisis, all the time.

    My thought is that danger and death are inherently more frightening (I’m making the distinction between those two phenomena and love very, very simplistic), and that the slow build to either of them mimics the most frightening and irresistible process in the universe: entropy. Watching disorder increase brings with it an enormous sense of futility and negation. (Or perhaps I’m attributing my own inherent terror of the 2nd Law to the general readership, which wouldn’t be the first time I’ve mistakenly generalized my experience.)

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