Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman. Illustration: Tim McDonagh (via New Statesman)

This conversation between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman at is just brilliant. It's a dissection of "genre" as walled gardens and the things that happen when writers choose either to wander at will or simply to stand atop the wall and draw from both sides. They touch on two particular points that I've long believed. One is that genre is primarily only useful as a marketing tool and that "literary" and "genre" are in no way mutually exclusive terms. The other is that "genre", the way it's been used, has created certain reader expectations beyond those dictated by mere story telling. Ishiguro uses the example of westerns and the good guy/bad guy showdown.

My question, then, is this. Aren't those tropes a learned expectation? Have writers or, more precisely, editors and marketing teams taught readers that certain genres must have certain elements--that noir must have a femme fatale--that westerns must have a showdown? Does it just make the books easier to sell, because tagging it [GENRE X] somehow lets potential buyers know that it's going to be inside their comfort zone? That they won't be jolted out of the safe coccoon that's been spun just for them? Is that why publishers are so fond of series fiction? Because it's the ultimate sub-sub-sub-genre?

Following on the second point, Ishiguro points out that there is a difference between a story with cowboys in it and a cowboy story. That leads right into the discussions I've read (and had) many times about whether or not there is a difference between literary science fiction and literary fiction with science fiction tropes in it. I'm of the opinion that there isn't. In my view, "speculative fiction in a literary style" and "literary fiction using speculative elements" are two ways of saying the same thing. Give me a good story, with good characters, and something for my brain to chew on long after I've finished the book and I'll be a happy camper.