From Genre to Zenre

Christos Callow Jr.

PART 1: Hamlet’s Dog

In response to the question ‘what are you reading, my lord?’ the young prince Hamlet simply says ‘words, words, words!’ (Shakespeare, 74). But perhaps the answer Polonius was looking for was a more conventional one, like: I’m reading a poem, a humorous short story or, even, a hard science fiction novel. Yet Hamlet’s response is far more honest than that and besides, covers all of the above and more. Taken out of context, this brief dialogue could well function as a Zen koan – or, in our case, a key verse from a Buddhist literary theory manifesto. From this perspective, the dialogue resembles the famous Mu Koan from The Gateless Gate: ‘A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Joshu answered “Mu” ‘ (Reps and Senzaki 115). The translators inform us here that ‘Mu is the negative symbol in Chinese, meaning “No thing” or “Nay.”‘ Luckily, the koan is followed by a commentary and a poem, which enlighten us as to its meaning. The poem reads:

Has a dog Buddha-nature?

This is the most serious question of all.

If you say yes or no,

You lose your own Buddha-nature (Reps and Senzaki 116).


Zen literary theory: Zen philosophy offers contemporary critics a rich resource for approaching arguments about literary genre

[Image by Pittaya Sroilong under a CC BY license]

Zen philosophy displays a remarkable polemic stance against either / or dilemmas and conventional thought. So does Hamlet. Besides, if he had replied with a definition, he would need to defend that too. Certainly the question ‘what are you reading’ refers to genre. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Hamlet was reading a genre of fiction actually labelled as genre fiction. Science fiction would be an ideal example as it is a genre over whose identity there is much disagreement among scholars and critics. In Science Fiction, British SF writer and Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature Adam Roberts argues that ‘the term “science fiction” resists easy definition’ and that while all agree it is a ‘fantastic literature,’ the debate interrogates ‘in what ways it is different from other imaginative and fantastic literatures’ (Roberts 1). Roberts adds that:

All of the many definitions offered by critics have been contradicted or modified by other critics, and it is always possible to point to texts consensually called SF that fall outside the usual definitions. It is, perhaps, for this reason that some critics try to content themselves with definitions of the mode that are mere tautologies, as if “we” all know what it is and elaboration is superfluous (Roberts 2).

The following cynical response seems unavoidable. Arthur C. Clarke insisted that (as quoted in Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy): ‘sf is what the jury says it is’ (Mendlesohn 63). Indeed, when a universally acceptable definition is unavailable, in other words when no-one is right, then everyone is. Why then should Hamlet bother say anything more than ‘words, words, words’? In the case of science fiction (and this would apply to other genres as well) it would be the only way not to contradict the critics. It should be made clear that Hamlet’s zen-sual response is not interpreted here as escapist but quite the contrary. His answer is like the Buddhist monk’s reply to the soul / no soul dilemma, so it actually makes zen-se. Hamlet could have said ‘mu’ regardless of the genre he was reading (essay, poem, or a slipstream / detective / urban fantasy story) and he would be right. Now what would happen if suddenly literary studies adopted this simple (some may say simplistic) view? The Romanian playwright and leading figure in the French avant-garde Eugène Ionesco’s problematic utopia comes to mind. Discussing his most famous play, The Bald Prima Donna, he argues that:

The “society” I have tried to depict in The Bald Prima Donna is a society which is perfect, I mean where all social problems have been resolved. Unfortunately this has no effect upon life as it is lived. […] I believe that it is precisely when we see the last of economic problems and class warfare […] that we shall also see that this solves nothing, indeed that our problems are only beginning. We can no longer avoid asking ourselves what we are doing here on earth, and how, having no deep sense of our destiny, we can endure the crushing weight of the material world (Ionesco 44).

Suppose now that critics reach a universal agreement on genre definitions, not only of science fiction, but of horror, magic realism, even the so-called ‘literary’ fiction (or ‘litfic’ as it is sometimes referred to). To add to that fantasy, suppose that everything currently debatable in literary criticism is resolved. What would happen to the critic then? The critic would either disappear or, if we agree with Ionesco’s utopian horror, the critic would then have to face the real questions of literature. Logically, this level of universal literary peace could never be reached through further complication of already complicated issues. The conventional approach seems to lead nowhere. Umberto Eco writes that ‘interpretation is indefinite. The attempt to look for a final, unattainable meaning leads to the acceptance of a never-ending drift or sliding of meaning’ (Eco 32).


Indefinite interpreatation: our attempts to define genres such as horror, fantasy, crime literature and science fiction reveal to us the unavoidable sliding of meaning

[Image by Jamie Chong under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

Either way, the rejection of genre labels (what we might humorously call the battle against genre discrimination) is evident in the works of authors who write without these in mind. A writer who could be described as advocating what I am calling Zenre fiction, Ray Bradbury, develops an affective (rather than critical) approach to literature in Zen in the Art of Writing (1990): ‘There is only one type of story in the world. Your story. […] Give it a label if you wish, call it science fiction or fantasy or the mystery or the western. But, at heart, all good stories are the one kind of story, the story written by an individual man from his individual truth’ (Bradbury 149). This is surely not a proper academic or critical approach but it is an honest one and it is a writer’s perspective, above all. At this point, and to speak of the elephant in the room, let us consider what the genre of this elephant might be in the following tale.

PART 2: The Genre of the Elephant

A classic Buddhist fable we can use in support of our allegory is ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant,’ described here by Damien Keown:

The Buddha once told the story of the blind men and the elephant (Udana 69f.). A former king of the town Savatthi, he related, ordered all his blind subjects to be assembled and divided into groups. Each group was then taken to an elephant and introduced to a different part of the animal – the head, trunk, legs, trail, and so forth. Afterward, the king asked each group to describe the nature of the beast. Those who had made contact with the head described an elephant as a water pot; those familiar with the ears likened the animal to a winnowing-basket; those who had touched a leg said an elephant was like a post; and those who had felt a tusk insisted an elephant was shaped like a peg. The groups then fell to arguing amongst themselves each insisting its definition was correct and the others were wrong (Keown 1).

The lesson of this fable is quite simple. Subjective experience prevents, rather than results in, objective knowledge. To follow up with the science fiction / Zen Buddhism parallel, if scholars ever agree on a certain definition of SF, this resolution might even be worse than the problem it solves. Then towards which goal should we discuss definitions of literary genres, if the logical outcome must be a definable but deceptive partial truth, as in the Elephant fable? Or wasn’t there a purpose in the first place? Unlike Hamlet, a literary theorist does not read the words themselves but experiences through a critical lens (which could be the filters of structuralism, postmodern theory and so on) what is arguably a distorted image of the text. If we dare draw a parallel here between the ‘subjective’ literary theories and the blind men in the elephant story, we will conclude that perhaps by analysing parts of the creature that is literature, we’re missing the elephant.

Blind Monks Examining an Elephant

Blind monks examining an elephant: there are so many competing definitions of science fiction, perhaps we’ve forgotten the pleasures of reading

[Image used under fair use provisions]

The alternative is simple. If our elephant is literature and its body parts are its genres, then to be able to see literature as a whole, one must see beyond genres (or, rather, before genres, as the approach here is pre-modern rather than post-modern.) If our goal is to understand literature, the categorisation of its parts can be an unnecessary obstacle, especially if those parts were not meant to be separated in the first place. While writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wasn’t told she was writing science fiction, weird fiction, genre fiction or however else a critic might choose to label her work. Luckily, thanks to the increasingly genre-bending fiction being produced, genre-labelling becomes increasingly difficult. In his 2011 study of science fiction, horror and fantasy literature, Evaporating Genres, SF scholar Gary K. Wolfe suggests that:

The writers who contribute to the evaporation of genre, who destabilize it by undermining our expectations and appropriating materials at will, with fiction shaped by individual vision rather than traditions or formulas, are the same writers who continually revitalize genre: A healthy genre, a healthy literature, is one at risk, one whose boundaries grow uncertain and whose foundations get wobbly (Wolfe 51).

Regarding genre definition, Wolfe argues that ‘at the same time that genre materials begin flowing freely into one another, we begin to see evidence of an even more peculiar development: the non-genre genre story’ (Wolfe 15). This argument works better within a Zen framework because though it seems like a contradiction, it actually demonstrates that the genre / non-genre dilemma is false. I would agree with those who argue that the term ‘genre’ is problematic in itself. For example, if we agree that genre fiction is itself a genre, then we are presented with the following absurdist conclusion: prose fiction is a (literary) genre one of whose genres is genre fiction. Indeed, Wolfe notices the confusion. He writes:

In fact, the term “genre” itself has accrued almost too many meanings to be useful: In one sense, it simply refers to market categories; in another, it refers to a set of literary and narrative conventions; in yet another, it refers to a collection of texts with perceived commonalities of affect and world view (Wolfe 53).

We see that the term ‘genre’ is impossible to define and so is its relation to science fiction. The SF writer and commentator Damien Walter has recently argued: ‘the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction was getting confused with genre fiction’ (Walter, n.pag.). So far we have the following three versions of how science fiction is related to genre: a) they’re not b) science fiction is one of the genres of literature (where genre means simply a category) c) if we accept that there is a genre fiction / literary fiction debate, science fiction takes genre fiction’s side, as one of the non-mimetic genres.

What would a Zen literary critic (or a Zenre writer) say to all that? ‘Mu.’ Or rather, they would probably mention another brief koan, A Cup of Tea:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (Reps and Senzaki 19).


Zen and the art of archery: can Buddhism suggest a way out of the literary fiction versus genre fiction debates?

[Image by Dave under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

PART 3: The Finger/Moon Problem

All this could be useful towards reconsidering not only definitions of this or the other genre, but the critic’s approach to literature as well as his/her responsibility to it. Let’s consider a Zen master’s way of teaching, as depicted in the classic Zen in the Art of Archery (1948) by Eugen Herrigal. Here the master denies giving a definition on a particular concept and adds: ‘Once you have understood that, you will have no further need of me. And if I tried to give you a clue at the cost of your own experience, I should be the worst of teachers and should deserve to be sacked!’ (Herrigel 73). This is a more universal view of the expert’s role (teacher, critic, or other): that in the end, the student (or in our case the reader) must be encouraged to draw their own conclusions. Otherwise, a rating system that decides, for instance, how many stars or points this film or book is worth is only meaningful if we deny the reader their right to actually criticise a film or book on their own. A Zen literary theorist would take a more reader-friendly direction. However, a Zen literary theorist would take a more reader-friendly direction. In his foreword to Zen in the Art of Archery, the well-known Zen master Dr D. T. Suzuki warns: ‘If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the Unconscious’ (Herrigel 5).

From this point of view, an interpretation that focuses on the technique, structure or aesthetics of the text underestimates its purpose and ends up merely a distraction. In the end, it all comes down to the finger / moon problem. As the Buddha told Ananda:

It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? He mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon (Buddhist Text Translation Society 61).

To conclude, a theory is but a finger pointing: the theory cannot be the end, only the means. If it’s merely pointing at another finger, both theorist and reader are wasting their time. But if Zen is indeed the ‘return to the pure, original mind’ (Deshimaru 144), a Zenre theory would suggest emptying our mind before beginning to examine a text. If there’s any hope of truly understanding literature, there is a lot to unlearn.

CITATION: Christos Callow Jr., “From Genre to Zenre,” Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 17 October 2014.

Dr Christos Callow Jr is an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck, University of London, where he has recently completed his PhD dissertation “Etherotopia, an Ideal State and a State of Mind: Utopian Philosophy as Literature and Practice.” He has published fiction in such places as Cosmos, Polluto, Impossible Spaces and The Mad Scientist Journal.

Works Cited:

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing (Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1996).

Buddhist Text Translation Society. Trans. The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary, Vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002).

Deshimaru, Taisen. Questions to a Zen Master: Practical and Spiritual Answers from the Great Japanese Master (London: Rider, 1985).

Eco, Umberto. Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Herrigel, Eugen. Zen in the Art of Archery (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953).

Ionesco, Eugene. “The World of Ionesco.” The Tulane Drama Review 3.1 (1958): 46-48

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

Reps, Paul, and Nyogen Senzaki, eds. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (Boston: Tuttle, 1998).

Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 2000).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet (Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1992).

Walter, Damien. “Adam Roberts: Last of the SF Writers.” The Guardian. 15 February 2013 (accessed 26 February 2013):

Wolfe, Gary K. Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011).

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