Genre writing – and I mean specifically the speculative fiction trifecta of science fiction, fantasy, and horror – questions the existing society… and when something with the trappings of genre – the rayguns or swords or slasher – fails to meet that expectation, it leaves us feeling bereft.
Sometimes this is because of point and place in time. Rosemary’s Baby and The Conjuring both share common trappings of “SATANISTS ARE REAL AND AMONG US” – but the former questions the (especially then) prevaling assumption that one’s neighbors are fundamentally decent people. The Conjuring, on the other hand, only presents the trappings of questioning society. It, nearly quoting The Usual Suspects, raises a question about the reality of evil – but then quickly says “But here is the One True Answer” instead of leaving the audience unsettled and willing to reflect.
Fantasy does this, both on a large and personal level. The Lord of the Rings questions the necessity of fighting evil – and what sorts of people and actions are important in that fight. The Hobbit questions the idea of being “proper” and “civilized”. The Dresden Files constantly questions our ideas of right and wrong, of compromise and steadfastness. Jessie Shimmer questions the ideas of family and love – and how far one will go for either.
In science fiction, we can see it from superheroes to deep space. Serenity works as a film because both Mal and the Operative are at least partially right. The Winter Soldier clearly questions our ideas about safety, security, and the surveillance state (as does most work by Phillip K. Dick). Ender’s Game and (particularly) Speaker For the Dead question our presumptions about might, survival, and tolerance of those we don’t immediately understand.
That questioning aspect – that “dark mirror” that genre holds up – is the defining element. When that element is lost, we feel betrayed. The questioning elements are vital to the work.
Sometimes that questioning is betrayed by the creator of the work. I am still surprised that the man who penned such moving words about varalese has written such virulence towards gay people.
Often it’s when the questioning is removed entirely – when the book or film is about the trappings instead of the questioning. This is why every bad Sharknado (and bog help us, rip-offs of the same) fails at being actual genre fiction…or for that matter, most movies directed by Michael Bay.
And it also happens – though more subtly – when the question is too-neatly resolved by an ideological point of view. This latter is where The Conjuring fails. It raises the question, then hands you the answer of “It’s Christianity, stupid!”
Likewise, most “genre” fiction that’s written with a particular agenda fails for this reason as well – even if it hews to every trope and convention, it is about espousing a viewpoint instead of questioning one.
This doesn’t mean that every work must raise a new question, or that every work must suddenly be a deep, introspective philosophy class.
It does mean that genre work that simply espouses the status quo – that simply glues on the gears or hands a protagonist a sword, laser, or laser-sword – fails.
When writing does that, it fails not only as “literature”, but more importantly, it fails as genre writing as well.