Genre (part 1) – I come not to bury genre, but to praise it a little bit


As I mentioned last time, I was just on two panels at Continuum 7 on the weekend- one on genre and one on roleplaying. The roleplaying one has sparked some thoughts about character and narrative that I’ll try to crystallise next week, but I thought I’d write a bit this week about some things that got brought up at the genre panel, along with some things I didn’t manage to discuss.

So. Genre. Despite the fact that I read a fair bit of SF/F/H/other-letter, and write it as well, I don’t have a strong interest or affinity for genre as an umbrella concept or label. I’ve never really been comfortable with these crude, broad filters that basically say ‘hey, you liked that book with spaceships, so you should read this book with spaceships in it’. Or it has vampires, or dragons, or Batman. (Okay, admittedly I’ll consider reading anything that has Batman in it.) It’s a very surface appraisal of a work that has everything to do with obvious motifs and tropes, and very little to do with deeper themes or, most importantly of all, quality. Because what I want to read, first and foremost, is good fiction, well-written fiction, and if the writing is good I really don’t care if it’s about nurses or cyborg wendigos.

…and yet, I read and write genre fiction. So why, given that attitude, do I keep coming back to the wendigos rather than focusing on the nurses? And why does genre serve a purpose?

Because crude and broad or not, we need filters sometimes to make decisions about what to read/see/play next, especially as the bookshelves become digital and the range of available texts broadens to the point of incomprehensibility. With more material available to read this year than there had been in the rest of human history, we need some way of winnowing it down and picking out what we want. And unfortunately, ‘well-written’ is a very idiosyncratic filter that has different meanings to everyone who applies it, and the core themes of a work can be interpreted a large number of ways. Genre may be simple, but it works, because even if you can’t agree on the allegorical subtext of Lord of the Rings, we can all agree that it has elves and swordfights. If that’s what you really liked about the book – and there’s nothing wrong with liking elves and swordfights – a basic label that tells you this other book has elves and swordfights works, even if the core themes are completely different and the writing is shit. And if you come away thinking that that book was bad, then that’s a step towards finetuning your filter to winnow out the books that don’t give you what you want.

On top of this, we have the increasingly-rapid change to reader-controlled labels, where it’s the audience that decides how a work should be tagged on online stores and e-book libraries. (And often the author too, but their voice is one among many and doesn’t carry much extra weight.) That’s a powerful tool that helps us group like texts together, and in multiple overlapping bodies, that physical bookstores can’t do. But at the same time, it means that we’re drifting away from fairly well-defined genre labels (which are crude but predictable) to an increasingly large array of subgenre labels, which are precise but far less defined. More to the point, they’re far more individually defined; each reader has their own vocabulary and critical notion of what constitutes a subgenre, and each new tag is another small set of personal preferences dressed up as a real thing.

Broad genres are glyphic – they say a lot, but in a compact, easily transmittable fashion. They’ll have individual spins on it, sure, but two readers will develop reasonably similar conceptions of a body of texts if you say ‘science fiction’ or ‘romance’ or ‘Western’, conceptions that will share a lot of core tropes and themes. You can chain those glyphs together and still retain meaning, but it starts to get vaguer – ‘Western romance’ is going to convey some core meaning, but the edges start getting bigger and fuzzier, and the themes get cloudy.

But subgenres have a lot less utility, because they take out some core elements of a genre and bring in others, and the meaning behind the word hasn’t been nailed down and codified by millions of readers over decades of use. Terms like clockpunk, faithpunk or dickpunchpunk start to promulgate because they sound like they mean something more than a flat, boring genre label, but instead they end up as white noise in a tag list, arguments on web forums, and buzzwords dropped on Twitter to attract more readers.

Except for my work, of course, which is the purest, most genuine dickpunchpunk. I have a manifesto and everything.

I want to keep talking about this, but this post has already taken three days to write thanks to interruptions and a short attention span. So I’ll break it up into pieces and come back to it in a few days – where, after reluctantly lauding genre here, I’ll talk more about how it sucks. It’d be good to get some dialogue going on this, so please, hit the comment button and have your say.

3 thoughts on “Genre (part 1) – I come not to bury genre, but to praise it a little bit

  1. One thing that bugged me about that genre panel was there was a bit of an underlying assumption that a genre can be defined by a single characteristic that is both universal to that genre and exclusive to it.

    But genre just doesn’t work that way.

    We need to stop thinking in Boolean terms, and instead think in terms of fuzzy set theory.

    Take Star Wars.

    It has spaceships and robots and laser battles. It also has magic. But it has more sci fi characteristics than it has fantasy characteristics, so it gets shelved in the sci fi genre.

    Genre is about clusters of similarities, rather than exclusive boxes.

    (I’m not saying your article makes this claim. But there was a bit of hair-splitting on the panel.)

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