genre writing

Genre (part 2) – Let the burial commence

(Sorry for taking so long to get this post written; real life has required much of my precious time and sobriety of late. I’ve been editing a tonne of maths books, spending a weekend playing World of Warcraft in Adelaide, and right now I’m on the Sunshine Coast attending a conference. Okay, technically, lying in my hotel room bed half-pissed after attending a conference. So, you know, I have a pile of excuses. It’s not laziness. Well, not just laziness.)

Okay, so I said last time that while genre is flawed, and a blunt instrument, that it still serves as a function as a filter and a way to guide decisions about what to read/view next.

But the thing about blunt instruments is that they’re clumsy and imprecise, they leave scratches on the furniture when you drop them, and they leave dents in your baby’s head when you clamp down to pull him/her into the world. And yes, I’m aware this metaphor is no longer working.

The thing is, when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, or at least a thumb – and when your primary classification and filtering tool is genre, everything starts to get assessed by what boundary it falls within and what label it should attract. And the notion that something doesn’t fall within a boundary, or crosses a boundary, becomes discomforting and less acceptable.

The desire to rigidly codify genres is something I see a lot, along with statements like ‘well, that’s not really science fiction then’, or ‘I prefer to call that ‘science fantasy’’, or ‘Twilight’s not proper horror because the vampires sparkle and it’s all about girls and feelings’. And that’s just confining things to the big three nerd genres; bring in other genres, like romance or crime, and whole new subgenres like ‘paranormal romance’ get invented to prevent nerd germs cross-pollinating and ruining the sacred purity of a construct invented to make it easier to sell books in stores.

Add to this the personal identification some people make with a set of boundaries: ‘I only read science-fiction’, ‘I don’t read horror novels’, ‘We eliminated all the Twilight fans from our fan group during a series of bloody purges.’ And if it seems like I’m picking on people who don’t like Twilight, well, I don’t like Twilight either, but let’s pillory the books (and those who like them) because they’re appalling fuckingly written, not because they bridged the gap between romance and horror and made purists of both genres feel like they weren’t in charge of the label any more.

Genre doesn’t benefit from being a tight codification of rigid rules; all that does is put iron rules in place for marketers and cover designers, who need to know the right proportion of rockets to swords to vampires for the artist. For the rest of us, who above all else (and this can be argued, but I have to keep believing it) want to read good stories, genre labels are more useful when they’re broad; genre boundaries are more useful when they’re porous.

I’m going to quote commenter David from the last post:

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.

(If you thrill to the thought of me repeating your words to make my arguments better than I could, well, leave a comment! And possibly pursue some kind of therapy.)

Close clusters of meaningful connections make for a more useful concept of genre than rigid definitions inside prescriptive boundaries. That’s a mission statement. So is the fact that, as a writer and a reader, I want genres to include lots of different things, so that I can read and write fun stories without needing to define where they belong and what subgeneric (is that a word?) group they need to be relegated to.

Because, in the end, the story is the thing – the story and the way it’s told. Everything else is distraction.

One more post about genre is on the cards – hopefully written faster and more coherently than this one – then maybe some new flash fiction in the coming days. Blogging regularly is tricky, because I only have a limited supply of wisdom, and usually I use it up by thinking ‘Actually, I’ve had enough to drink now, I should just go home’. But I’ll try to keep some in reserve for you guys. Promise.


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