I’ve encountered quite a few fantasy and science fiction authors – famous and popular ones at that – who, when asked about their decision to write in the genre, say something along the lines of “oh, well, I just write what I write and someone slots it into a genre later, I don’t think about what genre I want to write in”. There’s often this additional implication that ‘genre’ is a dirty word – that is the oppressive tool of publishers and bookshops. Books get hemmed in and categorised by this evil notion of genre, and their authors get pigeon-holed as ‘fantasy writers’ or ‘crime writers’.
Frankly, I never understand this. I love the word genre.
And I think the word gets a bad rap not because it is evil, but because it is misunderstood. In my experience, that misunderstanding often stems from three fundamental misconceptions:
- That genres are boxes with rigid boundaries. A book has either got to be thrown into one box or into the other, and if it doesn’t fit any of the boxes, it’s out.
- That genres are something imposed and oppressive, forced on us by commercial interests.
- That ‘genre fiction’ is something separate to ‘freer’ less ‘formulaic’ forms of literary fiction or general fiction.
Several years ago, I might have thought about genres the same way too. It wasn’t until I read the book Genre, by John Frow, that I realised I’d been looking at them the wrong way all along.
Fuzzy At The Edges
I don’t deny that genres are categorisations… but they are not things with definite boundaries, and they are not mutually exclusive. Frow sees each genre as something that has a common core and fades “into fuzziness at the edges”. Books do not belong to genres, rather they use genres (and often transform them). For him, a book can use multiple genres, and thus genres are things that can overlap and merge and cross.
“… a text would not belong to any genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text, there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging.”
– Jacques Derrida (quoted in Frow, Genre)
You can see this when you look at the fantasy genre. As a whole, it’s a massive beast, full of sub-genres and genre blends. Just about the only thing that you can unequivocally say defines a fantasy is the element of impossibility… of magic. If you start getting into sub-genres like epic fantasy and paranormal romance, you can pin down a few more essential elements… but ultimately even there things get fuzzy at the edges.
For instance, have a go at categorising Harry Potter. What genre would you put it in? Fantasy, certainly… but is it also contemporary fantasy, an urban fantasy, a portal fantasy and a Gothic fantasy? Is it high or low fantasy? Is it children’s fantasy or YA fantasy? Is it, as many have said, a blend of the fantasy genre and the ‘school story‘?
The trouble here lies with the ‘ors’. Because, by many definitions, it could be all of the above.
Now, admittedly when a book is being placed in a book store it faces this problem of the need for absolute categorisation: does Harry Potter get put in the children’s section or the fantasy section? However, with many people now browsing books online, and sites like Goodreads dominating the way many people discover and search for books, that physical separation is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
When I search for a book on Goodreads, a column on the right hand side will show me the 10 different genres that users have ‘shelved’ it as. And I scan all of those genres, and it gives me a fair idea of the kind of book I’m looking at, without anyone having to label it as being in one exclusive genre.
At the moment, for example, I’m reading Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, which is as much a crime/detective/mystery novel as it is a fantasy. Yes, it’s got magic in it. But it also features a down-on-his luck wizard-come-private-detective trying to solve a murder. Goodreads happily labels it with many genres, which include fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, crime and paranormal.
The Oppressive Genre Lords
Yes, commercial interests will sometimes mean books get boxed into the one genre, or the wrong genre, and sold with clichéd covers that scream that genre to the world. Commercial interests might cause a book that blends genres or tries an unusual sub-genre to get overlooked by a publisher due to the difficulty in categorising it.
Ultimately, however, genres are not devised and writ in stone by an oppressive genre lord. They are created by us – by readers and writers – and they adapt and change with each new story that uses them, and with the societies that interpret them. They are in constant flux. As Frow puts it:
“Texts do not simply have uses which are mapped out in advance by the genre: they are themselves uses of the genre, performances of or allusions to the norms and conventions which form them and which they may, in turn, transform.”
For example, it wasn’t till the mid 20th Century that fantasy novels as we understand them today truly emerged, and that we even started calling the genre ‘fantasy’. Tolkien himself called them ‘fairy stories’. The fantasy genre has changed significantly in the last one hundred years, and formerly unheard of sub-genres have sprung up, such as Steampunk and Grimdark.
Whether we know the “proper” label for it or not, all of us can read a book and compare it to other books we’ve read and see similarities or differences. We often instinctually know a book’s genre when we read it, and many of us will have differing understandings of certain genres. That’s why you get different users on Goodreads shelving books in different ways, why internet searches turn up a range of slightly differing definitions for the one genre. Many of us can agree on core things, but ultimately in this too, genres are fuzzy and elusive.
The Myth of Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction
And then we come to the idea that assigning something with a “genre” means it is “genre fiction” and is the opposite to something else, such as “literary fiction” or “general fiction”.
This is a little ridiculous, because literary fiction is a genre.
I can read a book and tell you it is literary fiction. Thousands of users on Goodreads can shelve a book as ‘literary fiction’ based on its traits. Genres are forms of categorisation. So literary fiction is not the opposite to genre, it is simply another genre.
The problem is, of course, that ‘genre fiction’, in our popular understanding, has come to mean books that fit into certain definitive genres, often popular ones like crime, fantasy and romance. Again, this is a case of our common understandings creating a category. Thus, you can certainly use the phrase ‘genre fiction vs literary fiction’ if you are comparing the two and have a personal preference for one or the other. But if you are implying one is hemmed in by rules and definitions, and the other is free and uncategorised… well, you’re negating your argument by the very application of a label.
“Even the most complex and least formulaic of texts is shaped and organised by its relation to generic structures.”
– John Frow
And if you are arguing that one genre is better than another… well, your argument is always going to be based on personal opinion. Ultimately, there are wonderful and terrible books in every genre. The genre is not what makes them wonderful or terrible.
Genre is Not a Dirty Word
So the idea that a genre is somehow restrictive – that it places a border around the writer that they cannot escape, and shackles the reader to reading the same 10 kinds of books for all eternity, and labels something as being a substandard book… it’s just not true.
As a reader, I love genre. I love that there are labels in the different parts of the book store, or labels on Goodreads, that help me find the kind of story I’m looking for.
As a writer, I love genre, because it allows me to convey the kind of story I am writing with a few simple words. I love to think about stories I could write that use elements of different genres, or that subvert or fulfil genre expectations in interesting ways.
And to those people who complain, “but my book doesn’t fit into any categories, it’s a precious brand new never-before-seen thing in a class all of its own that defies the notion of genre itself”… well, either you truly are a unique creative genius and you have created a new genre, or you haven’t read a lot of other books, or you have but you just don’t know what the common genre terms to describe those books are… or you’re just afraid of the word genre itself.
Because if you put that book up on Goodreads and get people reading it? They will give you genres. They will shelve you. You might get a blend of different genres, sure, or get genres that don’t squarely match your book but categorise it in vague terms… but people will always find other similar books they have read and compare yours to them. It’s the “if you liked this then you might like this” phenomenon. And I don’t believe that’s something bad. It’s just human nature to categorise – it’s the way we make sense of our world and the things in it. It’s the way we share and discuss books.