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The Genre Question

Tell me, what is the importance of genre?

I'm not talking about any debate that has been going on recently, no. Or any specific debate, really. Rather I'm interested in why it is that genre, any genre, is important? What gives these boundaries such importance that we would put them on books, divide up our bookstores, and pigeon hole our writers with them. Maybe it's just me, but that strikes me as a bit odd. Maybe it's just because it's late. Maybe not. I mean, is it just that genre provides the reader with a series of signs so that he or she is able to find the kind of material they want? Is it a marketing tool? Does it simply exist to provide the boundaries for a body of work? I'm taking all kinds of statements on it, because, truly, I want to know why it's important.

I'm currently working on a theory in my head that argues that genre definitions are, really, failing to properly reflect a lot of the literature being written today. No matter what definition you place upon a piece of writing (or film, or play, whatever, really), there's always a way in which that definition fails. A science fiction novel can be a romance novel, a thriller, a social satire--indeed, it could be all those things at the same time. It always could.

Genre could very well be simply an outdated concept and if so, then why does it remain important and, for some, necessary?


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Jan. 3rd, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)
I think it's the readers that drive it. Most of them, I believe, don't want to be ambitious or venturous, don't want to read something new. They want to read something old and familiar, and genre boundaires, in bookstores and libraries, help tell them what borders not to stray beyond.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
Don't we have genres so retailers can put stuff places?
Jan. 3rd, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
What they said. Without genres, we wouldn't be able to find books in the library or the bookstore.

Really, at some level, I think it's that simple. I know I can argue this out of both sides of my mouth -- most of the time I am deliberately writing within the tradition of some genre(s) or other(s), so obviously the concept informs my auctorial intent -- but it's most of all about the human need to categorize.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:17 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a reader, I'm certainly interested - even though I enjoy reading some "slipstream" stuff, and I'm a big fan of infernokrusher.
But I'm pretty much into hard sf (including "New Space Opera" - see, I know all the lingo!), and generally sf rather than fantasy. I think there's a clear delineation for the majority of the genre, and anyone who says it's all just fantasy is talking out of their ass. That said, I read Gaiman, and I love Pratchett (who I maintain writes science fiction, mind you), and I read the occasional other stuff that gets classified as fantasy. But, for instance, for all that Steph Swainston's The Year Of Our War was touted as being all New Weird or whatever, I just couldn't get into it, after a couple of attempts, because the trappings of fantasy just bored me. And indeed although I was enjoying it, I put down China Miéville's Perdido Street Station at one point and never picked it up again. And I haven't yet convinced myself I want to read jaylake's Trial of Flowers, although I'm looking forward to Mainspring.
I do like the poetic, magic-realist approach; I'm a huge fan of Borges, for a start... But in general I like the stuff that tries to extrapolate believably from what we know about the world, takes science seriously, so the labels help although they're never the sole thing you rely upon.

I think the first commenter may be right about most readers, but it's quite possible to put a less rude spin on it. A lot of people are unadventurous sheep, but a lot of people honestly know the sort of stuff they're going to like, and genre trappings help them find more stuff they might like. Yeah, I know there's plenty of stuff which is hard to categorise (eg autopope's stuff marketed as fantasy, marketed as horror, whatever, not to mention Grimwood's crime-with-an-sf-twist, Paul McAuley's thrillers etc), but genres help. Nobody cares if they're a bit hazy here and there.

Oh, and with bookstores... Ben, according to some other comment reply somewhere, you hardly go into bookstores, right? Let me tell you, as a reader, bookstores that don't have a science fiction or sf/fantasy section piss me the hell right off. It usually means they can't be bothered stocking anything past Susanna Clarke, Iain (M) Banks and one or two other token genre writers. Even if they did do so, a genre section (whether fantasy's all mixed up with sf or not) gives me somewhere to go where I can scan the shelves a little more easily.

I'm not clear, to be honest, on how you peg genre as an outdated concept?
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:37 pm (UTC)
"ALL fiction, including sf, is fantasy," said my arse. :P
(no subject) - benpeek - Jan. 3rd, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:25 pm (UTC)
I like certain things about certain stories. Genre is important to me because it tells me that if I'm looking for X element, the chances of me finding it in a certain story that's been classified as Y genre are greater than if I looked in Z genre.

There are no guarantees, only greater chances.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
Genre seems to me to be all about control. I'm talking on both sides of the fence here too; writer and reader.

Genre places certain limitations on writers by making them adhere to certain conventions, or alternatively referencing those conventions in some way. For readers, it keeps them buying more of the same I think.

You are right Ben, a science fiction novel CAN be a romance novel, but you are forgetting that within genre, there are some powerplays going on. Whatever genre the book is most like is usually the genre that it will be placed in.

For example, let's say there is a science fiction novel with vampires in it. So, if vampires are in a story in their own genre, horror, there is not much need to explain, and if there is, it will not be done with that much detail, given that they are readily recognisable archetypes and the whole mystical-scary bullshit stuff about them would be undermined.
However, put them in a science fiction novel, and the conventions of science fiction demand that they are reformulated.

You cannot just have vampires in space, like you can have them in a house, or a cave in horror. Their existence must be explained in the sf milieu. A science fiction novel with vampires would hence always be more science fiction than horror, because, while possessing elements of both, one always dominates the other.

I just think genre is so pervasive and evil. It is a limitation, yet another form of that rampant segmentation that humans seem to love. I think this is why we are seeing a recent upsurge in the amount of people doing interstitial/cross-genre stuff. We're rebelling against the tyranny of genre! :)
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
>what is the importance of genre?

marketing to a core audience.

*if* that's important. ;)
Jan. 3rd, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
Genre is useful for anyone looking for books close to or just like the ones they already enjoy. It makes it easy for Robert Jordan fans to find Terry Goodkind books.

For people looking for more exotic fair, genre division is absolutely fucking annoying and outright harmful. Easily accessible formulaic genre novels are going to outsell books like Dhalgren or Latro in the Mist, so when bookstores are looking to refill the SF sections, they're going to pick up more copies of safe novels.

And of course, if a genre novel is a smash hit, it isn't genre anymore, it's literature. I wondered for months why I'd heard so much about House of Leaves but never saw it sitting on the Horror shelves at Chapters.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
Some people genuinely only want to experience specific stories. Take my Nana for instance, she only likes romantic comedies with a happy ending. And I could not get the bf's mother to read sf even if it was romance story in space - she doesn't want her version of "current reality" messed with.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
>I mean, is it just that genre provides the reader with a series of signs so that he or she is able to find the kind of material they want?

Yes, that.

And I take exception to comments about unadventurous sheep or staying safe within borders. I read _everything,_ man, or close enough to for government work. I don't use no stinkin' genre lines to tell me when I'm straying too far from my corner.

But that doesn't mean I don't like to know what I'm getting myself into, or that I never think, "I feel like reading fantasy today."
Jan. 3rd, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
what you said.

Also, genres are the boundaries within which conversations take place. And they are structures--metaconversations--that reward intensive reading. In other words, as you read more of any given genre, its concerns and patterns and discussions begin to come plain to you, and you can appreciate the nuances of the arguments being made, in context.

Bill The Galactic Hero is a somewhat different book if you come to it ignorant of any other SF than if you read it in conjunction with, oh, Ender's Game and The Forever War and Starship Troopers.
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Jan. 3rd, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
Literature is like science. It all started as one entity. We, for some reason, liked to group things and organise them in like groups. Books were split up just as science was split up into the different areas of physics, chemistry, biology, etc... we know today.

Any categorisation/grouping is a modelling of the real world and all models are, by definition, a simplification of the real world and will eventually succumb to failure when the real world becomes significantly more complex.

We are currently witnessing the failure of these models of literature and science. The segregated categories are starting to come back togehter (Consilience). As more physics is discovered we find it explains the chemistry and we start having people talk about theories of everything. As more literature is written it starts to cross genre boundaries.

Publishers and retailers need a structure to organise and perform their business functions. Readers need a structure to simplify their task of finding what they like to read. Genres provide that structure to facilitate the stakeholders (not shareholders).

Problems arise when people take the categories too seriously and get arrogant and defensive about them. If people block out a category of books from their desired reading then they may be prohibiting themselves from great delight.

Fixed genre categories can be barriers to people discovering brilliant writing.

I'm with the people who would give any book the benefit of the doubt no matter what "Genre" it is from.

The important thing about genre is to not let it prevent creativity or to become a barrier to someone enjoying an author's work.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
It's all about marketing.

Which gives me depressive fits. There is so much good fiction out there that never reaches readers who would love it, simply because it is not in the section of the bookstore in which that reader most frequently looks. That is sad.

I've been arguing this for years now. Many of the best fantasists are not to be found in the fantasy section. And what of works that don't fit neatly anywhere? These works, often subtly sublime, end up being categorized one way or another because the bookstore or library needs to make it fit *somewhere*. So much good work goes un-noticed, as a result. Book reviewers don't help by becoming apologists. I've read a few reviews in which the reviewer goes to great pains to tell the potential reader why Pynchon is *not* writing fantasy. This is total crap. Pynchon is one of the most marvelous fantasists alive.

GRRRRR!!! Sorry, I get so frustrated with this. Oh, that I could close my eyes and wish it away, to simply have everything under "fiction". But, alas, I'm not the world's marketing manager, nor am I the world's bookstores owner.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)
It's mainly to link buyer with seller (not reader with writer or with work).

Genre classifications do provide certain guarantees or at least probabilities. If they didn't, they wouldn't work. As someone else pointed out, some readers only like a certain type of story*.

People often buy works they don't intend to read, usually because they plan to give them to someone else. Genre provides a certain security here - you can at least give the impression of having attempted to cater to the taste of the person to whom you're giving a gift, even if they don't end up liking the book.

The motives that lead publishers to put works in genres-as-marketing-categories are not the same as the motives that lead readers to classify works as belonging to genres-as-sets-of-literary-conventions. Publishers are interested in selling books. Readers are interested in reading works they will enjoy. There's bleed, overlap, inconsistency. There's also meta-genres like "literary fiction" which I suspect are determined partly by extra-fictional concerns like "will I be ashamed to have this book on my shelf?".

In fact, the literary fiction shelf at the average bookstore could almost be characterised as "those books publishers and retailers are convinced buyers who are deeply concerned with the perceived merit of the works they plan to buy can be convinced, with the aid of an array of marketing tools including quasi-critical reviews, end-of-year best-of-year roundups, and colourful collage covers from the IKEA / William Morris / Habitat playbook that utilise aesthetically pleasing fonts, are likely to have that merit before they buy them".

Genre is very far from being an outdated concept. It's probably more relevant than ever in the current era, just not in the way that you want it to be. It's a bit sick and wrong I'll admit. But then I'd tend to challenge your assertion that you don't want any boundaries in fiction - do you not want to be sure that the novel you pick up on a whim in the bookshop is not a Mills and Boon or a Tom Clancy clone? Blurbs, puff and cover also count as genre indicators, let's not forget.
Jan. 3rd, 2007 11:33 pm (UTC)
do you not want to be sure that the novel you pick up on a whim in the bookshop is not a Mills and Boon or a Tom Clancy clone?

well, mills and boon are a publisher, not a genre, but still, i wonder, if there was no genre emphasis, would i view those kind of books differently? i don't exactly read a lot of mills and boon, so they could be very good, or at least a few of them could. maybe the tom clancy clone would be as well. i could've argued that the george rr martin stuff was just another fantasy clone, but i dug that...

but you are right that covers and all are indicators for genre and an audience as well.
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Jan. 3rd, 2007 10:43 pm (UTC)
(hmm - hanging *)
* don't think sf&f provides story guarantees as strong as those of romance or crime fiction, though.
Jan. 4th, 2007 12:54 am (UTC)
First time I've ever commented here (although I've been lurking for a while), so Hi!. I come to you via Clare Dudman's blog, Keeper of the Snails and the Sarsaparilla blog roll too.

Genre isn't nearly so rigid as you're suggesting. In film and television there is much discussion of hybrid genres. Think something like Firefly which combines SF and the Western. But even without these kind of conscious productions that draw from established genre traditions, the miracle of genre and its continuing relevance to both readers/viewers and authors/producers (it's been described by film theorists as a kind of handshake, an agreement about expectations--which doesn't make anyone a cultural dupe) is the extent to which genres are constantly being reinvented. So someone will make a small blonde girl the chief fighter of vampires and voila, the vampire/gothic genre evolves to remain interesting and fresh, but still retains enough of what is familiar to make it part of an existing genre tradition.

Can I recommend a chapter of Graeme Turner's book, _Film As Social Practice_ for an accessible discussion of the importance of the functions of film (and literary) genres?

I enjoy your blog a lot. Galaxy.
Jan. 4th, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
Re: Genre
hey, welcome to the blog :)

thanks for the book rec. i'll keep an eye out for it.
Jan. 4th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
I think genre is largely a heuristic designed to give you a first vague approximation to taste.

Trying to divide up bookstores, or market our writers, or make generalist arguments about fiction, along the lines of what sort of taste they appeal to makes perfect sense. But taste is far too complicated, subtle, and many-faceted to work that way.

Besides, it has to work even when bookstore staff, marketers, and such are stupid and/or tasteless people - genre is an 80% correct first approximation.

That said, once genres exist, communities of taste form around them, and they become to some extent self-sustaining. But at its core, its because genre is a first step heuristic in connecting readers with stuff they like.
Jan. 7th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)
Nicely said, sir. That works for me, as a reader. It's a good explanation of why genre matters to me (both within "the genre" - i.e. I prefer sf, and yearn to read more well-written hard sf - and to differentiate between "mainstream" and "genre"), while at the same time I'm not bothered (who would be, really?) if it turns out I accidentally liked a fantasy or mainstream novel (oops!), or read something that didn't really fit into the neat classifications we're being fed (if we are).
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Ben Peek

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