Genre Trouble

pile of books

What actually is a genre?

Some say (1) it’s a meaningless marketing category, others (2) that it categorises books by certain features they share, others (3) that ‘genre fiction’ is a lowbrow thing, as opposed to ‘literary’ works.

Fellow blogger Kaleena, in A Discussion About Required Reading, said something interesting about how school shaped her perspective:

I didn’t realize that speculative works like 1984 and A Brave New World or that Slaughterhouse Five were works of science fiction. The way we were taught didn’t distinguish them and we discussed them as literary works. It wasn’t until I started reading the genre more widely that I realized what they were, that the themes of humanity and possibility are prevalent and that the genre is bonded by looking forward to a potential future and acting as a warning beacon.

What that signifies to me is the conflict between ‘genre’ as a description and ‘genre’ as a brand of (low) quality.

As I commented, works old and respected enough often have their genre de-emphasised in favour of being ‘classic’ or ‘literary’. Snobs sometimes grudgingly admit that, say, Frankenstein is sci-fi, but still treat it as an exception, mysteriously different from the lowbrow rabble – a literary classic first, sci-fi second. An awkward hoop to jump through, as the number of exceptions leaps up the more you look. Nobody tell them that Paradise Lost is literally a fanfic of the Bible.

View 3 is to me a non-starter, as it is riddled with holes. All books have some features in common with others, and can therefore be placed in certain boxes. This is independent of the work’s cultural impact, or anyone’s subjective value judgements. (Even if the feature in common is ‘this is really weird and I don’t know where to stack this’, which makes it sui generis, a Latin phrase meaning ‘chuck it other there’.)

But view 2 also has its problems. Take Frankenstein again. Sci-fi? Gothic? Horror? The trouble with boxes is that things can ooze out across a couple of them. Sometimes it’s hard to judge exactly where something goes, and coming up with an increasingly large set of sub and sub-sub-genres can get confusing.

In the case of YA, I see many people default to view 1. They will say that something like Scythe and something like Lauren Oliver’s Broken Things are clearly different genres by usual standards (sci-fi/psychological thriller), but get packaged together as YA by publishers and bookshops to target an age demographic.

Others, like the blogger Kat, argue that YA is, in fact, distinguished by a particular style or aesthetic.

Maybe the most workable definition is a laid-back version of view 2. In this case genre is something people use to find what they’re looking for and talk about similar things – while arguing over hyper-precise labelling is for insufferable nerds. Simply, genre is like the famous legal test for defining obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it’.

3 thoughts on “Genre Trouble

  1. Any of us an define science fiction as we choose, but when you say “science fiction,” most people think of the books, TV shows and movies that are marketed as science fiction.

    Chain bookstores shelve science fiction and fantasy separately from general fiction and also from horror fiction. That is based on their assumptions about how the interests of their customers are segmented. Logically, fantasy fiction has more in common with science fiction that it does with horror fiction, but people who like fantasy are more likely to like SF than they are to like horror.

    Science fiction is a genre because there are magazines and publishers devoted to science fiction, and a specific readership that is interested in their output—and may or may not be interested in any other particular category of fiction..

    George Orwell and Aldous Huxley wrote on science fiction themes, but they did not come out of the science fiction genre. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. did come out of the science fiction genre, but he tried to leave it behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a cool post, and I am glad that my discussion about required reading spawned this! Thanks for linking back to me so I could see it, because I honestly never really thought about the de-emphasizing of genre when it comes to required reading until I started writing that post.

    I feel like genres are almost a catch-22. I like the loose grouping of books based on style and themes because it makes it a little less daunting to search for books I might like (sooo many books out there!), but genres also serve to isolate as well. A lot of books have crossover appeal, but are really only marketed as one thing. I know for me a book billed as a romance first won’t be something I want, but I have been known to enjoy romance stories when they are not the focus of the plot.

    I almost think that the de-emphasization of genre in school though serves to further perpetuate that genre fiction isn’t worth the time because we aren’t reading those books in school; that they don’t have lessons or themes that are important to think about and discuss. That’s my main issue.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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