Essays

The Genre Games

By posted at 6:01 am on November 23, 2011 46

Genre is a hot button, something I realized after the last piece I wrote for The Millions in September. The article was about literary authors turning to genre and the comment stream proved two things. 1) Sci-fi writers are an especially testy crew, and downright obsessed with tradition – which is rather ironic when you consider their subject matter. 2) No one seems to know exactly what genre means.

Historically, genre has two definitions, one based on how a book is treated in the marketplace and the other by the book’s actual content. We’ll get to the market in a minute, but for now let’s consider the fact that genre once contained a tacit agreement between author and reader that a book would observe certain ground rules. If a book was a mystery, for example, the reader approached it as a solvable puzzle, confident he’d find a dead body by the second chapter, that the sleuth’s point of view was reliable, no essential clues were being kept from him, and the killer would be revealed in the end. Each genre, in turn, had its own specific set of antecedents and mandates; when a reader bought a political thriller or Regency romance he may have been hoping to be somewhat surprised by the particulars of the story, but the key word in that sentence is “somewhat.” On a more fundamental level, he knew precisely what he was getting.

But does this rule still hold? Spurred by a sudden and quixotic interest in what constitutes genre, I developed my own little highly-nonscientific experiment. I went to the local library and checked out three books in each of seven genres. I didn’t worry too much about the academics – if the library called a book sci-fi or fantasy, I took their word for it. I dragged the twenty-one books home and devoted an entire rainy weekend to going through them, looking for tropes or devices that separated one genre from another.

I had some really weird dreams that weekend.

And I also solved a mini-mystery that’s always perplexed me, which is why so many adults read YA books. It turns out that YA, at least based on my tiny sample, is by far the best written genre. The only books that seduced me into lying down, pulling up the duvet, and actually reading them were two YAs.

As for the rest: the sci-fi was sort of like Space Mountain at Disney World — weirdly retro in that way all futuristic things seem to be. I found it impossible to distinguish library-declared horror from library-declared fantasy. Based on the covers, my best guess would be that in fantasy, the characters are moving toward something and in horror they’re running away from it. The thrillers struck me as the most formulaic – I could almost always identify the requisite “seems like a good guy but really in cahoots with the enemy” character on sight. I can only assume that romance writers get paid by the word, since slight misunderstandings stretched into 400-page plot arcs — but then again, fantasy writers are also verbose. The mysteries did indeed produce a dead body, but this hardly set them apart from the other genres, which proved equally deadly to their characters. In horror and fantasy, they practically stack the bodies up like firewood. Maybe the difference is that in mystery, someone tries to figure out why the people died?

Genre seemed like little more than a letter on the spine, pretty much imperceptible to the naked eye. In some cases the genre had ventured past its original restraints. Certainly modern mystery writers like Tana French and Kate Atkinson have strayed far from the Agatha Christie template. In other cases, the genres have expanded to embrace such a large spectrum of books that the definition has basically shattered. Romance, for example, has innumerable subcategories, ranging from erotica to Amish.

My conclusion: if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead. As dead as a Scottish warrior turned zombie searching the criminal underbelly of modern day New York for the only woman he’s ever loved.

I know, I know. I analyzed twenty-one books, hardly an exhaustive number. And by my own admission, I know very little about some of the genres included in my experiment. But I’d argue that makes me a better test bunny. I went into my test empty of expectations.

The second definition of genre, and the one that seems to matter most, is genre as a way to package books for sale. Bookselling has always worked along the “If you liked that, you’ll like this too” model, whether it’s an Amazonian monitoring of your purchase history or kindly Miss Gina at the neighborhood bookstore remembering that you love psychological thrillers and calling you whenever a new one comes in.

But in a time when genre is mutating so rapidly, is that formula still a smart way to market books to readers? Promising a book as a mystery and then abandoning the tenets of the traditional whodunit isn’t necessarily a clever way to dupe traditional mystery buffs into buying your quasi-literary opus. Books still sell primarily through word of mouth, even if that word of mouth comes through blog comments and Amazon reviews. If you disappoint your first wave of readers through what they perceive as false marketing, there won’t be a second wave, or a third.

Writers are always going to want to talk about genre. It’s a way to discuss how we got into writing in the first place, the books which inspired us and led us there, and the particular role we want to play in that epic, star-studded production called Literature. But we also need to understand that even if we like to discuss it, genre doesn’t have much to do with what’s really going on inside our books or how we can best find our readership. As ideas go, it’s quaint.

Once, decades ago, at a conference on sexual identity, a speaker stood at the podium and thundered in the manner of an evangelical preacher that “Gender is something we’ll all eventually evolve out of.” The statement was probably designed to shock, and I guess it did, because of all the speakers at the conference, his words are the only ones I can clearly remember. But, considering what’s happened in sexual politics over the last forty years, he also had a point, and genre could prove to be similarly elastic. It may turn out to be a spectrum rather than a series of boxes. A concept that torques, eludes, changes form as the market requires. A definition in transition. Or maybe even something that we’ll all eventually evolve out of.

 

Image credit: pareerica/Flickr





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46 Responses to “The Genre Games”

  1. Love in Mid Air
    at 8:19 am on November 23, 2011

    [...] story of my little adventure went live at The Millions today.  http://www.themillions.com/2011/11/the-genre-games.html   I said some rather provocative things in the piece and I hope I get a lot of fired-up [...]

  2. Ellis Shuman
    at 8:21 am on November 23, 2011

    After I read this article I understood the image of the red, romantic lips on a mouth with horrific vampire teeth. Maybe the skin should have been alien green.

  3. MacEvoy DeMarest
    at 9:12 am on November 23, 2011

    “…slight misunderstandings stretched into 400-page plot arcs.”

    Laughed out loud when I read that line. But to be fair, I suppose that Romance trope has its roots in literary classics. Pride and Prejudice, A Room With A View, etc…

    -Mac
    ShelfActualization.com

  4. Leigh
    at 10:14 am on November 23, 2011

    A great point and I for one am looking forward to the lose of genres. I think breaking out of the box really helps readers grow, as well as the writers.

  5. Ann
    at 12:16 pm on November 23, 2011

    Fascinating piece. Full of quietly brilliant lines like “in fantasy, the characters are moving toward something and in horror they’re running away from it.”

    Genre lines certainly do seem to be blurring–on TV as well as in books. This season almost every TV police procedural now has paranormal elements, whether extreme perfect recall, dead spouse advisors, or fairy tale plots. The whole culture seems to be in a mash-up stage.

    This deserves a wide readership. I’ll share and tweet.

  6. Ann
    at 1:29 pm on November 23, 2011

    Could you name the twenty-one books?

  7. Ty Roth
    at 1:53 pm on November 23, 2011

    Thanks for the YA love! As an author/reader, I stumbled into YA fiction only to find it to be astonishingly author-friendly and one of the few genres not completely bogged down by readers’ expectations. I believe there is more innovativeness and experimentation happening in contemporary YA fiction than in any other genre. YA agents and editors are incredibly open to new talent and encouraging of risk-takers. My most exciting discoveries have been the many adult readers of YA and the intelligence and maturity of teen readers.

  8. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 2:15 pm on November 23, 2011

    I like this piece.

    “The second definition of genre, and the one that seems to matter most, is genre as a way to package books for sale.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I set out to write literary fiction, but wanted my work to have the strongest possible narrative drive, which seems to have pushed me into the borderlands of genre. I’ve seen my first novel, for example, categorized variously as General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Crime, Mystery, Thriller, and Women’s Fiction. (This last one irritated me.) It was published in the US and Canada as literary fiction, but is being released in France next year as a thriller.

    The whole thing has made me think a lot about what genre actually means, and I do think it comes down mostly to a marketing decision. It’s been heartening, these past couple years, to see the increased permeability of the borders between “genre” and “literary.” I’ve long been of the opinion that John le Carre has more to say about love, loneliness, and the human condition than a lot of the novelists whom we’ve chosen to designate as “literary”, and I liked that the fact of A.D. Miller’s having written what a person might reasonably categorize as a crime novel didn’t keep him off the Booker shortlist.

  9. Kim Wright
    at 3:49 pm on November 23, 2011

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Ann, I never like to dismiss other writers in a public forum, so I hestiate to list the not-so-memorable genre books. But I will say that the two YAs that sucked me right in were Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and Before I Fall by Laren Oliver. I agree with Ty – it seems there’s a lot going on under the YA label, and at least some of it is plainly good storytelling.
    And in terms of “mysteries,” both Into the Woods by Tana French and When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson were, at least to me, indistinguishable from what was once called literary fiction. Emily, you are of course right. The wall befween literary and genre is more permeable than ever.

  10. Alicia (Foodycat)
    at 3:58 pm on November 23, 2011

    In fantasy you have sexy vampires and werewolves, in horror they are scary.

  11. Valerie Nieman
    at 4:25 pm on November 23, 2011

    Enjoyed, this greatly, as one who has written “genre” in the form of post-apocalyptic SF, as well as purely literary, and permutations between. I agree, it’s entirely about packaging. There was not such concern before the big-box-retail mind, where people have to be able to pigeonhole everything. Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, Fred Chappell, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood – so many of my favorite writers crossed boundaries quite happily. I’ll keep crossing them, though it makes it difficult to “place” a crime/literary/Southern novel like Blood Clay – or the one now in progress!

  12. David
    at 6:47 pm on November 23, 2011

    Gender is something well evolve out of…that’s pretty good. I would like to know more about the character that said that!

    I’m glad to know that the lines are blurred when it comes to genre these days. I think that when stories start to become too formulaic they lose a sense of being about something deeper that can have a chance of connecting on a deeper level with readers.

  13. Abigail
    at 3:41 am on November 24, 2011

    I tried to make this point before, but apparently I’ve been lumped it with the “testy” crowd (not that I’m a writer). Let’s give it another shot. I know you think you’re being inclusive here, but it’s the sort of inclusiveness that tells those who are different from you that they don’t really exist, and that if they tried a little they could be just like you. You’ve reduced genre to formula, trope, and marketing. Could you please try to consider that there might be something more there? That there are things that genre accomplishes – effects, themes, ways of looking at the world – that non-genre writing can’t, and that achieving them is just as worthy a goal for a writer as the goals of mimetic writing?

  14. CRITICAL LINKING: November 24, 2011 | BOOK RIOT
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  15. range
    at 8:08 am on November 24, 2011

    Love the comment about science-fiction, fantasy and horror. I think it’s not about the genres, but about the authors. I read a lot of different authors and no longer sequester myself to a particular genre. I have a natural preference for hard science fiction (Alastair Reynolds) but in recent years, I’ve delved into general fiction a lot more, especially after I started reading more than just mystery novels (Alex Delaware series).

    I stay away from romance and non-fiction though. Personally, I don’t like the supernatural romance novels, but many people do and that’s their own prerogative. I feel that as long as people are reading, they are doing well. This is the third year that I’ve kept tabs on the books that I have read, and Franzen’s Strong Motion was my 69th book this year.

    Personal faves this year include 1Q84, Reamde, The Corrections, The Prague Cemetery, 2666 (and the rest of Bolano’s oeuvre), and a few others (inclduing Palahniuk’s and Bret Easton Ellis’ novels). Iain M. Banks’ Transition was a wonderful science-fiction novel, and I love Peter F. Hamilton’s majestic space operas.

    I do read some YA. I definitely like Cornelia Funke. Since I’m currently trying to finish my own YA novel, I tend to stay away from the genre because I want to taper their influence on my personal writing.

  16. Kim Wright
    at 8:49 am on November 24, 2011

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Abigail, your post raises some really interesting issues. When I was doing my little 21-book experiment I made comments on each book along certain criteria. One of them was “theme” which I found revealed very little difference between the genres. For example, alienation or social separation was a common theme almost across the board. But your line that genres might show “different ways of looking at the world” intrigued me because that was something I didn’t consider. What exactly did you mean by that, in terms of maybe an example?

  17. Carol Roan
    at 9:28 am on November 24, 2011

    Thanks so much for this essay, Kim. I was trying to answer this question last week in a workshop I was leading. (I think the genre question came right before “What is voice?”) The best answer I could come up with in the current market is that genre categorization seems to be based on the intent of the author. (I used the Franzen-Oprah controversy as an example.)

  18. Sheila Englehart
    at 10:16 am on November 24, 2011

    Thanks for this piece. I had labored over figuring out how to market my last novel as it fell into the blurry zone. The book wasn’t quite literary, but didn’t land in a clearly defined genre shelf. I think in the attempt to stand out from others, authors are forced to break rules. Yet the market requires just enough genre distinction for easy shelf placement. I aslo concur with your YA conclusion. I have shamelessly enjoyed more YA titles of late than any other genre.

  19. Abigail
    at 11:46 am on November 24, 2011

    My background is in science fiction, which is rife with examples of books that look at the world in new and unique ways.

    At its most basic level, science fiction can look beyond the common literary preoccupation with an individual or a small group. Stephen Baxter’s Evolution charts the evolution and extinction of a species over a period of millions or years. Iain M. Banks’s Excession constantly stalls the progress of its human leads’ plots in order to highlight the fact that their society is governed and directed by AIs. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a multifaceted saga of that planet’s colonization. China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is a novel whose main character is a fictional city, and the two novels that follow it, The Scar and Iron Council, are ultimately about the upheavals that that city experiences and finally its death.

    At the other extreme, science fiction novels can describe the lives of ordinary, mundane people in the future, and through that device highlight both the changes in society and the immutability of human nature – see Shelter by Susan Palwick, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, Counting Heads by David Marusek.

    Science fiction can probe at aspects of humanity and question what they mean. In Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, the bond between mind and body is severed as personalities are transplanted from one body to another and the rich buy the young, healthy bodies of the poor. Peter Watts’s Blindsight imagines aliens who are intelligent but not sentient and ponders the evolutionary purpose of the latter. The novel I’m reading right now, Embassytown by China Miéville, is about language, imagining an alien species who are incapable of symbolic language. In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu uses time travel as a metaphor for grief and the difficulty of letting go of it. Gwyneth Jones’s Life is about the life of a scientist who makes a great discovery about the genetics of gender and through that story examines gender, gender roles, and the scientific process. Gender, in fact, is something that science fiction has examined quite a lot, through the work of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., and others.

    And of course, you can use the mode of science fiction to describe the present. SF author William Gibson wrote a present-set, entirely mimetic novel called Pattern Recognition that looks at the present through science fiction goggles and emphasizes how futuristic our present moment is. Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) and Charlie Huston (Sleepless) have done the same.

    None of these are things that can be accomplished outside of genre. They are not window dressing; they are the point of the exercise.

  20. Kim Wright
    at 6:11 pm on November 24, 2011

    You offer great examples, Abigail, but I’m not sure that I accept the conclusion that certain stories can only be told within genre. Would you consider Robinson Crusoe to be sci-fi? I wouldn’t, and yet Defoe used the idea of a shipwrecked European to illustrate,as you say, “both the changes in society and the immutability of human nature.” And books like A Passage to India use “travel as a metaphor for grief and the difficulty of letting go of it.” Granted, we’re talking geographic travel, not time travel, but the theme is basically the same. One of the miracles of literature is that there are plenty of ways to tell a story and that even if the methodology changes with the genre, the basic story really doesn’t.

  21. Genre « Other People's Ideas
    at 9:10 pm on November 24, 2011

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  23. D.
    at 10:36 pm on November 24, 2011

    The self-satisfaction and snobbery of die hard genre readers always surprises me. They love to rail against perceived snobberies in the literary world, many of which do exist, but display far more snobberies against genres they don’t like or literary writers in general.

  24. ?
    at 10:50 pm on November 24, 2011

    Abigail:
    “None of these are things that can be accomplished outside of genre. They are not window dressing; they are the point of the exercise.”

    What total nonsense.

    There is absolutely no reason that only sci-fi can “look beyond the common literary preoccupation with an individual or a small group.” Many so-called “literary” works have dealt with the things you describe, such as having cities as characters.

    Ditto for your third paragraph.

    As for your second, perhaps by definition only sci-fi can look at what humans might live like in the future… but that seems a weak, meaningless criteria. Sci-fi authors use a fake future to talk about the present, about humanity. They construct worlds with different rules to tell us about ourselves. The specifics that a sci-fi author might imagine can be accomplished in other genres or in literary fiction. (Remember, not all literary fiction has to be “realist” by any means.)

  25. Abigail
    at 3:35 am on November 25, 2011

    Kim: Surely it’s telling that the only counter-example you were able to give to my claim was published in 1719, at a time when the novel itself was still far from a fixed form, when the mimetic and fantastic mixed quite freely within it, and long before the boundaries of genre were fixed.

    That said, my claim that “None of these are things that can be accomplished outside of genre” is clearly overstated. It’s not, however, that far from the truth to my mind, if only because there are very few writers of mimetic fiction who try.

    Anyway, you asked for examples, I gave you examples. What you do with them is up to you.

    ?: I see a lot of big talk, but surprisingly few counter-examples…

  26. Kim Wright
    at 8:48 am on November 25, 2011

    Good grief. It’s not that Robinson Crusoe is the only example of the “fish out of water” character as a means of exploring societal themes. I deliberately used the oldest book I could think of as a way of showing that a trope you implied originated with sci-fi really existed long before.
    I have to challenge your claim that the boundaries of genre are fixed. At one time, novel was the genre, and writers told their stories in any way they pleased with, we can only imagine, little concern for how those stories would ultimately be subcategorized. Then genre rose as a concept and did begin to imply to readers what they could expect in a certain kind of book and thus put genre authors under a certain amount of pressure to meet those expectations.
    Whether they did this joyfully, embracing the mandates of their particular genre, or resentfully, growing tired of playing with the same toys over and over, probably varied with the author. But I honestly believe that, as a concept, genre has peaked and is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
    Part of this is my own experience. When my first novel came out less than two years ago my publicist spent a fair amount of time informing me about how we would go after a certain segment of the market describing it as literary and another segment describing the same book as women’s fiction. I hesitate to tell this story since the very term “women’s fiction” opens a whole new can of worms, but my point is that genre dictated how the book would be marketed, both within stores and on line.
    Eighteen months later my agent has book two in hand, which has elements of historical fiction and thus would be easier to categorize within a familiar genre than the first. But when I asked him if that dictated where he wanted to send it in terms of house, the discussions that followed indirectly indicated to me that genre simply matters less than it did two years ago.
    The idea interested me and prompted the last two articles I’ve done for The Millions.

  27. ?
    at 11:37 am on November 25, 2011

    “when the mimetic and fantastic mixed quite freely within it, ”

    The term mimetic is quite silly term for what you are trying to say. But anyway, your posts here make it seem like you are almost completely ignorant of what is called “literary fiction” these days or for the past few decades. realism and the fantastic mixing freely? We live in an era where the big authors are people like Murakami, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Lethem, Toni Morrison, etc. etc.

    Like many sci-fi partisans, you seem to be fighting the battles of the 1950s still. We are long past the stage in which mainstream literary fiction excluded non-realism elements… if indeed that stage ever truly existed. Dadaism, Surrealism, Southern Gothic, Magical Realism, Postmodernism, and, yes, the growing acceptance of “genre” all mixed together decades ago.

    Even a magazines as mainstream and stale (fiction wise) as the NYer is as likely to have a bizarre or otherwise non-realist story as not any given week.

  28. Abigail
    at 12:59 pm on November 25, 2011

    Kim: You could not have been more clear about your motivation for writing these two articles, and the fact that you’re driven by frustration over marketing issues. And I’m sympathetic to those frustrations. But what I’ve been trying to get you to understand is that in your haste to decry arbitrary divisions between genres you are effacing some very real, very valuable literary traditions. You can’t say that genre is irrelevant while at the same time making it clear that your understanding of what genre is is limited, and that you still believe genre to be nothing but formula and trope.

    ?: I actually read quite a lot of literary fiction. Which is how I know that the mixture of mimetic and fantastic elements you’re talking about is nothing like the way that “pure” genre uses the fantastic, and that both traditions have value.

    I participated in a panel discussion of the state of SF a few weeks ago, along with SF writer Robert Charles Wilson and critic Sheryl Vint. We discussed the way that SF ideas and approaches have been diffusing into mainstream writing, and I gave the example of Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector as a novel that seemed to be employing the same techniques as William Gibson has been in his later work, looking at the present (or in Goodman’s case, the recent past) through SFnal eyes, charting the way that technology remakes society. I don’t think that this mixture is a bad thing, but I do believe that it gives the lie to Kim’s claim that genres were never real to begin with, and her implicit argument that they have nothing new or different to contribute to literature.

  29. ?
    at 1:16 pm on November 25, 2011

    Abigail: If you agree that “literary fiction”, such as it is called, has been filled with writers mixing the fantastic with realism, then I’m not sure why you are conflating literary fiction with “mimetic fiction” here.

    I actually agree with you thought that genre boundaries mean a little more than people like Kim want to think. People in these debates, on both “sides”, tend to focus on the exceptions, the works that blur the boundaries between various genres. But they only blur boundaries because lots of other works fit very neatly into specific traditions, and I agree that traditions have value. In short, it is kind of like people saying “I can find some colors that are bluish-green, thus it makes no sense to talk of blue or green!”

    That said, I still fail to see why you think that only sci-fi can talk about large groups, or have cities as characters (something common in realist fiction–Joyce and Dublin?–and non-real literary fiction–Marquez or Calvino writing a whole book where the only real characters are cities), or any of the other things you mentioned.

    Sci-fi gets to, sometimes, look at those themes you mention in different ways. But fantasy, horror, realist literary fiction, postmodern literary fiction, historical fiction, and many other styles and genres get to look at them in other ways. There is no reason to privilege one over the others.

    Although I would say here that these debates often get confused by the insistence of comparing literary to sci-fi. Sci-fi (I dislike the term SF, which has no real meaning) is the largest, most diverse, and probably most creative of the “genres.” I think you have to view it in a different light than you would spy fiction, detective fiction, westerns, or dozens of other genres that fit more neatly into the common conception of genre.

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  31. Edward McKeown
    at 5:00 pm on November 25, 2011

    One can over rely on genre chrutches one of the reasons that I enjoy working with literary writers though I am a genre writer. If they cannot follow my writing then I know that I am doing something wrong. Nothing turns me off more in reading a book then knowing what will come before it does. Why bother reading further?

  32. Abigail
    at 6:26 pm on November 25, 2011

    That said, I still fail to see why you think that only sci-fi can talk about large groups

    Well, what I said was only genre – my examples were from SF because that’s the genre I know well and the one that I think is the most creative, but there are obviously others (one of the examples I gave, Sleepless, is a futuristic detective novel from an author who has written present-set detective fiction). And, as I told Kim, I admit that that’s an overstatement. But in my experience, while non-genre writing can do these things (or at least some of them – to go back to the novel I was reading when this discussion started, Miéville’s Embassytown, I really don’t see how you can have a work that dismantles a core concept of human identity such as language outside of a genre framework), it usually doesn’t.

    I think you have to view [SF] in a different light than you would spy fiction, detective fiction, westerns, or dozens of other genres that fit more neatly into the common conception of genre.

    Maybe, but no one does, especially when discussions like this one come along – see, for example, Kim’s characterization of it in this article.

  33. Paul Barrett
    at 9:05 pm on November 25, 2011

    I’m not seeing where the beef is with all this. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the first post, but I don’t remember at any time that Kim belittled genre, or said that literary fiction (whatever that is) was any better than any other. Abigail, with your insistence on touting sci-fi as the end all and be all, you seem to be trying to make a case that it is somehow superior, when that just isn’t the case. Kim’s generalization of it, just like her generalization of fantasy, still applies to probably 80% of the books in those genres. Of course there are exceptions, as there are in any genre.

    And that particular statement she made was one sentence in an overall thought provoking essay. The whole gist of it seems to be that genre is becoming irrelevant, so I’m not so sure what you’re getting up in arms about.

    As for the thought that it would take a genre book to dismantle language, I find that a rather silly statement. I would imagine if you gave that challenge to Thomas Pynchon or Chuck Palanhiuk, they could manage it without coming anywhere near a genre.

    And no, you don’t have to look at Sci-Fi any different than you do any other genre. It’s a genre, and like any genre, it has sub-genres. Again, it’s no better than any other. (And I’m a sci-fi fan, so don’t think I’m taking this from any sort of pro-literary stand. You can probably count the number of literary books I’ve read on two hands)

    Read what you want. Don’t read what you don’t want. But get over this idea that Kim is out to persecute science fiction.

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  35. ?
    at 1:14 am on November 26, 2011

    “And no, you don’t have to look at Sci-Fi any different than you do any other genre. It’s a genre, and like any genre, it has sub-genres. Again, it’s no better than any other”

    I disagree with this “everything is the same as everything else!” mindset that is so prevalent in modern American society, and I disagree with it here. I won’t claim that one genre is better than another–better in what sense?–but the term sci-fi encompasses a wider range of styles and sub-genres than any of the other major “genres” of fiction. It doesn’t encompass nearly as much as “literary fiction” does, but it encompasses more than the rest that have been listed here. It just has more of a tradition, more authors working it it, and more sub-genres inside it.

    Part of that is just semantics, of course. If you wanted to, say, group spy fiction, detective fiction, true crime fiction, and a bunch of other genres together you might get something as diverse as what is called “sci-fi.”

  36. Kim Wright
    at 8:33 am on November 26, 2011

    Although we’ve drifted rather far from the original idea, I still think my little experiment was interesting. It left me feeling that if you took a group of random readers and gave them books (with the covers ripped off) and said “Okay, categorize these by genre….put them all on the right shelf” they would have trouble doing it. I certainly struggled with the task.

    Ergo, my assertion that genre is in flux to the degree that it may no longer be the best way to present books to potential readers. This wasn’t meant to say the traditions of genre don’t matter or that the academic divisions between books don’t serve their purpose – at least in terms of lit classes and panels at writing conferences. As I said in the original article, writers are always going to want to talk about genre.

    But if a reader is perusing his way through a bookstore, Amazon,or a library, he probably isn’t going to choose a book based on its pedigree. He may want to be surprised by the book he selects and have it expand his horizons but more likely he’s looking for the proverbial “good read” which often boils down to “similar to books I’ve enjoyed before.” I’m not convinced the categories of genre are as helpful as they once were to readers and that’s the basis of my experiment. Not lit professors or editors or writers or people who speak at writing conferences, but civilian readers.

    I have a masters degree in American Lit and have taught on the unversity level, including a present post in a low-res MFA program. But I have supported myself primarily as a writer for thirty years. During that time I’ve written across multiple genres, spanning everything from a literary novel to restaurant reviews. And I’m here to tell you that- without the help of the covers – I couldn’t have correctly categorized half those damn books.

  37. LB
    at 2:29 pm on November 26, 2011

    Wow: an endless stream of ideas unleashed here pro, con, and otherwise based on one 21-book experiment.
    One editorial comment from my fifth grade grammar lessons: use between for 2, use among for more than 2. And that applies whether it’s sci fi, romance, YA, mystery or any other genre. So go ahead. Argue that.
    Enjoying this discussion!

  38. CRITICAL LINKING: Most Read Links, November 18-25, 2011 | BOOK RIOT
    at 7:02 am on November 27, 2011

    [...] sure this 21-book experiment can mean anything, but a provocative [...]

  39. DC
    at 6:46 am on November 28, 2011

    Paul Barrett wrote: ‘Abigail, with your insistence on touting sci-fi as the end all and be all, you seem to be trying to make a case that it is somehow superior’.

    This is a mischaracterisation I think. What I take Abigail to mean, and I agree with her, is that there is a value in genre which is more or less particular to a book being written within that genre, and to treat genre purely as a marketing tactic loses that important nuance. The value is partly that a genre’s ‘rules’ encourage and inform the sorts of stories that are told and the sorts of thoughts that are thunk, and partly, (I don’t think Abigail has mentioned this, but it seems important to me) that new works in a genre are part of a years/decades/whatever long conversation that has taken place within that genre – they are responsive to a shared understanding and history which encompasses theme, form, philosophy and so on and so forth.

    Now you may well say that this second point is the usual exclusive guff that geeks and zealots tell each other to keep gurls out of the treehouse, and I think you’d be right so far as the worst excesses of genre’s often pretty silly defenders are concerned. But it’s also somewhat true I think; and moreover, the barriers to entry aren’t too high – just read thoughtfully within the genre for a while and you’re on a more or less equal footing with anyone. You may then say that a work of art must stand on it’s own two feet, and again maybe I’d agree with you to a point but I’d add that to ignore the inevitability and moreover the enriching complexity of context is (a) weird and (b) odd.

    So, and again I’m going beyond anything Abigail claimed (sorry Abigail), and also not flinging accusations I hope, just making a point, but for me when self-identified ‘literary’ types come along and start talking genre, I, a self-identified ‘genre’ type, want first of all to know whether they’re talking from a position of knowledge, and I tailor my response accordingly.

    So, and finally, Kim’s article strikes me as a thoughtful and interesting writer’s view of the business of publishing, in particular in a post-Harry Potter and Twilight world (it turns out there’s gold in those hills), but it also demonstrates to my mind a certain failure to grasp ‘genre’ as a field of artistic endeavour (sorry Kim) . However, I came here from Abigail’s blog, so perhaps I would say that.

  40. Kim Wright
    at 7:28 am on November 28, 2011

    Not offended at all, DC, and I’d be the first to concede I don’t come from any particular genre background and thus have only an outsider’s grasp of the pleasures and perils of embracing that sort of literary tradition. And I like your notion that a genre is an extended conversation about the theme,form, and philosophies contained within.
    I do believe genre exists for a reason. It helps writers write and gives them a context in which to discuss their work. I’m just not sure it’s the best way to introduce potential readers to that work, especially in an era where some genres have grown so broad as to no longer have any real meaning – I think of romance, where, through a fluke of the alphabet, Christian romance is often shelved next to erotic romance. In other cases – and here I’m thinking fantasy, which is also expanding as all sorts of writers attempt to jump on what they perceive as a lucrative bandwagon – the genre is evolving so fast that what it means today bears little resemblance to what the term meant fifty years ago.
    Genre is all the conceptual things that have been discussed in this thread – I supposed it can be seen as a series of petri dishes where specimens are carefully contained and kept pure for analysis. But it also is the means by which books are presented to the public and the marketplace is far messier than the laboratory. Few writers can afford, in the most literal sense of “afford,” to be unaware of how rapidly the market is changing.

  41. DAS
    at 2:24 am on November 29, 2011

    This is just my two-cents worth, which by the time you finish reading this post will most likely be worth closer to one-cent.

    Sci-Fi (or SF for the annointed) will forever be scarred with the label of being the “nerd” genre. This is something of a paradox, especially vis-a-vis fantasy.

    In fantasy the reader is presented with several fanstastical elements which he merely has to accept. They can be extremely imaginative, counter-intuitive, and violate every law of nature and logic itself.

    Sci-Fi, on the other hand, presents fantastical elements which could theoretically become true at some future date. This presents a challenge to the reader. He is implicitly expected to understand to some degree how these fantastical elements might eventually come to pass. This is work. Worse, this is the math/science kind of work that the average reader has come to loathe.

    On occasion I write bad poetry. In one of my poems I used the word ‘molecule’. ‘molecule’ is a beautiful sounding word. I used it in a rather unscientific way. However, words like ‘molecule’ send all sort of sirens going off in the average reader: Oh no, there is some science coming at me! I’d better turn and run! That poem was particularly unsuccessful.

    The idea that Sci-Fi will ever be accepted fully at the same level as literary fiction, or even westerns or crime fiction, is itself the greatest fiction of all.

    At one time I thought I liked Sci-Fi. It turned out that what I really enjoyed was the poetic genius of Ray Bradbury. The scientific accuracy and ardor of Asimov left me unmoved. The philosophical “what ifs” of Herbert just creeped me out.

    This discussion we’re currently having may very well be for nought. For all we know we could be brains in vats in some elaborate virtual reality. Oh wait, that’s already been done, and overdone.

    In parting I’ll just hope that Kim’s brain is in a vat close to mine. Hopefully the warmth emanating from her overachieving brain will counteract to some degree the A/C which is blasting through the vent over my ill placed one.

  42. Kim Wright
    at 1:42 pm on November 29, 2011

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone! This has been a really great conversation/debate. And DAS, thanks for saying my brain is warm. It’s an unusual compliment – at least I think it’s a compliment – but I’ll take it!

  43. My Daily Tweets 11.29.11 « memoirs on a rainy day
    at 8:03 pm on November 29, 2011

    [...] @Kim_Wright_W‘s piece on genre — or lack thereof — continues in lively fashion. (bit.ly/rV1zMO) 29 Nov My Daily Tweets 11.28.11 wp.me/pWvW-6qD 23 hours [...]

  44. Nick
    at 3:10 pm on December 7, 2011

    Speaking for the genres with which I’m most familiar (sci-fi/fantasy), the genres are both pretty much what they always were. A reader of sci-fi or fantasy expects some abrogation of the laws of physics, with the difference being what sort of limitations there are. Sci-fi limits the abrogation through some more-or-less credible variation of our physics. Fantasy will allow magic outright, but will make it costly by, for example, having it run in families (Harry Potter), or limiting its use to celibate males (Earthsea).

    One can see things that appear like genre-bending, but really aren’t. The abundant social commentary that one sees in a writer like Octavia Butler is only suprising if one hasn’t read Robert Heinlein or William Gibson. (Or George Orwell, for that matter.)

  45. daniel adler
    at 2:11 pm on January 11, 2012

    I doubt we’ll evolve out of genre, as I doubt we’ll evolve out of gender. As long as creation exists, be it reproduction or an artist’s atelier, we’ll recognize difference. Pigeonholes don’t have to be so tight, and there may be new ones in the future, but genre is a way we determine what’s best. And like creation, excellence isn’t going anywhere.

  46. Page 95 – Did I get this all wrong? | Claire Cameron
    at 4:27 pm on April 25, 2013

    [...] from a 28 page internal memo sent by Jeffrey Katzenberg and distributed to his fellow executives ; The Genre Games by Kim Wright ; Kind of Blue, a review of Joan Didion’s new book Blue Nights ; a tea house [...]

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