Saturday, 30 March 2013

Genre: What's In A Word?

Genre is . . . big. Surprisingly big, actually, for something that fits into a five-letter word. Genre is what people use to discern their favourite books, to describe those books to others, to denote concepts and themes and images. Genre is one of the first things you'll use to describe your own book, when you make those first tentative steps into introducing the topic into the sphere of conversation, and it's what will be give you the 'yea' or 'nay' when you make those first tentative baby steps into the world of querying agents and publishers.

Genre is also a gigantic pain in the butt.

As is often the way with very big things squashed into very small words, some bits of it have become far more trouble than they're worth.

Take the Oscars, for example. It's a well known fact that it's a biased system of voting, and a lot of that bias is based on genre. After all, why else was there so much consternation when The Return of the King ran away with seventeen awards? The clean sweep in itself was stunning enough, but the fact that a fantasy film - a genre against which most film awards, but the Oscars especially, is extremely biased - could do it . . . it was unheard of.

You only have to go and listen to the Tolkien fanbase snarling that a few well-placed wigs and blood splatters snatched this year's Best Costume and Make-Up away from a film that, almost literally, put new faces on the actors to turn them into an entirely different species.

Of course, this is the world of film, which, although a lot of its inspiration comes from books, is a notably different kettle of opinionated fish. Or is it?

Unfortunately, similar issues persist. Fantasy may be one of the most popular and famous brands of literature out there, but I have met so few people who are willing to regard a fantasy as a "great work" simply because it dares to throw in a few dragons and a magic sword. In 1961, Tolkien was nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature, only to be refused on the basis that the The Lord of the Rings "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality". Admittedly, critical opinions are as varied as the critics themselves, but it does beg the question; was Tolkien's "bad storytelling" partly down to the critic's apathy for the incredibly detailed, but undeniably fictitious, setting and subject matter?

Fantasy, however, is not alone in being victimised. The romance genre, eternally under fire for some reason or another, has been almost ostracised by some because of its unfortunate encompassing of Mills and Boon romances and their toxic offshoots. Meanwhile, the tentatively titled "young adult" genre has become so notorious for washed out teeny-pop "dark romance" featuring brooding sparklies and heroines with the personalities of Barbie dolls that people are almost embarassed to admit to liking or reading anything they can't exonerate - The Hunger Games being one of the lucky escapees.

Finally, though, we come to the most awkward issue of them all: how, exactly, does one denote a book's genre?

Okay, half of this question is obvious - if it's got flying saucers and someone who looks suspiciously like Spock, it's unlikely to have wandered in from the memoir section, is it? - but, on a deeper level, how useful is genre, really? Books of all types can feature a thousand themes and topics; love and death, courage and fear, war and peace, victory and failure, growing up, growing old . . . can such universal things, such essentially human things, be defined in the same way as an intended age range or style of narrative?

Genre's great for labels and aesthetic description, but should we let it define anything beyond a dustjacket cover?

~ Charley R


  1. Genre is not a symbol of what themes ad book uses as much as a quick way to say that it's in a different world, or its story follows this sort of pattern. It's a quick guide that does almost nothing if you try to take it too far. Romance deals with plot, fantasy deals with setting, so we can have a genre known as fantasy romance, or paranormal romance, or whatever else you want to call it. It's extremely flexible, if you think about it. But should we separate books by themes or high points? No, then there truly would be no originality within genres. Hello, miss, I'd like to buy a medieval war set in a different world with precisely two powerful magicians, a young blacksmith apprentice main character, and one guy who betrays everyone near the end. His name should be really cool so I know when I see him. No! We buy things within genres, yes, but not so we can get the same thing-- only so we can get a similar thing with different elements. If we only wanted the same thing, we'd read the same book.

    Great post.

    1. Well said, Liam!

      It's odd, though, because some genres do seem to make use of some themes more than others - fantasy, it seems, quite likes the self-discovery via a long and uncomfortable journey, but seems a bit less keen on things like dealing with family issues. But, as you said, it's a genre that likes to exploit setting, so it's really no wonder it does that, because otherwise what would be the point of the setting?

      However, I would put up the point nevertheless that, sometimes, we select our genres because we like either the themes or archetypes that tend to be more prevalent within them - depends if you want a capable businesswoman or a grouchy out-of-work space pirate, I guess. So, in a way, genre does rather blur more lines than simply setting out story pattern. Not a lot, but a bit.