Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rethinking "Genre"

As my previous post inevitably dissolves into another literary fiction vs. genre fiction debate, in which the literary fiction people get on their high horses and the genre people collect paychecks, consider this:

Genre in its purest form exists for a singular purpose: To help you find the books you want to read. "Genre" is a classification system used by libraries and bookstores to herd people towards the type of literature they are looking for at the moment. Now the categories are more narrowly defined, but it wasn't always this way.

In Western Europe during the Middle Ages, what books were being produced were largely religious in nature. Books were monstrously expensive to produce. Most of our fiction from that period is some author's hand at recording oral traditions (which is why a lot of this literature seems to look the same). The non-monastic book production industry relied on noble patronage, and undoubtedly the noble would specify what kind of book they wanted before the first page was properly stretched out from bleached calf skin. After all, if you're spending a small fortune to have something made for you, and then wait years for it to be finished, you're going to be rather specific about what you want the final product to look like. While devotional books were popular (like a Book of Hours), those who could afford to be patrons of the arts also preferred tales of suspense, romance, and adventure.

With the invention of the printing press and the dramatic reduction in the cost of paper, it became affordable for authors to dream of creating a book on their own and just hoping it would sell, though they probably had an audience in mind. There still was no formalized system of dividing books by type of story, simply because there weren't 3-story bookstores to wander around. You had access to the books that were available in your area, or maybe you could get something popular on loan from a circulating library (a popular source of book distribution in Britain in the 1700's-1800's). A reader probably could generally find out what the book was about by asking the store owner or the librarian.

The dividing of books into specific genres is a commercial instinct. Growing up, my local library had three sections: Adult, Children's, and Video Tapes. It was a fairly small library, but I remember being frustrated by it once I moved out of the children's section, because the adult section seemed to mush everything together and the librarian was less interested in pointing me in the right direction and more interested in running the children's programs.

Bookstores operate on the basic principle that you, the reader, probably like only certain times of fiction, and if you just happen to be browsing, it will be easier for you to find new authors if they're in the same section with the authors you're familiar with because they write the same type of book. This rigid classification system has changed not only the way books are sold, but how they are developed, and how they are viewed.

Barnes and Noble has a "Fiction and Literature" section, because it sounds better than "General Fiction," but I deeply suspect that a lot of authors who are in there are in there because they were published before categorization was so strict. Today, Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man might wind up in memoir even though it is about a fictional character who happens to heavily resemble the author. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice might show up either in women's fiction or even in romance, depending on the store's decision. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would undoubtedly be buried in the sci-fi/fantasy section. Shakespeare, a playwright, would be in that tiny section for plays. Imagine Sei Sh┼Źnagon's The Pillow Book being mislabeled and winding up in the erotica section. And so on.

One could make the argument that while our modern sensibilities think this is cheapening the way we treat the classics, genre labeling is what it is - a method of enabling the reader for find the type of book they like and other books that might be like it. Since all books need to find a reader, all books belong to some genre, however hard it may be to define - but that's probably because no one's tried to define them yet.


Murphy Jacobs said...

I beg your pardon, I think I'm about to rant mindlessly.

Of course you are right that the whole genre system is intended for readers, but it has become (in my limited experience) a set of rules for writers. I know I've heard the whole lit fic/genre argument for years. I had writing professors castigate me in class because I wrote a fantasy story instead of a literary fiction story. It isn't the classifications themselves, but the baggage that has been attached to them that makes the difference. Why is, for example, Harlan Ellison's "A Dog and His Boy" science fiction (and thus consigned to the genre ghetto) while Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" elevated to literary fiction and Oprah Recommends status? Yes, McCarthy has other novels (aren't they Westerns, which should be near the Zane Grey section?)

I understand the logic of it. There is some sense, from a reader's point of view. There's also a lot of poor quality, over-serialized drek in the genre world (and I love a lot of it). But there are definitely literary formulae (death of a spouse and infidelity/adultery come to mind as topics able to fill a few shelves).

I don't argue with the question of genre as a reader guide (although, as you point out quite ably, sometimes a book's classification is a matter of a store clerk's mood and interpretive abilities). I find it a problem from a writer/publishing point of view, in that no matter the quality of the story or the skill with which it is told, if some particular elements do or do not show up, it is shunted to one side or rejected out of hand. Occasionally it does seem that the selection process is arbitrary or possibly involves the use of dried chicken bones and incense.

What entertains me most, though, is the difficulty arising now in classifying some books. For instance, Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' series, with all the hallmarks of genre fiction on it (fantasy, humor, series, time travel, cheese -- you name it, it is probably in there somewhere) regularly is shelved in the general fiction section at several different Borders stores I frequent. I've never figured out how to classify them, and I suspect they aren't doing much better.

two_eyes said...

Curse you for being such an entertaining writer; I began reading you yesterday from the first entries of your blog and ended up doing all my uni work (due at 12 AM, natch) in a mad scramble at 11 PM before returning and finishing the rest.

Anyway, this argument is basically the same thing that I presented to my AP Literature teacher back in high school who, while a wonderful man for telling you exactly why your prose wasn't flowing, was a terribly (in my mind) elitist snob when it came to "literary" vs. "genre" fiction. After the AP test, I recall going up to him and enjoying the look of shock and horror on his face when I told him I'd used Ender's Game as my "choice" work for the third open response essay (I was just screwing with him, I used The Sound and the Fury).

But I digress.

I asked him at one point why genre fiction was so bad if certain of the greats of literature wrote what are, by today's standards, clearly genre works. I recall using, as did you, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, but I also dragged in Orwell and Huxley. His response was complicated, but I believe he meant that writers of their scope in vision and depth of skill today would naturally gravitate to writing works that people would clearly recognize as "art", and therefore would not muck around with stuff that could be interpreted to fall into a genre. I wondered aloud about Toni Morrison's work Beloved, which, while clearly one of literary merit, is equally clearly historical fiction and, depending on the interpretation one takes of the text, historical *fantasy* at that. He responded that because Morrison did not "bind" herself with the constraints of genre, her work transcended genre and is correctly labeled literary fiction, at which point I gave up and went to lunch.

Bah. I think the only recourse I have at this point is to write a novel in which I combine scintillating prose and meaningful message with understandable plot and characters, stick it in the Fantasy section and wave it under his nose.

Easy as pie, am I right?

none said...

Pride and Prejudice is usually on the front tables when I'm wandering the bookshop :).

It puzzles me how litfic often seems to be regarded as "classics in the making", yet when you look at the classics, they have generally become so by being very popular--Dickens comes to mind. His books are still in print because they were huge crowd-pleasers, not because he set out to write for the ages. Shakespeare often wrote at two levels--one for the more educated audience, and the second for the groundlings. The example my teacher used was from Macbeth--"...the multidinous seas incardine--making the green one red". Gottit?

Timothy Fish said...

Interesting comments, but given that the Internet makes it possible for readers to find books that other readers of the books they liked have read, the issue of genre may not be as big of an issue as it once was.

ryan field said...

"Genre in its purest form exists for a singular purpose: To help you find the books you want to read. "Genre" is a classification system used by libraries and bookstores to herd people towards the type of literature they are looking for at the moment."

I'm okay with this. Thanks

Thomas said...

In film circles, where the terminology is much the same but often means different things, misunderstanding of genre is rampant.

What most people think of as genres: horror, science fiction, romantic comedy, drama, etc. are more properly called modes or industrial forms. They're usually based on the same ideas as publishing genres, general classifications of the work meant to grease the wheels of consumerism.

True genres are much more narrow and are based on the structure and underlying ideology of the film. These include classic westerns, screwball comedies, slasher films, monster/alien invasion movies, gangster films and blaxsploitation, among many others.

Then there's the ever useless argument over whether Film Noir is a genre but let's not even get into that.

Such is the glory of being over-educated.

Jeff Draper said...

Age and longevity probably have a lot to do with genres as well. I recently picked up a hardcover 40th anniversary edition of Dune by Frank Herbert and it was labeled as a 'modern classic.'

Heather Dudley said...

You've touched on one of my biggest pet peeves. People just can't figure out what genre their novel is, because they think that if something contains an element of a genre, then it must be that genre... when that just plain isn't the case! Just because a fantasy novel has a little romance in it, doesn't mean it's a romance! Romance is actually one of the most rigidly defined genres.

Here's my preferred analogy:

To make a cake, you combine eggs, sugar, flour, and milk.

You combine these ingredients in certain proportions, but it isn't any one ingredient that makes the cake what it is... it's the final product.

Combine those selfsame ingredients in different proportions, and you get muffins.

Screw them up, and you have a doorstop.

The end result of the recipe isn't an egg, even if it has eggs IN IT. Therefore your fantasy-romance-adventure-literary fiction novel isn't that... it's STILL a fantasy, because of the way you combined the ingredients.

So you throw blueberries in, when the muffins usually are the ones with the blueberries... it's STILL a freaking cake.

Linda Maye Adams said...

I think some authors wind up in the General Fiction because the bookstore employee shelving them doesn't know what to do with them. I go into Borders and find Clive Cussler in the mystery section. At my B&N, he's in the General Fiction. So's Urban Fantasy. But at Borders, that's split between Horror and Fantasy.

The library was even worse. Preston/Child, thriller authors, were split between the mystery section and the General Fiction. So was Lee Child. No wonder I was so confused trying to figure out what I wanted to write!

Anonymous said...

What I object to is RIGID genre boundaries, and the accompanying classification of a writer or book as Genre X and ONLY Genre X.

And Genre as an excuse for litfic litfags to look down their noses at the rest of us. They have this snob idea that if a book is actually (horrors!) Popular with the Common Rabble, it must be denounced.

Anonymous said...

And Genre as an excuse for litfic litfags to look down their noses at the rest of us.

Good way to devalue your argument, there. Now you look just as much a crank as the extremists on the other side.

Jeff said...

The arguments that most lit fits into a genre of some sort only works if you consider mimetic fiction a genre, which is stretching it.

Madge G. Sinclair said...


Thank you for sharing this interesting piece of literary history, I really enjoyed reading it.

Happy (early) Hanukkah!


Madge Sinclair

Anonymous said...

You make such a good point. I hate it when magazines ask for genre fiction. Because your last thought is exactly like mine. Every piece of writing has a genre. I beg of everyone, please stop abusing the word.

none said...

Oh I dunno, mimetic fiction's something of a newcomer on the literary scene, and is much more easily pigeonholed than the original form of literature--Fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Good way to devalue your argument, there. Now you look just as much a crank as the extremists on the other side.

Check "Marsupialis" in the previous posting's comment thread for a type specimen of a Litfic Litfag looking down her Oh-So-Literary-Intellectual nose at all us common rabble.

Anonymous said...

Too true. It's worth pointing out that the categories themselves are arbitrary. If there's a murder mystery set in the future, is this sci-fi? Well, you can say that there's a rule in which setting trumps plot. But how far in the future is sci-fi? Any date in the future? (Seems unlikely... with publication dates subject to delays, that would mean under this rule, some manuscripts that were submitted as sci-fi would lose that designation). And what's the dividing line between sci-fi and fantasy? In some stores, there is none; they're grouped together. This seems to make sense; science fiction contains the idea of "dimensions"; fantasy novels often occur in different universes. But on the other hand, does The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter really have anything in common with Asimov?

Genres are a useful system of categorization, but as with any, they are arbitrary. I mean, are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?

Timothy Fish said...

Many books are classified as more than one genre and then the store is expected to decide where it wants it. Putting a book in the future does not force it into the sci-fi genre. Many are sci-fi because they make guesses as to the technology that will be available in the future. But you could have a romance set in 2050, that ignores the technology and it would still only be a romance. The dividing line between sci-fi and fantasy is not always clear, but sci-fi attempts to have a story based on technology that is possible while fantasy tends to deal more with the supernatural or absurd. There are scientific theories that refer to the possibility of time travel, for example, but there are none that refer to fairies or magical swords. Stores do not always seperate the two because many of the people who enjoy one will enjoy the other as well. Sci-fi and Fantasy are both sub-genres of the genre Speculative Fiction. Authors when an author speculates about how the world might be if it follows a certain path or if he speculates what it would be like if there were mythical beings, etc. then his work falls within speculative fiction.

none said...

Speculative Fiction is a catch-all that's meant to include Fantasy, SF and Horror. Given how old Fantasy is, trying to shove it in as a sub-genre of anything strikes me as ridiculous. Plus now it's hard to tell whether SF means Science Fiction or spec fic, sigh. But I guess we're stuck with "Speculative Fiction".

Maybe what we need are flow diagrams!

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as genre. Only form. That's all a writer should care about, not how someone else categorizes it. What a pointless argument. Just shut up and write.