Friday, 18 November 2011

A few thoughts on Genre

People keep asking me about my novel's genre. I'd love to be able to come back with a snappy one word answer that effectively answers their question, but I can't. I think when someone asks the genre question they're asking a lot of different questions all at once. What's it about? Will I like it? What other novels that I have already read and enjoyed is your novel like? And other stuff like that. So when I answer contemporary urban fantasy murder mystery, the response is often, 'Say what now?' I really need to boil that mouthful down to a one or two word version.

But that got me thinking about genre in general and I thought maybe instead of answering tough questions, I could just sort of make stuff up. I'm way better at making stuff up, and I bet I can make a passable blog out of that, so let's go with it.

When people say genre these days they usually mean anything other than mainstream. It could refer to romance or science fiction or fantasy, or horror, or mystery. Technically mainstream literature is a genre, but in practice it's more like the lack of genre or perhaps just the default. The word genre comes from the French and originally meant 'hard to get published.'

One book can fall into more than one genre, for example my own book is both a classic noir mystery and an urban fantasy. The Lord of the Rings is both an epic work of high fantasy and a travelog of Middle-Earth. Believe me when I tell you to skip Mordor when you book that tour. Steampunk is almost always accompanied by another genre. Classic steampunk is often paired with Victoriana, but it can also be found in contemporary fantasy, pulp science fiction or even post-apocalypse adventure. Where ever you find anachronistic technology (often over-sized and baroque as all get out) paired with social inequity, goggles and hats you will find steampunk. It's really more of a style than a genre.

Can stories can change genre after they've been published? When Frankenstein was first published it was science fiction (and horror, of course) because folks believed that maybe - just maybe - if you shot enough electricity into a corpse, that sucker would get up and move around again. Now I think it's safe to say that idea has been relegated to fantasy. But does that mean that the novel should likewise be relegated to fantasy? Should we re-shelve Frankenstein? How about billing it as the world's first medical drama? Or should we just call it proto-steampunk and move on?

Let's consider Paranormal Romance. Is the paranormal part more important than the romance part? Is dating a bad boy from the wrong side of the grave cooler than dating one from the wrong side of the tracks? Could I write a historical romance novel, replace all the instances of the word pirate with vampire and have a million seller? They both wear pretty much the same kind of floppy shirts, it could totally work. Should I add a pretty-boy vampire to my next book? Should I add steampunk to my next book? Does throwing in elements from another genre change a story? Would it make a book better?

For me the answer is not just no, but hell no. When I'm writing in a genre, I want the heart of the story to be intrinsically related to that genre. If I'm writing a fantasy murder mystery than the means, motive, and opportunity all have to have fantasy elements. If they don't I'm just re-skinning a story using genre elements. There are reasons to do that and I might do it some day but not today. Tomorrow's not looking so good either. Is the genre the story or merely the way the story is told? How many stories can be translated into an entirely different genre without changing the essential elements of that story?

These are the things I think about late at night when other people are thinking about that last slice of pie in the refrigerator. It's just as well, I could stand to lose a few pounds.

Chelmsford, MA
November 21, 2011

1 comment:

  1. A genre is somewhat like a language. Over time it develops its own set of idioms which become second nature to those who live with it for a while, but may look artificial and even silly to those not steeped in it. No devotee of superhero comic books will wonder whether it's actually important to have a secret identity, nor is a reader of gothic romances likely to lose sleep wondering "But Rebecca hates Simon! How could she ever fall in love with him?"

    But those idioms are only trappings of the genre, they don't define the genre. Taking a story and clothing in the costume of a genre only fools those who don't really know the genre. Saying "I know! You can recalibrate the the phase shift on the baryon emitters so they'll produce a coherent beam of tachyon particles!" doesn't make it science fiction. Do that kind of stuff and you just end up with "Star Trek: Voyager".

    It can be fun when a writer treats genres themselves as just another dab on their palette. I remember my initial bewilderment when a friend told me about this TV series called "Firefly" and said, "It's a western, but in outer space." Huh?