In which I will try to avoid the more touchy aspects of this discussion. Not that I mind talking about them–Lord, no–but the post that got me thinking about genre specifically got me thinking about the way it functions, and the types of genre–the, um, genres of genre? Metagenres?–and how they can be pulled apart and stuck together like so many Legos. This is hard to do when I’m also ranting.
This post is, therefore, from Weird Theoretical Izzy. Ranty Izzy will show up in Part II: Shut Up, Harold Bloom. Also, I have no particular emotional attachment to anything I say here: this is not a thesis I’ve spent years working out, but rather the same sort of random-observation-esque thought as my desire to write a paper comparing the different narrative functions of Evil Cobra Kai Sensei and Evil, Um, Hawks? Coach from Mighty Ducks.
The English language being what it is, “genre” gets used in a number of ways, and in a number of levels of granularity. But if we start out with the way libraries and bookstores generally categorize fiction, I think we end up with basically three metagenres.
1. Genre by plot element: romance, mystery, thriller. I will note–and emphasize, especially as I write in one of these–that this isn’t “all plots are the same”: it’s that all plots in one of these genres share some core element. Romance novels are *primarily* about people falling for each other, or falling for each other again. Mystery novels are *primarily* about someone figuring out, um, a mystery, usually involving someone getting killed or at least someone’s priceless thirteenth-century candlesticks getting stolen. Thrillers are primarily about action, and often conspiracies and stolen nuclear weapons.
Horror also goes here, I think, but it’s weirder and more nebulous: “very bad things happen to some people”.
2. Genre by setting element: fantasy, science fiction, Western. Like with plots…well, really. Lord of the Rings is not the same setting as The Dresden Files, duh, move on. I think this is the most straightforward of the categories in some ways: with the exception of some things like magical realism and the Great Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy Debate of Just Kill Me Now, either the work has certain elements or it doesn’t. Except…well, more on that below.
Historicals are weird. Historicals seem like they’re genre-by-setting, except they generally get put in the non-genre-fiction class unless they’re *also* romance or mystery or whatever. If I had to bet money, I’d say that this is largely because the line between “historical fiction” and “fiction that happened to be written back then” is one a lot of people don’t want to bother drawing, which is understandable.
3. Genre by audience: YA, “chick lit”. (Yeah, the most prominent audience distinction categories are women and kids: those of you playing at home can draw your own conclusions in re: sexism.) This is the *least* straightforward. YA protagonists tend to be eighteenish or younger, and that’s the one thing I can say with any certainty about the books–but so do a fair number of protagonists in fantasy, at least at the start. And “chick lit” often involves romance, as far as I can tell, but it’s not necessarily the main element.
Of course, all of these have subcategories–“cyberpunk” is a distinct genre, but it’s going in with the science fiction unless you’re in a specialty bookstore, etc–and, perhaps more importantly, all of them cross over. You can, and often do, have historical mysteries; the only science fiction Western I can think of off the top of my head is Firefly, which isn’t written, but I’m sure there are books out there; I personally write paranormal romance, urban and straight fantasy, and…Aftermath, which I’ve been prone to describe as post-apocalyptic romantic angst.
It seems, and I could be wrong, like audience takes first priority in the sorting process, then plot, and finally setting: I’ve picked up a lot of books in the YA section of my library, because many of them are actually fantasy romances, or historical thrillers, or whatever, just with younger characters. I mean: Harry Potter.
The cross-pollination seems like something to be aware of, as a reader, if only because it opens up other sections of the bookstore to browse in. Whether that’s a good thing or not…depends on how many trains you want to miss, I guess.