Okay, So, Genre: Part I

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.

Right.

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.

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About isabelcooper

I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam No Proper Lady, published September 2011 by Sourcebooks Lessons After Dark, forthcoming in April 2012 from Sourcebooks I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.
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9 Responses to Okay, So, Genre: Part I

  1. Kate says:

    Genre is a tricksy beast. I categorize Candlemark & Gleam as a “genre publisher” because I’m aiming to publish speculative fiction – gimme your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of urban fantasy, sci-fi, mythic fantasy, and *punk yearning to breathe free. But this also means I’m gonna get myself pigeonholed as a “nonserious” publisher, which irritates me to no end.

    Oddly, the one genre formulation I’m not really keeping in mind is audience. I read a lot of “grownup” books when I was in the YA category, and I read a lot of YA books now that I’m a “grownup.” I read whatever has a good plot, or is fun. I read plenty of chick-lit-esque stuff, and lots of “guy books” like political thrillers and serial-killer novels. So this breakdown is unhelpful for me, and I ignore it most of the time.

    That said, I need to wander into the YA section at the bookstore more. There’s good stuff hiding in there.

    • isabelcooper says:

      I can totally understand the irritation. I mean, I’m okay with not being considered a serious writer, but I’ve spent the last ten-or-so years avoiding anything that might approach seriousness in my own life, so it’s easier for me. 😉 But really, the whole academic defining-seriousness-and-worth thing…argh, it annoys. (q.v. Part II, when it gets here.)

      Also with you on the audience thing. I read and write in both “grownup” and “YA”, and the breakdown there seems more arbitrary than in other genres: I’ve found Robin McKinley’s Damar books in both YA and Fantasy, depending on the bookstore, and likewise for Mercedes Lackey and even Stephen King. (My local library has Carrie as YA and The Stand as adult fiction. I can only assume it’s going by protagonist age, and length, because…dude.)

  2. Emily says:

    Back when I used to work in a bookstore, before the rash of Harry Potter copycats, I had someone ask me for more stuff like Harry Potter for an older kid. I ended up having to go look for Narnia and the Hobbit as well as pointing out the YA section.

    I’ve never actually seen “chick lit” pulled out as a category in a bookstore, unless you count the Oprah Book Club display; probably because too much falls under Romance. But especially here in Philly, there tends to be an “Urban Lit” category, by which we mostly mean “really crappy books pandering to urban black people”; it definitely trumps other genres like Romance or Mystery.

    It’s probably worth noting that “genre fiction” is a lot more likely to be published in mass market paperback, especially JUST mass market paperback, unless it’s a really established book/author. I mean, Isabel Allende wrote a Zorro novel, and it’s in general fiction and came in hardcover, because she’s Not A Genre Author. It’s as much a matter of publishing as content whether something gets classed as genre or not.

    • Matt W says:

      >>It’s as much a matter of publishing as content whether something gets classed as genre or not.<<

      Yeah, really. Hello "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell."

    • isabelcooper says:

      I’d be…careful…about categorizing an entire genre or category as “crappy” or “pandering”. I haven’t read anything that gets filed under “Urban Lit” (I don’t know if I’ve seen the section around here), but books that deal largely with the experiences or issues of a particular not-white-guy demographic are good things to have around, and since our society uses “white guy” as the default demographic, I think the separate category might be useful. And my experiences have suggested that there’s good and bad in every genre: I don’t generally read mysteries, or chick lit, or thrillers myself, but I’ve found some good works there.

      Chick lit shows up as a separate category in a couple places here: the South Station bookstore doesn’t call it that, and I don’t remember the name they do use, but it’s pretty clear. It does often blend with romance, though: if I had to distinguish, I’d say that “chick lit”=general life with sometimes-heavy romantic subplots, and “romance”=when the subplots stop being, um, sub. Heh.

      It’s as much a matter of publishing as content whether something gets classed as genre or not.

      Well, yes. And separate from imprints, it can get highly individual as well: is King horror or fantasy or mainstream fiction? Is Hamilton fantasy or horror or romance? I’ve seen bookstores and libraries do all of the above.

      That said, I think genre can be a very useful thing sometimes, but that gets into Part II.

  3. hapax says:

    Ooooh. My favoritest soapbox topic EVAH!

    As a professional genre-classifier (i.e., the person who gets paid to put those little stickers with hearts or spaceships on the spine of the books), I’d argue that genre is all about the intersection of two things: marketing and expectations.

    Marketing: the publisher decides *who* they are going to sell the book to and *how* (this is where I get my rule-of-thumb that “it’s Fantasy if it has a tree on the cover; it’s Science Fiction if it has rivets” — it gets a lot more sophisticated than that, however, with all sorts of covers and typefaces and key words in the blurbs all serving as subtle (and not so subtle) cues to various types of sub-genres and cross-genres and all that meta stuff) This has a lot to do with audience and plot and setting; but mostly it’s about creating…

    Expectations: what the reader expects to feel while reading the book, and at the end. This is where the difference between, e.g. “Romance” and “Chick Lit” comes in. If the book is marketed as “Romance”, and there isn’t a HEA at the end, the reader will feel cheated and angry, no matter how good the book was otherwise — and, importantly, NO MATTER HOW MUCH THEY MIGHT HAVE LIKED IT IF IT WAS MARKETED DIFFERENTLY (i.e., created a different set of expectations). However, a book sold as “Chick Lit” doesn’t necessarily require a HEA (although some sort of romantic relationship as a major plot or thematic element is important) but the reader does expect at least one scene involving shopping for shoes and female bonding over ice cream (or something similar).

    I could go on and on about this (and have, at my lj and elsewhere) but I’ll stop there because this is your blog and not mine…

    • isabelcooper says:

      Oh, by all means do: I like the topic.

      Expectations is something that I was going to discuss in Part II, but basically I agree. And as a reader, I *like* that sort of thing, and support it, because sometimes I want to pick up a book and be sure in the knowledge that the ending will not involve everyone dying in, I don’t know, radioactive goo. (Actually, I pretty much always want that: it’s why I tend to look new SF authors up on the Internet, although the cover can be pretty indicative too. Old sayings aside.) I like that romance pretty much guarantees that sort of thing.

      Now, if only I could stop running into “fantasy” where the magic is actually technology, because ARGH, NO. “Not what I signed on for” is a major problem for me where fiction is concerned: yeah, yeah, leading the audience to expect one thing and having it be another is artistic and revolutionary and blah blah blah. It’s also very annoying.

  4. Patrick J McGraw says:

    Part II: Shut Up, Harold Bloom

    Izzy, what is your policy on internet marriage proposals?

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