Genre, Part II

After a brief break to discuss some dudes who may or may not be made of iron, more on genre!

This is the touchier bit, so I should note beforehand that I’ll be away for the weekend. If I don’t respond, it’s not because I hate you and your cat, but rather because I’m in New Hampshire being attacked by friends of mine dressed up as zombies–yes, I LARP, I’m a geek like that–and also by some truly frightening mosquitoes. (Last time, I lost three pounds, and I think it was all blood.) I mean, hopefully I will handle this with tact and diplomacy, but you never know, with me.

The thing is, I find genre pretty damn useful, because I know my tastes and will cheerfully indulge them. I like some sort of fantasy or supernatural element; I like historical settings; I do not like Downer Endings (thank you, TV Tropes).  Sometimes, I can go off of already existing authors or friends’ recommendations to get all of the above*, but I read fast, people only publish so many books a year, and sometimes I’m standing in a train station looking for reading material and need some guidelines.

Yes, sometimes a recommendation or whatever will take me outside my preferences*, and that’s good. But Earth really is full of things, as the King of All Cosmos reminds us, life is short, and the MBTA is not known for its patience, so having a smaller category in which to look is a good thing. Honestly, so is anything that increases the chances of me reading more of what I like.

Except, and here’s the touchy part, that genre as a concept carries with it a lot of baggage, particularly certain genres. Which is not to say that life as a genre reader or writer is sooo hard and nobody understands me, blah blah annoying use of the word “mundanes” blah blah, because that sort of thing also bugs me, but I do write for two categories–romance and fantasy–that get a fair amount of sniffiness from time to time, and it bugs, and I have at times responded to “Why don’t you try writing something that’s not fantasy?” with “Why don’t you try BITING ME? It’s fun!”** So I am not exactly a detached and impartial observer here.

I’m more cranky, honestly. Because genre does not and never has correlated to quality, and people have all kinds of different factors involved in their choices of media, and much as I’m actually quite judgmental personally, I think that we could all do with a little less conflation of “stuff I like” with “stuff that’s good”. (And even of “stuff that’s good” with “stuff that people ‘should’ be reading”: there is a place in life for the mental equivalent of circus peanuts.) And yes, there are books with let-us-say-“problematic”-because-this-is-my-tactful-blog approaches to race, sex, sexuality, etc, and there are or were standards in the industry that did not help in that regard, and these are topics that can and should be discussed and acknowledged. It’s also fine to think and say that a work is bad, of course***, or to not personally care for a particular style of music or literature or TV.

However, genres–of music, of books, of whatever–are great big categories, they say nothing about the writing or composing ability of someone working in them or the mental state of someone who prefers them, and making statements like “meh, rap sucks” or “horror is not good literature” shows the person behind them in a worse light than whatever it is they’re complaining about.

 *It depends on the factor: it’s relatively common for me to read modern or original world fantasy, reasonably so for me to read non-supernatural historical books, but I almost never go for anything that’s depressing.

**Okay, I didn’t actually do that, because we didn’t get to reply to comments in creative writing class, and that…was probably why. Because I would also have gone on to ask why the person in question didn’t write about something other than angsty teenagers being angsty, and frankly, our discussions devolved into back-and-forth sniping half the time anyhow, and the TA didn’t really need more. Poor TA. Poor, kind of cute, TA.

***Although there’s a time and a place. I had a blind date once who–after monologuing for an hour about his favorite TV show–asked me what I liked. I said, among other things, The West Wing, and he promptly looked at me like I’d just suggested eating three-day-old egg salad. “I hate that show! Everyone’s too witty and bright–it’s so unrealistic!”

Rather than giving the obvious snarky answer, I tried to get my English Major on and said that I rather liked a more stylistic approach to dialogue, at times, but that certainly TWW probably wasn’t what you’d be looking for if Gritty Realism was your thing.

To which he huffed back “Well, people just don’t talk that way!”

And I suddenly realized that, while I’d had a truly lovely time, I had to work early the next morning, what a shame, have this firm handshake, goodbye.


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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 Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master 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.

11 thoughts on “Genre, Part II”

  1. This is precisely my problem with the Genre Ghetto. I’m sick and effing tired of people automatically deciding that X is not “proper writing” just because it includes sex/robots/zombies/a dragon. Shit, dude, if you have to make up a category called “magical realism” to make yourself feel better about what you’ve written, you’re doing it wrong (ie, get over yourself and admit that genre can have power and credibility, rather than engaging in an admittedly entertaining series of yoga-like backbends to make sure everyone knows YOU don’t write FANTASY) .

    SF/F isn’t crap; it often tells us MORE about ourselves and our world than your high-falutin’ drama-llama novels of woeful woe, because allegory is almost always more powerful than lecture.

    And you know what? Even if it doesn’t Have Something To Teach Us, it has a place. Because everyone needs some braincandy sometimes, and sometimes I just want a little robot in my peanut butter.

    1. I definitely agree with the last. There’s a pernicious line of thought that says, roughly, that everything must have a purpose and entertainment doesn’t count. I blame the Puritans, who can retroactively shut up. For one thing, we don’t learn only from stuff that sets out to teach a lesson or be artistic; we pick information and moral lessons up from anywhere. For another…entertainment keeps us sane. The chance to go outside ourselves for an hour or two and forget the problems we can’t do anything about, or come to the ones we can theoretically solve from a fresh perspective, is both extremely valuable and extremely undervalued. Because God forbid you be frivolous!

      Shut up, the Puritans.

      I’m with Hapax on the magical-realism-as-genre-of-fantasy, but I have also seen too many people say that it doesn’t count, which…okay, I can see that from a standpoint where you have to deal with how books are promoted, and wanting to reach a large audience, and having too much of the country associate fantasy with guys-with-magic-swords-killing-stuff–not that there’s anything wrong with that, I add, eyeing the 4E rulebooks–you might be wary. But that comes down to the whole “stop thinking that genre=bad” thing, and it’s a self-reinforcing cycle, and it sucks.

  2. SO with you. I have a colleague who believes that, as teachers, we ought to be promoting “good” literature, where “good” means “not fantasy.” I cannot stand this man, and we’ve had lots of rather pointy conversations. Turns out he’s never even read a fantasy novel.

    My stance as a teacher of lit is that everything has value, even if it’s minor and easily overlooked.

    1. More or less, yes. There are books where the offensive or hamhanded material outweighs anything good, and those that just fail to engage. Though I suppose even those have value, in a “how not to do it” sort of sense.

      And people who dismiss genres without even reading them…bah.

  3. Umm. Where is the “touchy” bit? Everything you said here makes good sense and seemse (forgive me) Dumb Obvious. You mean people still have to be TOLD this sort of thing?

    Although, @ Kate above — I wouldn’t say “magic realism” is “fantasy pretending that it isn’t”. I’d say it’s a particular subgenre of fantasy, like “urban fantasy” or “sword and sorcery”, and a useful designation at that. If someone tells me that they want to read more books like WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, I can instantly call up my mental “magical fantasy” checklist and ask them if they’d like to try THE GOOD MAYOR.

    1. @ hapax: You’ve obviously seen different takes on magical realism than I have. Personally, I’d call it a subgenre of fantasy, but most of the people who WRITE it seem to have different opinions. “Yes, I have ghosts and magic-y things happening, but this is not at all fantasy! Not in the least! I am a Big Srs Writerperson and couldn’t possibly have any truck with that fantasy nonsense! So let’s make up a new category instead of calling a duck a duck!” is what I see more of, at least in reviews of such things.

      1. One of the things that occurs to me, as someone writing a story that involves the occasional conversation with ghosts and similar things is the question of how prevalent such elements need to be before it becomes a fantasy novel rather some other kind of story with some fantasy elements. Or does any presence of such elements at all put it into the fantasy genre? Would that possibly make it a multi-genre book?

        And bear in mind that I actually love fantasy and would have no problems with someone considering my story a fantasy story. Well, other than the fact that I’d find it a bit odd considering that I believe the “fantasy elements” in my story to be things that can and do happen in reality. 😉

      2. Oh, good question!

        If I were deciding–and bear in mind that I never get to officially decide these things–I’d say that it crosses the line into being fantasy when the ghosts and so forth become intrinsic parts of the plot. Like, if you’re writing a mystery and the ghost shows up at the end to thank the plucky detective for catching his killer, that’s probably non-fantasy mystery, but if the detective spent most of the book talking to the ghost, and there was a fair amount of stuff about how the afterlife worked or what the ghost could do, it’d probably straddle the line.

        Hard to say. I know I’ve read at least one non-paranomally-classified romance where the characters kept having visions of the people who’d died in a particular house, for example. I think ghosts *in particular* are weird, because there are a lot of people who do believe in them, for some variants of “ghosts” and “believe”, so they don’t automatically hit the fantasy tag. Get vampires involved, though…

    2. Thanks!

      And it is kind of sad: it’s a bit like those times I pick up Cosmo at the gym and they have an entire article about why it’s okay to be single, and I’m all “…seriously? This needs article space? In the twenty-first century?” and then the general disgust for humanity gets me through a workout pretty well.

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