On Genre, Part II: the future of genre

Sunday February 28, 2010 @ 05:15 PM (UTC)

I’ve been trying to write adequate responses to the fabulous comments I’m getting on my first post in this series, a very brief manifesto. And, as I rather feared, my responses are growing into blog posts. So here we go.

Eric A. Kugler writes in his comment:

I think the problem comes down to the human need to label and package everything and put it into its proper place. Genre is simply a way for people to keep track of stories. The literary is simply another genre to those of us who simply read books, rather than publish them.

To an extent, I agree. Genre is quite artificial, relatively recent, and obviously confining. I do believe the current “literary novel” is a genre in itself. Witness my “literary is a genre” tag here, and my literary-is-a-genre shelf on Goodreads1.

I wouldn’t suppose, however, that literary isn’t a genre in the mind of those who publish books. I very much believe it is. Because genre is about marketing. Genre is a way of classifying books so that you can sell them more readily. While I haven’t read a history of genrefication, I’d imagine it’s a consequence of the number and diversity of books that existed, say, in the mid-twentieth century, widely distributed. Some system for determining which titles were of interest to which readers was a public good. A system for telling a reader who enjoyed The Puppet Masters they might like Dune probably seemed logical, even helpful to the consumer (as well as to the publisher.)

The 1977 Star Wars movie poster
Genre, we all know, isn’t just a category on a library’s card catalog. It’s a way of marking things. Covers with rockets or exploding spaceships, in the 1950s and today, mark a book as science fiction. Look at the original poster for Star Wars: A New Hope. If you’d never seen that movie, you’d know the genre instantly, from a dozen details (including those that don’t entirely represent Princess Leia as she appears on film.)

So genre allows a product to reach its desired audience, the publishers sell books, what’s the trouble? Two sources of trouble to start with. In another comment to my first On Genre post, Philip Palmer writes “there’s a tendency to assume that labelling the genre of the piece is a black & white/either-or process. But most novels belong to SEVERAL genres.” The strict genre system serves these novels poorly, as it does books which are hard to place firmly in any genre at all. When you use marketing to shape readers’ expectations, betraying those expectations is a bad idea. So you may end up with frustrated readers who bought the cover and don’t like the book, or a great book may languish unpublished or poorly marketed because it didn’t fit neatly.

The second big problem, I’d say, is that ‘literary’ has become, as we said above, a genre. Maybe it wasn’t in the mid-20th century, but now it is. While it’s more subtle than an exploding spaceship, I can tell you without having read the two books at right that they are the same genre. I could have found a much closer match if I’d looked further. Why is “literary” being a genre a problem? Because “literature” is also a pursuit and an ideal. “Literature” is a laudatory term, and having a genre name that’s a value judgment is a disaster. Just try discussing whether U2 makes “rock music” with someone who hates U2 and thinks “rock” is a laudatory term. It also has to do with marked/unmarked status, I think, but that discussion’s too big to add into this already epic post.

“Literary” has two meanings: One, high-minded, pursuing the act of writing as an act of art, trying to increase understanding and beauty in the world. Two, realistic or occasionally surreal, written with attention to language, telling a story that could happen, using a minimum of adverbs. The confusion of the two is poisonous, and leads to moments like the one I touched on in my first genre war post, when a young English teacher told me that “science fiction isn’t literature.” He didn’t think science fiction was high-minded and artistic (except when he did) so we stood there, me listing work after work whose merits he could not deny: Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Rings; and he insisting these were not science or speculative fiction. This is exactly what another of the commenters, Casey Samulski, noted: “…a critic will retroactively reclassify something as ‘not SF’ when it has reached a certain status, thinking it impossible for the two to inhabit the same space.” Circular logic, faulty thinking.

I said then, as a teenager (even though at the time I believed that by this age I’d have a doctorate in paleontology and only be writing science fiction on the side) that one of my life goals was to take some bricks out of that wall, the wall between the literary and the science-fictional.

There is good news about that wall. While Margaret Atwood did, as Philip Palmer notes in his comment, say some abrasive things about science fiction, she does admit to writing “speculative fiction”, which is a distinction even SFF grognards might make. Michael Chabon’s stunning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I lauded here, joins other works by him in receiving praise and readers from both sides of the wall. He seems to embrace both sides of his literary heritage. More and more, the surreal and the speculative is creeping into the ‘literary’ mainstream. While there are aspects of this I find troubling and appropriative (more, perhaps, on that later), it may be, as a very smart friend of mine (an academic and spec fic fan) has predicted, that the Hemingway/Carver era of literature is at an end, and only the speculative can ask the questions literature wants to ask next.

I’d like to tie that possibility back into my discussion of genre as marketing earlier. You’ll notice that the situation has changed a lot since the days of the simple genre division and the rocket on the cover. We have even more books, even more widely available. In spite of tax codes in the U.S., we have a Long Tail of books still being sold that were published decades ago, as well as new books coming out all the time. The publishing world seems largely to be adjusting to this by continuing to split. We have more subgenres now, like urban fantasy (tattooed woman with weapons on the cover), literary science fiction (trade paper back, abstract cover), et cetera. The mix of small categories and large can be confusing to consumers — while I won’t link it, I recently saw a reader complaining that there were “too many female writers in sci-fi” because when he clicked on “sci-fi/fantasy” he saw mostly urban fantasy covers.

I’d argue that it’s time to move away from genre and subgenre, even in an economic sense. They may still be useful if we make them less restrictive: as Philip Palmer points out, novels can have many genres. Sure, let’s label books, but let’s not put them in exclusive parts of the bookstore, segregated by shelf. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about folksonomy before, so I’ll keep it to a minimum here, but tags add information instead of reducing scope. Tags are freeform and encourage creative thinking. Lets use genre and subgenre as tags, not categories.

Which brings me to my final point. People are always talking about the effect of the internet on publishing, but often in terms of physical books vs. digital media. I have to care about that because I hope to have my own books published in the future, but I’m more interested in how the internet will affect how we choose and discuss books (which in turn affects marketing). I am a member of LibraryThing and Goodreads, and I am delighted by the rich social exchange over books that I see on those sites. I can see what my friends are reading, what they think of it, read reviews they’ve written. I can get a sense of people’s tastes, how well or poorly it aligns with mine, and let that figure in to how I choose books. It’s not about genre. It’s about the individual reader and the individual book. Publishers do use the individual book in marketing — look at how many books have covers reminiscent of Twilight‘s admittedly beautiful cover design — but I hope that in the future they’ll do so even more. The information readers can add to the system – tags, reviews, personal recommendations to friends – is precious.

Marketing’s never going to go away, as long as it works. (And it does work. I wanted to buy Indigo Springs as soon as I saw that cover, though I suppressed the urge until I met and liked the author, too.) But I hope in the future, restrictive definitions of genre — and especially value judgments based on it — will take a backseat to a web of preference, similarity and serendipity.

Serendipity and possibility have always governed my reading. That’s the feeling that makes me tingle when I walk into a vast bookstore. The knowledge that half2 the books I love are in the Yellow Room and half in the Blue? That makes me feel something too, but it’s definitely not a tingle.

1 I have put books in this category which I feel guilty for shelving so: I can’t help but feel that Dickens, and even Fitzgerald, shouldn’t be drawn into a fight that is rather after their time.

2 This is figurative. I don’t know actual percentages, and I love a fair number of nonfiction books too.


Interesting exploration, Felicity. There’s a lot in here I hadn’t really thought about.

On a forum elsewhere, I was discussing the slow, bleeding death of Brick & Mortar™ stores for published works. It occurs to me reading this in close proximity that there is an important relation between that topic and this one.

You say:

“Sure, let’s label books, but let’s not put them in exclusive parts of the bookstore, segregated by shelf.”

and Lo!, look at labels in Gmail, and hashtags in Twitter, and so on. The internet is shifting like an avalanche from categorization to tagging. And freed from the one-to-one correspondence between a physical object and its location in category space, a book can have many labels.

But within the walls of a B&M bookstore out there today, a specific copy of a book can be in only one shelf at a time. It can have only one label.

And so we have yet another reason why the process of printing books, THEN distributing them, THEN selling them must necessarily die. We will instead see stores, quite possibly with physical B&M locations, that have no shelves full of books, but rather displays full of covers, and synthesize books through on-demand-print and digital transfer so that until I have finished buying the book, it doesn’t have material existence. And freed from material existence, it can be in many places at once. It can keep all of its labels.

of AS Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, in which Byatt plays with the ideas of genre: romance, literary mystery, Victorian novel, even poetry. It’s definitely a book that pushes boundaries, even jokes around with them a little, which is why I like it (and her speculative short stories, like the one about the mermaid and the sea monster) more than anything else she’s written.

Poetry, too, is a genre that most people think of as “realism,” but there is a lot of good speculative poetry out there, more all the time.

I think I’ve said this before, but writers like Kelly Link and Haruki Murakami represent, to me, the future of literary writing – hybrids of the real and the imagined, folklore and pop culture.

Good. I hate Hemingway. You write so well, btw, I come close to being distracted from your point. Could also be because I am much less knowledgeable in this area, of course.

In working at a bookstore we had a game when we were sorting books where we’d give a title and see how many “genres” it could possibly work under. Sounds utterly dull when typed, but was actually quite entertaining

“. . . it may be, as a very smart friend of mine (an academic and spec fic fan) has predicted, that the Hemingway/Carver era of literature is at an end, and only the speculative can ask the questions literature wants to ask next.”

I’ve been hearing this a lot lately from people who are grown weary of books that only whine about angst and seem to have nothing to say. I wish you’d heard Molly Gloss at the most recent residency. She had a lot to say about what SF can do and where it can go.

And while I am ranting, I am so weary of people who never read SF or fantasy making judgments about what it’s like. And when Atwood (how can Handmaid’s Tale be anything but SF?) was in Portland with Le Guin and Leguin asked her what she thought SF was, Atwood starting citing films and Le Guin just sighed, “Oh, media.”

I wish I’d gotten to see Molly’s talk too, but I got to chat with her about the topic beforehand, so there is that!

Yes, the tendency of people to dismiss or categorize spec-fic without reading it is definitely a pet peeve of mine. Also, people starting to try to write it without reading any!

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