Lately I have been seeing some discussion regarding the subject of Genre that has grown acrimonious, with people whom I like and admire on various sides of the question.
I’m not going to link to any of the posts because if you’ve been following the discussions you don’t need me to point you to them, and if you haven’t, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
The way I see it, much of the conflict is the result of the fact that Genre, as a taxonomic schema, is desperately flawed. It has always been a marketing tool and is essentially reactive rather than proscriptive. It’s a single-valued way of assigning particular works of fiction to particular shelves in a bookstore, designed to be used by minimum wage employees.
Most of the current genres have been invented on the fly when a particular subset of fiction reached a critical threshold and spawned their own section in a shelving schematic. A novel that didn’t quite fit any of the pre-existing classifications sells well and spawns enough imitators that it becomes advantageous to stick a bunch of “just like” books together and *presto* a new genre.
Anne Rice writes a horror novel from the point of view of the monster and it gets big and we get “Paranormal Romance”. John Grisham writes a mystery told from the point of view of the lawyer trying the case and we get “Courtroom Drama”. And so on.
But no one is setting down and looking at the elements that make up fiction from a global perspective. I think it’s time that changed.
The problem as I see it is that, being single-valued, Genre can’t function as coherent discriminate function. “Western” is a genre that is defined by the setting–the Western United States during a particular historical period. “Romance” is defined by the sort of action that occurs during the course of the novel–a man and a woman fall in love. “Literary” is defined by a particular style of storytelling–poetic descriptive prose and an emphasis on psychological character studies rather than action.
But what if you have a lyrical love story set in Civil War era Utah? That’s where the whole concept of Genre breaks down. Taxonomically it’s a Literary Western Romance–which is exactly the schema that I am proposing.
I am suggesting a three-dimensional schema for classifying fiction. I would like to believe that adopting such a schema would end the Genre Wars, but I’m not quite so naive. But getting everyone on the same page would make it easier to keep score.
First level I am going to call Milieu. Where is the story set, and when does it take place? Existing Genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and Western are descriptors of a particular Milieu. They don’t tell you what kind of story it is, or how the story is told, just in what sort of universe the story takes place.
Second level I am going to call Theme. What is the story about? Mystery, Romance, Horror, Family Drama, all tell you what sort of events you can expect. Again, Theme isn’t limited to a particular Milieu or a particular Style. You can set a Romance in 30th Century Luna or a Mystery in the Oklahoma Territory in 1866. And you can tell such stories in a variety of ways.
Then we come to the level of Style. It’s the hardest to define, and likely to cause the most arguments. I’d call Literary, Pulp, New Wave, and Noir different Styles, but I am not going to try to define them here.
Now to bring this back to the current controversy. Above I used Science Fiction as an example of Milieu, and I think that it is most obvious when used such–you’ve got a story set on Space Station Omega, it’s pretty obvious that it’s set on Space Station Omega.
However, there is also a sense in which a story can be called “Thematic Science Fiction”–a story in which the action is primarily determined by the characters reacting to an advance in technology or exposure to an alien culture. And when one person is talking about Science Fiction as a Milieu while someone else is talking about Science Fiction as a Theme the discussion is going to go off the rails pretty quick.
This applies to other “genres” as well. One person may speak of a Western as being set in a particular time and place while another person will speak of a Western thematically or stylistically. Firefly is often given as an example of a Science Fiction Western (and I would expand it to Science Fiction/Western/Pulp).
Does this make sense? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t argue about the meaning of Science Fiction or Fantasy, but I would like to make sure that we’re arguing on the same level of meaning.