Enough With This Genre Foolishness Already

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.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, Poetry, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Enough With This Genre Foolishness Already

  1. J. M. Ames says:

    People actually get upset about genre? Good lord I have for too many more important things to get upset about… Good article.

  2. I like it. Amazon has a start on that by letting us apply multiple categories to a book, but the practical issues are showing up in the recent ban on putting “romances” in SF. Having separate types of tags would help.

    An editor once proposed a five-fold breakout of genres which you might find interesting.

  3. JonM says:

    Solid attempt at providing an alternative classification framework, and it addresses my biggest concern. We need taxonomies to help describe things, and it’s not enough to jettison one. I’ve been more patient than most in waiting for my fellow bomb throwers to get to that point in the discussion, but it’s taken longer than expected because people keep acting like people and getting distracted by shiny stuff like turf and personalities and whatnot.

    (And I do not exempt myself from any of this criticism. I revel in it, matter of fact.)

  4. pcbushi says:

    I think one of the most important parts of the issue is one you pointed to at the beginning of your piece here: “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.”

    It’s all well and good for literary critics and book bloggers to go back and forth about genre or to try and come up with their own conventions (in so saying, there’s nothing wrong with yours – it makes sense and could work). The problem is the public at large, we normal schmoes, need common reference points and terminology. It’s easy for me and my friend to talk about “science fiction” or “sword and sorcery.” Or we can say “Hey I just read this cool book that’s kind of a “fantasy, detective noir blend, but it also has spaceships.”

    It could just be that I’m lazy or because I’m not deep enough into this scene, but I just don’t have the patience to learn what exactly characterizes “blue/pink/red/yellow/green” scifi or to explain to my friend that he’s wrong when he refers to the “Golden Age of Scifi,” even though I know exactly what he means. I’m not saying there’s no value in debating this stuff or pushing for your preferred terms (I do think the burying of pulp is a damned crime), but this level of pedantry can get in the way of expediency of communication, which is something some of us really value.

  5. Dave Higgins says:

    Based on the experiences of librarians with whom I’ve discussed the issue, the major problem is – as pcbushi says – that a book has to be shelved somewhere: bookshops have it easier with X copies in stock, and online retailers don’t have to care; but a library probably has one copy, which has to go somewhere that the greatest number of people will find it.

    So – while your structure is more useful in some circumstance – I’d suggest we need two taxonomies: one that describes the book with overlapping terms for discussing similarities and searching online; and a simple system with a few as possible (say Mysteries&Thrillers, SciFi&Fantasy, Romance, General) that gets most readers to sort of the right place most of the time, for use in physical shelving.

    We’ll probably never get rid of the people who get offended because, for example, A Handmaid’s Tale is in the “wrong” place, but they’ll get offended if it shows up for the “wrong” set of search terms in addition to whatever they think it should be.

  6. lewpuls says:

    Single-value is rarely going to be very accurate. This made me think of genres in games. In tabletop, that’s usually a reference to the format, RPG, Euro, wargame, CCG, minis, etc. In video games it’s usually a reference to the nature of the activities the player is involved in, shooter, action, RPG, RTS, “adventure”, puzzle, and so forth. Either way, you lose a lot of the nature of the game.

  7. lurkingintheshadowshonestreviews says:

    Good concept. There will always be people that won’t like it. I find it very interesting that there are discussions like this, but people will be people. So, to further this discussion, so I understand your meaning, how would classify your works? The Book of Lost Doors, is unlike anything I’ve read before. I liked it, but couldn’t place it.
    I also agree with what Mr. Higgins stated earlier. There would need to be two categories. One for author/readers and one for the store/library shelves.
    Good article.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      My own work? Contemporary New Wave Drama, maybe?

      • lurkingintheshadowshonestreviews says:

        Interesting. Not what I would have called your work, but everyone sees things differently. Might be the crux of the situation.

      • Blume says:

        I think lurker is right and the heart of the matter is writers defending their territory. For instance literary writers want it to be a status and not a style. There are also many styles ranging from minimalist to lyrical currently embraced by the genre.

  8. Chris says:

    One thing’s for sure, and your post bears this out – the SFF Lexicon, in general has some severe problems, always has. Not just in settling on the terminology, but the way that terminology gets used and abused

  9. Pingback: A Conversation With S.H. Mansouri – castaliahouse.com

  10. Pingback: Genres vs. Descriptors – A Better Way?

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