This is the piece I meant to write last Friday. That was when I was writing for twenty four, a magazine by and about creative professionals made from start to finish in twenty four hours. The theme of the issue was limits, and I wanted to write about the limits of genre.
And I did. And I didn’t. Because what I did write about was a very specific aspect of genre, when definitions of a genre reflect outdated technological limits rather than anything inherent to what makes a genre tick. But in a sense, that’s missing the forest for the trees, ignoring the biggest problem of genre.
But before we get into the bad, I should mention the good. Genre helps people understand, describe, and judge a piece of art. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on book genres, but understand that the larger point applies to all genres across all media.) Yes, in a platonically ideal world, each book would stand on its own, but the human brain doesn’t work that way. We think in categories, compare like with like, and naturally see patterns in the world. So if we liked, say, this mystery novel, we are more inclined to try other mystery novels. And reading a romance novel, we are more likely to judge it against the quality of other romance novels, and not against other novels generally.
That said, for all the advantages, there is a major disadvantage to genre, and that is that genre enables prejudice. By definition, genre allows people to judge a work based not on the specifics of the work, but based on their feelings towards the group to which that book belongs. This manifests in two ways, externally and internally.
Externally, genre allows people to dismiss genres based on the worst examples of it. People will refuse to read science fiction books because some sci fi books are juvenile male power fantasies, or they find fantasy books to be too long, and filled with hard to pronounce made up names. Superficial similarities can mask vast gulfs of difference in quality. Harry Potter, for example, is worlds away from Twilight, even if both are young adult contemporary fantasies. And if people find they like a book that belongs to a genre they tend to dislike, they say such and such a book “transcends its genre.” Never Let Me Go, for example, can’t be science fiction, because Never Let Me Go is very good. This can lead some people to be ashamed of the genre they enjoy, or write in, because they feel they have to defend the worst manifestations of that genre.
More insidious, to me, though, is the internal prejudices; the assumptions that a genre piece needs the superficial trappings of the most famous examples of that genre. It’s bad when writers think that sci fi needs to take place in the future or fantasy needs to be set in an alternate medieval Europe, because that stifles innovation generally. It’s worse when writers assume that sexism, racism, and other noxious elements are necessary parts of a genre.
The prejudice enabled by genre ignores that fact that genre can describe a setting or a plot or a format or a style or an audience, so a book can easily belong to multiple genres at once. John Scalzi’s Redshirts has a science fiction setting, a fantasy plot, a satirical voice, and contemporary audience. It could easily be called a humor book, or a heartbreaking drama, but because it is written by a science fiction author, and published by a science fiction house, and takes place for the most part on a space ship, it will be called science fiction and that’s the end of it.
The prejudice also ignores that genres are poorly defined at best and subjective in all cases. What I consider to be a fantasy book is not exactly what anyone else thinks of as fantasy. Or mystery. Or romance. What I like about a fantasy book is not exactly what anyone else likes. There’s a lot of overlap, sure, but not enough to make any universal judgements. Therefore, any prescriptivist statements about what is or is not part of a certain genre, and what we can infer about any work that claims to be part of a genre, will inevitably be proved wrong.
Genre is fine, useful, and good as long as it is understood to be shorthand, a convenient descriptor for now, the first way of approaching any work. It becomes a problem when it is the first and last way of judging a book. Genre is good as long as it is understood to be a part, and not the whole.