Today I want to talk to you about a topic that comes up often in the publishing world, and though casually used, it is rarely discussed in detail. I am of course referring to genre—the simple labels such as ‘romance,’ ‘fantasy’ and ‘thriller’ that are used to categorise novels of broad and (oftentimes) interlinked subject matter. I intend to answer the following questions. What is genre? And, to what extent is it useful?
Defining the Vague
The trouble with defining novels—or pretty much any artistic work—is that there are rarely any hard and fast rules, and this is because art is, by nature, fluid and complex. That said, in the writing world, one does find that many books do in fact share particular traits, clichés, and traditions.
Fantasy—my preferred genre—is often attributed to the works of JRR Tolkien, who defined the modern genre. I believe this is, to some degree, untrue; there have been many stories, especially in the oral tradition, that contained supernatural or fantastical elements, and these preceded The Hobbit by quite some time. (Indeed, Tolkien even based much of his world on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythopoeia.)
In any case, fantasy is a genre that is usually clearly defined. Firstly, there is magic of a sort—be it in the form of mages, dragons, undead, or any of the other multitudinous creations of fantasy authors’ minds. This is not quite the same thing as the supernatural or the paranormal: ghost stories and Molly’s own In Somnus are better examples of that.
On top of that, fantasy is usually set in a particular kind of world. Usually, this is a mediaeval or quasi-mediaeval European world; but the subgenre known as contemporary fantasy is set in a modern or futuristic world. There are abundant examples of both subgenres in the literature. My own novel is one of the former; and currently I am writing one of the latter. Well known examples I could cite would include Eragon or the Garthsea Quartet in the high fantasy genre, and the Mortal Instruments as contemporary fantasy.
Paranormal is a related genre, and it is defined by the existence of supernatural (though quasi-scientific) powers that characters possess. This genre is always set in a modern or futuristic world.
There are many other genres. Thrillers usually describe fast-paced, action-orientated crime novels: Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is the archetypal example. But, thrillers are not detective or mystery novels, which are much more slow-paced and feature quite different kinds of conflict and plot set-up. To confuse matters further, there are also so-called ‘historical thrillers’—a genre that I consider an oxymoron, since historical novels focus on complex social conflicts that are distinct from the kind found in thrillers.
There also exists a whole subset of romance genres. Young adult romance operates quite differently to novels that are aimed at adult readers; while your average swooning western is a rather different beast from hardcore erotica.
So we’ve established that clear differences exist. But surely there is also a lot of overlap? Both my novels and Molly’s include romance as part of a broader paranormal or high fantasy plot. Many thrillers (again I refer to the quintessential Dan Brown) also include romance. And one can find historical fantasy novels, or paranormal thrillers.
To Genre or not to Genre
Despite these overlaps, I believe genre remains a useful concept. For one, it is immensely useful in marketing: genres tend to appeal to certain readers, and this makes it much easier to target them with promotional material, review requests, ads, and what have you. This is the main practical justification of genre.
But there is also another justification, which is more contentious. Do genres improve writing? The argument goes like this: genres have a strong set of conventions, or perhaps ‘tradition’ would be the better word. They give writers something to work with. And, furthermore, they give readers something to work with, too. Experienced readers of fantasy are connoisseurs of a vast repertoire of ideas; this allows writers to create extremely complex and detailed worlds that would otherwise be difficult to carry across to a virgin audience.
The counterargument (and one that is especially made by proponents of ‘literary’ fiction) is that genre is stifling and limits creativity. I would argue that this is a misguided view, however; for the purpose of genre is not to act as a rigid, rule-bound straightjacket, but rather as a kind of literary tradition. And of course these traditions are not mutually exclusive—they can be combined in ‘cross-genre’ books. The novel I am working on right now, Fallen Love, is one such example. There are others.
Genre is a complex phenomenon with a varied history. Some genres have existed for a long time (see: 19th century romance, proto-fantasy fairytales) while others are much more recent (see: the paranormal genre, urban fantasy). Nonetheless, they all have one thing in common: they are a means by which readers can discover authors that write what they want, and by which authors can target readers who are interested in what they write. Genre also has a tradition, sometimes a long standing tradition, and this can provide additional depth to a novel.
As for the future of genre, that is a question which we cannot authoritatively answer in the present. But if there’s one thing I’m confident of, it’s that the future—in ten, one hundred, or a thousand years from now—will have genred fiction.
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