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The Genre Divide

As long as there have been books there have been categories for them, Fantasy-Faction itself is a site dedicated to a particular form of literature. But in recent years more and more novels are scraping at the borders of their neat genre boxes, they’re breaking out and twisting into new shapes, new stories. This brand of so called “hybrid fiction” includes matches like steampunk mysteries, western fantasy, paranormal romance, and scores of other combinations. They are the result of writers taking elements and ideas from different stories and combining them into something new. And for all this talk about creating hybrid books, haven’t writers always done that?

the library by DawnElaineDarkwood

The idea of genre categorisation can be useful in a number of ways, it can aid in academic research and study, it can help a reader to pick their next book, and it’s a vital tool for marketing. But have we now given genre conventions too much power? To look at a hybrid work with the idea of two separate genres together is to take the distancing perspective and to be aware that you are reading a book. A reader’s focus should be on the story where they can engross themselves in the writing, rather than seeing it as an example of a category. When a reader is truly absorbed in a book, the last thing on their mind should be what section of the shop to shelve it on.

I would actually question whether the genre divide even has a true place in a fully realised world of a story. If we ignore the external perspective of the reader outside the piece of fiction, looking at the story world in context, wouldn’t a fully developed world with suitable depth have the potential for any number of different stories?

Nautical Map by Artist UnknownLet’s say you’ve already done your worldbuilding and are ready to start your story. You haven’t skimped on the detail, around you are reams of data on the world; there are intricate maps, complex charts of political alliances, notes on the culture of civilisations, research on what jobs they would do and much more. After all that work the story world seems vividly real to the author, a dynamic and living place. With such depth there is great potential, it will be populated by all manner of prospective characters, and it is the author’s decision on what story from that world to tell.

Having laid the groundwork for a functioning and coherent world, the author might choose a scholar as their protagonist, perhaps the character studies in a wizard’s guild but gets kicked out? Yet he is still determined to learn and so the story becomes a classic adventure tale about magic. He might explore strange lands, face foes, and end up saving the world. But let’s pull back, what if the author were to choose one of the king’s advisors as their main character, an advisor who is actually a spy and serves on clandestine missions? Instead of an adventure tale the story would become a spy thriller, the plot might be full of political intrigue, devious plans, and forbidden romance. Let’s pull back again, instead of the scholar from earlier we pick one of his teachers at the wizard’s guild. This teacher happens to come across strange magical anomalies appearing in and around the guild. Perhaps something comes through, something that is immune to magic and the teacher must find a way to stop it. This story could easily take the format of a horror novel, and there’s nothing that says the teacher has to be successful.

Patrol by Mac-tireAs part of the vibrant and animated world the author has built, all these stories I’ve mentioned might be going on at the same time. What stories the author chooses to tell from their world can alter the nature of the book, and how we would classify it. In a fantasy story of mine I had a sergeant of the city watch on the hunt for some saboteurs from a rival city. From the perspective of the reader following his narrative it could be seen as a detective story. The character tracked down leads, searched for clues, investigated crimes, and his plotline largely unfolded like a detective story, even in the setting of a fantasy world. Yet that character was only one of four viewpoint protagonists whose narrative and plot arcs covered a wider story, one that would be genre classified as sword and sorcery or epic fantasy.

It boils down to perspective and how the reader engages with the story. Unless the author makes a stylistic choice the goal of writing is usually immersion. When looking at the story for its own sake, the idea of casting it in a genre only serves as a limitation and an imposition of an external viewpoint. By labelling it you might limit what kind of stories can be told and narrow the scope of the writing. An author with a fully realised world should be able to create fully realised stories with a great deal of depth and complexity. A world of sufficient detail will play host to detectives, scientists, politicians etc., along with all those characters’ stories that can be given life. A world like that would be the stage for events like wars, disasters, revolutions and discoveries.

Therefore, in a world that complex, where would you place the genre divide? At what point would the story be a melding of genres? Who defines genre category? From a contextual perspective within a medieval fantasy story a new type of smelting method to produce better steel or a formula for gunpowder might make the story equivalent to a sci-fi from the perspective of the characters, yet to the reader it would be historical.

Discworld by nicolscheThe story the author wants to tell has primacy, what the narrative focuses on determines the form of the story. With that in mind why bother drawing attention to genre concepts, why bother drawing the line? Some books make stylistic choices which show awareness of the book’s nature and genre conventions, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for example, but most novels are insulated and self-contained. The story should be enough of itself, capable of existing in a vacuum. If the author wants a story with steampunk robots, a crippled spy, and a romantic/messy love triangle, so be it, as long as the writing is good. The author should be telling their story and telling it well, concentrating on the parts of the world that they want, making it something the reader can enjoy.

Now, some works assume an external awareness of genre, I’ve mentioned Discworld for its use of humour and parody of tropes which rely on the reader’s awareness of the fantasy genre. Some might well say that an external awareness of genre can add to the reading experience. Think of the grimdark trend in fantasy writing, those readers who are aware of the fantasy cannon and its development might be able to enjoy those books both for their stories and for the technical appreciation of the development of fantasy. Those who are aware of genre conventions and tropes like the wise wizard or brave hero will be able to appreciate the twist in those characters in works like Abercrombie’s the First Law Trilogy. As a long time fantasy reader, I did enjoy the change of familiar ideas as I read the books.

all my books in a row by light thru my lensEven so, I think this need to so zealously categorise fiction might be getting excessive, a sign of capitalist marketing influences. A story world of realistic complexity will contain elements of all sorts of genres, and when you pick up the next sci-fi/portal/mystery/redemption/adventure, well, how long before you drop the labels and simply view it as a unique story in its own right? So, you’ve got a steampunk world, but if it’s detailed enough I imagine somewhere they’ll be a detective or two. In a future world full of cyborgs, the human half will probably still be looking for romance. If the author has done the prep work there should be the potential for anything, and while I do like to have an idea of a book before I buy, when I’m reading I want to be engrossed in the narrative. What establishes genre is an external perspective, but shouldn’t the focus be the words on the page? Those words are what I’m here for, so keep your labels off my stories.

Title image by schaduwlichtje.

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3 Comments

  1. Nicole says:

    Eloquent post, Aaron. You’re right – great storytelling elements can combine to create books that cross multiple genre labels. Those are usually my favorites!

  2. Incite-filled post. I agree with your prospective.

    For one, I did not see the need for yet another fantasy novel. So, I wrote a fantasy-ghost story, that will become more of a ghost story as we move into book two. It’s fun to speculate on what people thought of ghosts before the rise of true formal education.

    It’s also fun to do something different.

  3. JazzFeathers says:

    Enjoyed this post a lot 🙂

    I agree that when you read, the story should be so good that you don’t mind what genre it falls into. That’s what usually happens with good stories.
    But as an author, I think your position is slightly different. One of the first things you learn when you start taking writing seriously is that you should know who you write for. I’ve been a children’s writer for many years and I became very aware of my audience. When you write for children, the age of your audience is crucial, because one or two years may mean a difference in understanding plot twists. It is also quite well categorized into what boys like most and what girls like most.

    I’m talking about children’s story because this is a kind of narration you have to be particularly aware of your audience, but I think that’s true for every audience. Your audience will shape the way you present your story, the language you’ll use, the kind of twist you’ll use. Even the kind of characters and the overall kind of story. Say, if you’re writing fantasy, you are unlikely to use extensive stream of consciousness, for example. I don’t say you cannot do it, but I do think you’re unlikely to do it if you’re writing a fantasy and therefore you’re addressing a fantasy audience. Fantasy readers seek this kind of stories because they want adventures and imaginative places and cultures, they don’t much care for inner brooding, not as focus of the narration. If a reader is interested in inner brooding, they will go hunt for literary fiction. As author, you should be aware of that, otherwise your story can be brilliant as much as you want, but it will never find its own audience. And this mean it will never find its own life.

    So I do think that as an author, you should be aware of at least the macro genre your story falls into – or you should know your audience, which is the same thing. Besides, storytelling is communication, there will always be two sides to it, and each side should be aware of the other and share a minimum of knowledge in order to understand each other. They should also agree what they are talking about. To this extent, genre do help enjoy a story, in my opinion.

    But once you’re established the bases, I think you’re free to do whatever you want with your story. Once you’ve put your audience in the position to recognise you and your topic (in term of genre, but also of themes), what you do is up to you as author, and up to your reader whether to enjoy it or not, and that’s of course will depend on how good your idea is and how skillful your are in presenting it, no matter what course the story will fallow.

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