Updates Fridays

Genre. Again.

Yes, I’m going to keep musing about genre now. If you are bored out of your mind by this discussion, feel free to skip this post.

So last week I made the statement that I do believe genre to be a useful tool. But what the heck did I mean by that? Is genre supposed to be “useful?” What do we use it for?

Alright, let’s take a step back. What is this “genre” thing we are talking about anyway?

Genre. From the French word meaning “kind” or “sort”, which in turn stems from the latin genus. Which of course is the same word we use in taxonomic classification of biological organisms. You remember your high school biology, right? Tournefort? Species, Genus, Family, Oder, Class, Phylum, Kingdom?

That’s interesting, right? The idea of looking at genre as a sort of taxonomy of literature. It’s very intriguing in an abstract, theoretical sort of way. But is it useful? Maybe for bookstore clerks and marketing people. But for the rest of us? Not really.

Maybe we should come at this thing from a different angle. Okay, so who came up with this idea of classifying literature, anyway? Oh, right, the Greeks. Back in the good old days when there were only two genres, comedy and tragedy. For the Greeks, the genre of a play or a pome was not about whether or not it was going to have a happy ending: genre defined the patterns of language that were used, the very boundaries of the stories that could be told. At the beginning, genre was codified to an extent that modern audiences would probably find confining to the point of stripping all artistic merit out of a story, but back then it was the structure that gave art merit in the first place.

Things have changed. Genre has changed, just as audiences have changed. But I think I’ll save that discussion for another post.

So, what does genre actually do for us? Well, I would say that genre conventions help audiences set their expectations appropriately, and assist them in making sense from the chaotic and unpredictable world of art. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article for that last part, but I think it gets closer to the heart of the matter then anything else we have touched on so far.

We use genre to help us orient ourselves, to set rules and boundaries and figure out what to expect from a story. But that’s a little abstract, so maybe we should consider some examples.

Years ago I was briefly a member of a writer’s group made up of complete strangers who happened to meet near my apartment in Brooklyn. It didn’t really strike me as a problem at first that I was the only person there doing genre work. (Which I suppose is actually a confusing term in the context of this post. People used to call anything that wasn’t “literary” fiction “genre” fiction: that included sci-fi, fantasy and horror, but also things like romance and mystery. The term is falling out of use now that people have realized that having genre themes doesn’t exclude a story from being “literary,” aka, good. But I digress.)

What I mean is that in this rather large group (fifteen or so people, which is too many for a writer’s group), the majority focused on either memoir or personal essay. I think one guy was doing some sort of historical fiction, and there was this one poet. But that was it.

Anyway, I didn’t realize what a problem this would be until I brought the first chapter of a fantasy novel I was working on to the group for critique. In the story, an old war in which mages had used magic to create WMDs had left the world contaminated with patches of what was basically magical fallout. In the first chapter, my main character was doing some looting in a heavily contaminated area, using a magical protective suit to keep her safe. I described the suit, a collection of heavy leather garments complete with helmet, goggles and face mask that left no inch of skin exposed, and every piece of which was heavily inscribed with magical runes.

And one of the guys in the group reads this and says “I don’t understand how leather can keep out radiation.”

Out loud I said something like “okay, interesting feedback” but inside I was thinking “oh wow, I’ve never met anyone before who didn’t know what fantasy was.”

And that is exactly what genre is for. We need it to help us define the rules. If I’m watching an episode of CSI and they suddenly realize that the area might be contaminated with radiation and someone is like “oh, it’s okay, I’m going to put on this leather suit to protect myself” I’d have a serious problem with that. But if it’s a fantasy story, and it’s magical contamination, and the leather suit is covered in magical runes, then okay, we’re good to go.

Another example: if we are reading a story that we understand is not science fiction, and a character comes running into a room screaming “oh my god, I just saw an alien!” our expectation is that everyone else in the room has to start dealing with the crazy person. But if we know the story is sci-fi, we won’t be confused when all they do is ask “where?” and grab their guns. If we deviate from this pattern, we will confuse our reader, and if that isn’t the point of your story then you’re likely to lose your audience entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it when a story skillfully undermines my expectations and actually uses genre tropes to surprise me and challenge my preconceptions. But that has to be done skillfully. If you just ignore the expectations that your audience is going to have, then all you’ll do is confuse and frustrate them.

Funny thing about people: we sometimes seek out stories that make us frightened, or angry, or sad, or other “negative” emotions that you would think would be undesirable. But no one wants to be frustrated, not ever. It just sucks.

Okay Anna, that’s all well and good, but what’s your point?

I think my point here is that genre is a tool that a writer can use well or poorly. It can be challenged, and undermined, and subverted, but not ignored. And yet we rarely think about it directly or look at it critically.

It’s very likely that this discussion is going on somewhere in the world and I’m just not aware of it. If that is the case then I would love someone to clue me in. But the few places I’m aware of where people are talking about these things, they aren’t saying any of the things that I’ve been thinking about.

All of which translates to a warning that there is probably going to be a third post on this topic next week. Sorry/not sorry.