Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre?
When I recently wrote
the comments developed into an interesting discussion about genres with regular reader and commenter Lady Galaxy, and a comment I especially appreciated from Amy, who studies genre theory.
I know how I define at least one area of genres, and I thought about it a lot in the past.
However, in a situation like this, I always like to look at the references.
The dictionaries online actually have quite a fuzzy definition. They all agree that it has to do with similarity…but I saw a single source (Google, which does its own thing at the top or side of search results) that said it could be “…form, style, or subject matter”. If that’s an “or” (not an “and”), I would think almost any two books would be in the same genre. 😉
In the headline here, I listed “content, tone, or intent”.
The last one might seem weird, but it’s how a lot of people define horror. It’s a work which is intended to scare people.
That’s also how people define pornography, sometimes…that it is “intended to arouse”.
Now, I find intent to be an odd thing to judge. Legal cases often don’t even include motive as a requirement, since it’s very hard to prove what was inside someone’s head.
That’s why I’ve found it odd that people consider science fiction, fantasy, and horror to be a grouping.
Supernatural horror, sure…but psychological horror? Does Silence of the Lambs have a significant similarity to Sleeping Beauty? Well, the original versions of fairy tales, maybe…Cinderella, perhaps. 😉
There are certainly people who vehemently separate science fiction and fantasy. I can understand that…there are people who are great proponents of science and reject fantasy. Some of them are…I’m going to use the word “offended” by unicorns and dragons, and they don’t want that mixed up with tachyons and tesseracts.
For me, I prefer definitions that have to do with content…it feels more objective somehow. I also like the idea that someone could be technically part of a genre, while being recognized as a mainstream, respected writer. That may tend to make people rethink how they define the genre…they might respect something they didn’t respect before, and I like everybody to respect every group of people.
I refer to fantasy as a work presented as fiction which contains elements which are presented to the audience that would be impossible in consensus reality.
That works for me, but even that one takes some doing sometimes.
It’s the consensus reality part, for one thing.
Let’s take reincarnation.
My understanding is that the majority of people in the world believe in reincarnation. A novel written for an audience which believes in reincarnation and contains reincarnation would not fall into my definition of fantasy. However,
Max Ehrlich’s novel from 1973 which became a Michael Sarrazin movie (and which may be a movie soon from David Fincher)? Absolutely.
I felt like I needed to add the part about it being presented as fiction. When I managed a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I had at least one customer who would regularly move the Bible into the science fiction/fantasy section. I understand that was probably that person’s opinion, but the book isn’t presented as a fiction, so I wouldn’t put it there.
I consider science fiction as a subset of fantasy, as I’ve defined fantasy.
I sometimes say that “Science Fiction and Fantasy are subsets of fantasy”. In other words, fantasy is just a word, but Science Fiction and Fantasy are names.
When I separate those two narrower categories, science fiction is possible within accepted science (but could not have happened in our current consensus reality), and fantasy is impossible.
Well, science shouldn’t have things defined as impossible, but that’s another whole discussion. 😉
That gets strange, though…some things are presented as being science, but could just as easily be fantasy. Telepathy, faster than light travel (in physical spaceships, without wormholes and such)? Fantasy.
Star Wars was clearly fantasy to a lot of science fiction fans…although a “scientific” explanation was given for the most fantastic elements.
Here’s another tricky group: alternative history. Should that be included in fantasy? If you write a book where you speculate what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War II (you could have a whole bookstore section just for books with that premise), or that Tesla had beaten Edison, would that be fantasy? Would it be Science Fiction? It’s not impossible in the same way that alchemical transmutation might be, but it couldn’t have happened in our consensus reality. I do want to include those, personally.
I also include works where we readers think something is supernatural, and then it turns out it was a hoax or a mistake . I argue with myself about that one…
I would honestly think that what would matter to most people was tone. It’s not so much what the person intended, or the “factual” elements, but how it makes you feel. Could you have a romance that was just mean, even if its primary focus was love relationships? Would it still be a romance?
I’m not as worried about tone when I define things…although I’m much more of a lumper than a splitter. I probably should explain that. 🙂
It’s used in a lot of fields. Let’s take zoology. Lumpers tend to have fewer total species, and splitters tend to have more.
I want as many books as possible to fall under fantasy. Why? I think it’s because fantasy gets ridiculed, and there is strength in numbers. 🙂
There are lots of sub-genres, of course. People will include “space opera” and “military science fiction” as both being science fiction…they are a bit more descriptive, and help you predict whether or not you would like it.
Perhaps the real purpose of a genre…to do just that.
What do you think? How do you define genres? Do you even care, or is it that a book is a book is a book? Have you ever gotten mad to see a book “miscategorized? What are your favorite genres? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
UNRELATED BREAKING NEWS: thanks to a reader who sent me a heads up in a private e-mail. Oyster is reportedly shutting down its book subser (subscription service) after two years. I think subsers (“all you can read” for a set monthly or annual price) are a big part of the future of publishing…but I think Amazon bigfooted the market with
of which I am a happy member.
According to this
and other sources, Google has hired some members of the team.
Does that mean Google is going to do a subser? Maybe.
still touts how great the subser is, but the blog (available on that same site) says the following:
“With that, we will be taking steps to sunset the existing Oyster service over the next several months. If you are an Oyster reader you will receive an email personally regarding your account in the next few weeks. We look forward to sharing more details soon, but rest aassured, your account will continue to operate normally in the meantime. If you’d like to request a refund, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Looking at this, I think they really are planning todo some other things, and that this current structure just wasn’t working for them after KU established itself.
Will Scribd (the other big book subser) continue? Does this strengthen or hurt KU (I think the former)? Interesting…
Thanks to that reader!
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