Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre?

Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre?

When I recently wrote

Stephen King given National Medal of Arts

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,

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

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

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

of which I am a happy member.

According to this

Forbes post by Ryan Mac

and other sources, Google has hired some members of the team.

Does that mean Google is going to do a subser? Maybe.


Oyster website

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”

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!


Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


10 Responses to “Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre?”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I think genre is simply an attempt to give some sort of structure to literature, but unlike biology that fits fairly well into a taxonomy ranging from Kingdom through to Species, literature is messier. The first division I suppose would be Fiction vs Non Fiction. Then Fiction starts to branch off into categories like play, story, poem. Then we get another divide into comedy or tragedy. But in most tragedy there is comic relief, so things start to blur. And we get divisions by length such as anecdote, short story, novella, novel, trilogy, and those are fuzzy as well. Just when does a short story grow into a novella or a noella into a novel? Then we get to genre. That’s where the blurry, fuzzy categories start to really blend together. The oldest surviving stories probably started out as oral history, but as anyone who has ever played “telephone” knows, the more times a story gets told, the more it strays from the original, so history often grows into epic! Scary stories of dragons occur through all early literature. Was that simply history turned epic or imagination invents fantasy as a genre?

    No matter how we try to keep the lines dividing one genre from the next, somebody will create a story that combines them in new ways. The classic mystery stories have morphed in so many ways. We have hard boiled detectives both male and female as separate genres, and then married couple Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini have Sharon McCone and “The Nameless Detective” get together to solve a case. Jessica Fletcher spawns a plethora of cozy mysteries where the proprietors of locally owned businesses in thriving downtown shops in small towns manage to solve murder after murder usually because in the first book in the series same proprietor or a close friend is the suspect. Then those cozy mysteries get divided into bed and breakfast mysteries, or cupcake bakery mysteries, or consignment shop mysteries, and then the fanatasy crew joins in and we have cupcake shops owned by witches who solve local crimes. Not to mention the mysteries where cats play a starring role.

    Blurry, fuzzy, messy, but as the Vulcans say, “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      I suspect zoological classification is a lot messier than you imagine! There are lots and lots of arguments about what is a species or a sub-species, or what families exist, and so on. By the way, always remember the order through the mnemonic, King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup (Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species).

      There are different classification systems, but your hierarchy fascinates me!

      Fiction to Non-fiction…I can certainly see those as Kingdoms. But length before genre? Interesting!

      I would tend to group science fiction short stories and science fiction novels together more than science fiction short stories and mystery short stories…but I think many people would do it your way.

      As to the lengths…a lot of people use the Nebula Award count…you can see them here:

      Are plays versus poems versus prose a higher level than genre? Again, I would tend to put genre higher, but that may be just me. 🙂 I think R.U.R. (the play that coined the word “robot”) has more in common with War of the Worlds than it does with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

      Just offhand, I think I would do something like this for fiction:

      * Fiction versus Non-fiction
      * Genre
      ** There will be many divisions under genre…for example, for me, you might have fantasy – science fiction – military science fiction, and so on
      * Hm…I might go for form factor after that…prose, plays, poems

      Of course, there are a lot of hybrids. 🙂 Science fiction mysteries, for instance.

      “And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty…”

  2. Zebras Says:

    We need the categorization to keep our sanity in this new digital world of a seemingly endless amounts of books to choose from. However, I encourage everyone to read outside their same old same old comfortable genre. Read a mystery starring a cat, jump to a romance with a bed and breakfast, then a YA ,etc etc. I am surprised at how many different types of books I have enjoyed since the Kindle came into my life.

    • Lady Galaxy Says:

      So true! My favorite cat mystery series is the Magical Cats series by Sofie Kelly involving a librarian who helped oversee the renovation of a Carnegie library in a small Minnesota town and in the process acquired a pair of cats who, like Heinlein’s cats seem to walk through walls! For dog lovers, there’s Bailey Cates Magical Bakeshop Mysteries. The bakeshop is owned by a witch who has a dog for her familiar. Then there’s the Witchcraft Mysteries by Juliet Blackwell where the witch owns a used clothing store in Haite Ashbury or her Haunted Home Renovation Mystery series where a female contractor has the ability to communicate with the ghosts who hang around her construction sites. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, but I do enjoy the type of romances written by Susanna Kearsley. I’m not quite sure how to categorize Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. There are dystopian elements since it takes place in a world where genetically modified tomatoes bring forth a plague that kills off so many humans that the vampires, witches, pixies, banshees, werewolves, gargoyles and fairies are finally able to come out of hiding. All arembooks I discovered on Kindle. Or try modern westerns like the Longmire series by Craig Johnson, or the western short stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard. Or Southern Gothic classics by writers like William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, which is probably what started this discussion in the first place.

      And don’t forget to read a good children’s book from time to time. Children’s fiction is one of the best kept secrets in the world. Much of it is written on two levels, one that appeals to kids and another that appeals to the kid in us all.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        On your last point…I’ve always read putative children’s books, and I still do. 🙂 One obvious example is the Oz books, which I’m re-reading currently…but I read the Animorphs when our now adult kid was reading them, and I think Daniel Pinkwater is great!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks to writing, Zebras!

      Interesting that you suggest that structure contributes to sanity…and then suggest that people go outside of it. 🙂 “But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for…”

      I do try to bounce around…you might recall that I recommended to my employees when I managed a bookstore that they read one book from every section…and I did that myself.

  3. Phink Says:

    Bufo, you might be interested in this because it relates to the Echo. Wink has filed for bankruptcy and is for sale to the highest bidder. Just about a month ago I bought two of their smart egg trays. One for me and one for a Christmas present. It was no higher than a regular egg tray (was once $60, $70, something like that) and I love gadgety gimmicky things so why not. I thought you might want to know about Wink. Here is the egg tray I bought which most of my friends scratch their head over and shake their head as well LOL.

  4. Amazon’s 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] ** For my take on science fiction and fantasy genre definitions, see Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre? […]

  5. Why we geeked | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Content, tone, or intent: what makes a genre? […]

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