Genre (and why I hate the term literary fiction)

The desire to classify stuff is an integral part of the human mind. Perhaps it’s a convenient way of speeding along the thought process (is it type X? Then do Y, or think Z about it). Perhaps it’s simply that our monkey brains are obsessed with trying to find predictable patterns in a hostile world. Either way, there are few areas where the drive to slice up and divide is more apparent than in the field of literature, where we not only have the basic division between fiction (it’s made up) and non-fiction (it’s factual), but also an endless myriad of sub-divisions. Non-fiction is comparatively straight-forward in its division by subject matter, hence the existence of the Dewey Decimal System, but Fiction gets much much messier the closer you look, and pretty soon you’re falling down the rabbit hole known as genre classification.

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There is an argument that literary genre is purely a marketing mechanism. People often like specific types of story (or have convinced themselves to like a specific type of story), and certain labels have particular associations, good and bad. Anyone labelling their story as romance, or horror, will be orientating themselves  to a particular type of reader – normally one whose tastes are very set – at the expense of others. Publishers and authors can then play with that, depending on what niche readership they’re after (don’t like the label horror? Let’s call it dark fantasy or paranormal romance or a techno-dystopian thriller instead).

This argument does have a lot going for it. Calling the likes of Harry Potter YA Fantasy could certainly only ever be a marketing ploy, since it focusses more on the intended audience (in this case Young Adults) than on the actual content of the book. Call me a bit weird though, but I like my genre classifications to be, first and foremost, descriptive. You’re always going to have the odd-ball cases and certain works falling through the gaps (pot, kettle, black, I suppose), but at least the potential reader has a figurative map of what lies ahead, rather than depending on the dubious notion that all Young Adults have similar tastes.

This is all very well, you say, but how would you go about describing these divisions in practice? I prefer to describe things in terms of the possible. The rough dividing line (in my own brain) between Science-Fiction and Fantasy is that the former at least pretends to be scientifically plausible, while the latter cheerfully ignores conventional cosmic laws altogether. I’ll admit it can be a pretty grey and fuzzy divide at times – Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and E.R. Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars are technically Science-Fiction under this definition, but both function perfectly well as Fantasy. And while I said I like descriptive labels, I acknowledge that at some point the distinction becomes rather arbitrary. Does it really matter whether Zelazny’s demons are beings of physical energy or more classical mythological demons? No-one’s reading experience is going to be negatively impacted either way. That’s also why I’m also quite fond of the new umbrella term doing the rounds these days – Speculative Fiction. That way you can put out a front-window marker to potential readers saying “Here Be Weird Stuff” without necessarily having to go into multi-sentence detail or hair-splitting.

The one exception to all the above? The one attempted genre-label I really dislike being thrown at books? Literary Fiction. If we use it (as is generally the case) to refer to works of literary merit, then by definition it cannot be a genre in its own right, any more than really really bad works are a genre in their own right. If a book is good enough to be truly literary (in itself an age old debate of subjective reasoning and attempted imposition of objective standards), then there is no reason it can’t come from within those evil genres also. Alternatively, if Literary Fiction is really shorthand for character-driven or experimentalist modernist and post-modernist works (with a whole bunch of older works like Shakespeare and Dickens retrospectively shoe-horned into the canon), then it feels a tad arrogant to essentially proclaim one’s own genre inherently superior before even considering the respective merits of the actual works. Not least because Shakespeare and Dickens both wrote their share of Speculative Fiction themselves (the ghost of Hamlet’s father? The ghost of Jacob Marley?).

Ultimately though, I think genre classification is of much more interest to readers (and marketers) than it is to the writers themselves. Writers are also readers, so naturally develop an attachment to particular conventions, but I (for one) prefer to just follow the characters and see what happens. If it means you end up crossing boundaries, so be it. It’s the story that matters, above all else.

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