Genre: The Big Myth?

Genre: The Big Myth?

As I have been writing in genres I didn’t expect to recently (horror, erotica), I thought I would post about the thorny subject of genre itself. I have always thought that it is some kind of mythical beast, or maybe a set of beasts, put on earth to enslave us. Along with the idea of there being a literary ‘canon’, genre prescribes to us what we should and shouldn’t like. Some might find this a controversial idea I know. But we all love a bit of controversy don’t we?
The literary canon is the idea that somehow some writing is definably better than others. To me this is at best laughable and at worst arbitrary. Many will hate me for saying this but my example is Shakespeare. Now the plays of the bard are seen by many, if not most, as being the pinnacle of writing, especially of plays and use of the English language. They seem to be lauded by all and endless theses are written by lofty academics about them. The question is about how such claims are judged. Well it’s simple. We believe they are the best plays because we are told they are the best plays. Told by ‘experts’, who have decided it to be so for us.
There are many problems with this approach. Firstly it leads to elitism. The idea that some art is automatically better than others. The idea of ‘high art’ or ‘high culture’, as opposed to more populist ‘low culture’. For example: Is Shakespeare’s work actually better than the script of a soap opera? All art is subjectively judged. We are active beings; we can actually decide for ourselves whether we like something or not. I would argue that more people don’t like Shakespeare than do. Maybe that is something to do with how we were often put off by it at school!
To be fair none of this means I don’t think Shakespeare is good, I just don’t get why he is so highly regarded. Why is he thought to be the ‘best’ by so many people? We don’t even know for sure that he wrote those plays, although we do know that the influence of those plays is almost endless. For me Shakespeare is best appreciated in the theatre. There it comes alive. And how few people have actually done that?
However just because something is popular doesn’t make it necessarily good. We can all think of things we hate to watch, read or listen to that lots of others love. Soaps for example drive me to distraction, yet millions watch (Eastenders anyone?). Care to share any examples? Justin Bieber??
All of this leads into the idea of genre. Genre too is tainted with the ideas of the literary canon. All art is equal but some genres are more equal than others. ‘Literary’ fiction is the highest in the charts of worthiness. It must be a very very good book if it is listed for the booker prize or some other marketing tool masquerading as a contest. Many great books are not even considered for such prizes. For example Kim Stanley Robinson (highly regarded SF author) argued that Adam Roberts book ‘Yellow Blue Tibia’ should have won the 2009 booker prize. It wasn’t listed, probably because it was labelled as ‘Science Fiction’. Now, that book has science and fiction and even parodies science fiction in it. BUT it is about so much more than simply that! (Read it it’s great!)
Genres other than ‘literary’ fiction often are seen as less serious, which in turn means less good, less well written. Genres like ‘romance’, ‘chick lit’ (sic), ‘crime’ as well as ‘SciFi’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘horror’. It’s almost like we could put these labels into a league of worth; of merit? I wonder which would come bottom of the league? ‘Erotica’? ‘Thriller’? ‘Airport novel’? What do you think? Can you write that league?
I do realise that genres exist to aid the reader (consumer?) to wade their way through the billions of books and ebooks out there. To help them narrow down the search for that elusive ‘page turner’ that will change their lives. The canon too, I guess, gives us pointers to those ‘classic’ works which many, many of us have cherished and loved. It allows every new generation to marvel at them. But I wonder too, how many ‘classics’ were missed? How many amazing works linger on bookshelves unread, maybe because they were labelled badly; put in patronisingly misleading genres.
Some writers attempt to cross-over or subvert genres, Margaret Atwood for example often debates whether she should be labelled as an SF writer or not. Other ‘literary’ writers like Kashio Ishiguro (‘Never let me go’) and Cormac McCarthy (‘The Road’) cross over and write SciFi and get heaped praise for it. Both I thought were excellent books but that other SF writers had used the same subject material and ideas perhaps better previously, but have not been recognised to the same degree because they were ‘SF genre’ writers. Notice that both those books were made into Hollywood films.
For writers, it seems then that genres present us with problems. Maybe problems we don’t realise. This can come down to the question of whether we write for ourselves or whether we write for our ‘audience’. If it is that latter then we may be tempted to fit the stereotypes of the genre, play it safe in order to please the reader. Nothing wrong with that in itself and there are scores of books that do this, some of my writing included I would say. I started writing thinking I was writing for myself and automatically began to write in the genre I enjoy most (SF) and this was fine, but I did wonder if I was really writing ‘copies’ or versions of the books that influence me. Again nothing intrinsically wrong with that. To learn to write is to read, and we are all influenced by our favourite things. Plagiarism is unavoidable! (Just don’t get caught!).
I guess what I am trying to say, as usual badly, is that I am beginning to feel stifled by the idea of genre. Maybe I just think too much, but I find it stifling as a reader. When I go to book shop (which I love to do) I, out of habit, go straight to the SF section to hunt out a new page turning space opera. But in the last couple of years, without really realising it, I have come across two problems. Firstly the science fiction section is always lumped in with ‘fantasy’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can love a bit of fantasy, but there seems to be endless books that look the same. No offence to any fantasy writers and twitter friends who love this genre but it feels like we have endless retreads of Tolkien-type fantasy. This puts me off. Just like there are now endless twighlightesque vampire/teen/werewolf type things. Again no offence if that is your thing.
The second problem is that the same thing is happening in SF. Books seem to be repeating the same patterns and formulas that sell and some books feel like repeats to me. As with all capitalism the market dictates. Maybe I am just a grumpy old dinosaur?
I guess you wonder where I am going with all of this? And as usual I am not sure. I am beginning to think I feel a bit stifled by genre as a writer to. It’s like when I tell people that I play guitar, sing and do gigs sometimes. The first question is always “What kind of music do you play?”, this would be easy to answer if I played covers of Bob Dylan, or something identifiable. But I play my own songs, so I never know how to answer this question. Even those who come to see me play find it hard to categorise. They might say “oh it’s kind of poppy, rocky music but that one was folky…err” They don’t know the genre, they just like the music. Shouldn’t writing and reading fiction be like that too?
Genres almost steer us away from that which we perceive to be ‘not for us’. I don’t like this. Genres trap us into reading and writing what we are told (even subconsciously) we should. I don’t like this. I am just a guilty as the rest of us. My reading and writing follows this safe pattern. I don’t like this. I still love my SciFi, always will…but…
So, what now? Well readers, I urge you to come out of your comfort zone! Read from any genre; forget genre. Challenge yourself to read things outside of your comfort zone. You will find untold treasures I am sure. And writers I urge you to do the same. Read outside of your chosen genre, this will undoubtedly influence your writing in a good way. Write outside of your chosen genre too, just for the hell of it. You never know, this maybe the way to writing a new classic. Worth a try! What do you think?

© 2011 Simon Poore

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BLIMEY, that makes my hand look weird…

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10 thoughts on “Genre: The Big Myth?

  1. At worst it’s not arbitrary, it’s narrow, elitists and generally ethocentric. I love Shakespeare, but I think he was just one clever man amongst many clever contemporaries. Shakespeare (as far as I can tell) has the advantage of having surviving copies of his multiple works. I don’t think the same can be said of Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson.

    My first degree included various lit. subjects simply because I love words and language. Today though, I find myself avoiding books wearing medals. They’re supposedly literary novels. Mostly I find them depressing and largely unreadable.

    Myself, I’m a proud genre writer. Occasionally I dream, that like Shakespeare, one day in the future, someone will pick up a collection of my work and ask “Gee…why haven’t we heard of her?” The WHAM…post-humous fame 🙂

    1. Maybe distant future archaeologists will find all this stuff we write here on some lone hard drive…they will study us in their versions of university….and think we were geniuses! Hey that sounds like an idea for a story! Thanks for you lovely comments…

  2. I refuse to limit myself to sticking to one genre when I could successfully write on several. I also agree that experts create a sort of caste system for writers and what is considered “high art” or “high culture”. Funny thing? Much of the high art I see, high fashion, etc is hidieously ugly. Leads me to believe that many of these experts are pure goobers. Great post!

  3. Simon, what a great post! I like that you, like the now-seemingly-ambiguous-genres itself, are undecided in how to approach and discuss this subject; despite your uncertainties, you have done a fab job (I truly mean it).

    When it comes to genres I too feel a little swamped -especially when I’m writing as I love mixing the pot (so to speak). Genre should be what you make of it and in turn appreciate -not something confusing or determined as better or worse by an ‘expert’ -who’s to say that they know what I’m inclined to love and hate and above all which writing style suits me?!!

    I started to write seriously this year and (like your music) I have faced questions like ‘what genre do you write in?’. *scratches head* I always stumble for words as my current MIP/WIP (call it what you like) is a mixture of fantasy, horror, romance written in a contemporary-style (yes I know, quite a mouthful!) so think of the relief when I came across the term ‘mix/cross-genre’ -I was elated! 🙂

    Genre is a difficult subject, but I think times are changing and adapting to accommodate writers styles and readers needs -I ever the optimist!

    1. Thanks for your compliments! I agree with what you say…though with my music I kind of refuse to say what it is, and urge people to dome and listen. Maybe you should tell people to just read your stuff and decide for themselves?

  4. The amusing thing about it is that when Shakespeare was writing those plays of his, they were *decidedly* low-culture. Played to bawdy crowds in inns as well as at the Globe, which was by no means the symbol of high art it is now.

    There’s no doubt that his plays remain fascinatingly relevant and powerful but they are not and never were anything but genre. I know academics may well go nuts about that but unfortunately they can shout about something as much as they like and it won’t force it to be true except for themselves and those silly enough to take their word as law.

    Shakespeare wrote to entertain. We all of us write to entertain. That’s the job of fiction. This whole literary bollocks is there to appease the loud minority who want to be seen as somehow more ‘cultured’ but, historically, that ‘culture’ revolved around men dressed as women, high drama, over-acting and drunken shows full of jeering, heckling and ribald revelry. That’s the reality of it, which is far greater than the dusty, pinch-lipped ideal of ‘high-art’ because it’s true and honest. I’ll take truth and honesty over supposed ‘literary’ merit any day.

    I think Shakespeare would have bust a gut laughing at their nonsense.

  5. I’ve often wondered the same thing about Shakespeare. I have a theory that art (visual, written and musical) often doesn’t mean at all the way we interpret it in English studies. I even have a sneaking suspicion that some of them did it for no better reason than ‘it was fun’, ‘it looked good’, or ‘it sounded good.’

    I read fantasy, in particular high/heroic/epic fantasy, almost exclusively. But I did that long before I knew what it was called. I occasionally cross into other parts of the fantasy genre and the science fiction genre, but high fantasy is definitely where the heart is.

    It’s interesting that you comment that the fantasy seems like Tolkien clones. Epic fantasy (as Lord of the Rings is) is in fact declining currently. I haven’t read a LOTR clone for a long time.

    1. Thanks Ciara. I will admit that my knowledge of ‘fantasy’ genre/s is limited! Maybe I should read some I may well like it! I think my moan was based on the fact they they are all lumped together with SF in bookstores. And it’s a classic case of judging books by covers! I can’t help it but lots of the covers put me off!
      Any suggestions of something in that genre I should read to enlighten me?

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