(Originally posted on The Intrepid Book Moth as a guest post)
Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like
Genres are the backbone of books, the bed authors can fall back on. If an author is ever suffering writer’s block, they can just look at the genre they are writing within, take inspiration, see what’s needed. But just as they are a bed, genres are also cells. Looking between the bars, you can see your fellow inmates, crowded in their own cells; contact limited to shouts across the barren hallways.
Trust me, there were at least five layers of metaphor in there. I don’t think I even understood all of them, but allow me to attempt to walk you through what I just said. When I think about writing (which I do way more than actually writing), I find myself subconsciously falling back onto genre conventions. It’s Sci-Fi so it needs lasers, evil corporations, and tentacled aliens. Bringing in ideas from other genres, ditching the evil corporation being overthrown with a teen who’s going to commit suicide, it feels dirty; like I’m defiling an unspoken rule. As a reader, I find myself doing the exact same, staying a mile away from genres, just because I’ve had a few bad experiences, and because I’m not supposed to read them. A teen guy reading a Romance? What’s wrong with him? This partial-bibliophobia kills the opportunities for a rich literature ecosystem, it creates formulaic plots, and fearful readers. Who does this benefit?
The best things happen when multiple elements are allowed to mix. Popcorn is best with butter, chocolate is best with peanut butter. The inclusion of new ingredients, borrowed from other genres, only serves to broaden scope and advance literature. The example that immediately comes to mind is The Legend of Korra, a cartoon. Its mix of Steampunk, the prohibition era, and Fantasy makes its setting one of the most unique I can recall. While it isn’t a book, it shows the magic that can happen when genres are allowed to bleed into each other.
Along with the barriers that genres create, they can be amazingly vague. Let’s take Sci-Fi for example. What does it take to be a Sci-Fi novel? Future things, like lasers and space slugs, right? Well, what about Steampunk? That doesn’t have lasers. In fact, this sub-genre is usually a digression in technology, resorting to metal monstrosities belching out black smoke. Genres were created decades ago, designed to encompass that era’s literature, and are now struggling with these ever growing, abstract ideas. It’s like trying to fit a three-headed elephant through a doggie door.
In my idealistic fantasies, we, the book “community”, would adopt a build-a-bear setup. Rather than saying “I am a fan of mysteries,” you’d say, “I am a fan of dark-cyberpunk-mysteries with a slight absurdist edge.” Which is more telling? If someone says they like mysteries that could just as easily be Dan Brown or A-Z Mysteries.
As is the case with idealistic fantasies, they are just that, fantasies. People gravitate towards unified vocabularies, and that is no different in books. Libraries and bookstores have used and always will use the generalizing system of genre based categorization, so readers will use them too. Can you imagine trying to stock a library using the genre system I suggested? Or imagine navigating it as you look for Anna and the French Kiss. It isn’t feasible. In addition to the impractical nature of categorization, there are problems with conversation. Someone asks me what kind of books I like, I don’t want to give them an entire dissertation on the subject. Sci-Fi works as decent shorthand, even though there are hordes of Sci-Fi I don’t enjoy.
When I tone down my hopes, reel in my dreams, and look at this through logical eyes, I find myself hoping that at least on the highest level, that of the content creator, genres are ignored. Perhaps then, the mentality will sift down to the consumer, once they start reading Chris Crutcher-esque plots in a Fantasy setting. Until then, where’s my Dystopian trilogy with a love interest?