Friday 11 November 2016

Genres are stupid.

It's official. I can't write click-bait pieces. Something in me compels moderating sentences even at this crucial opening stage where the reader is hoping for a rant...

Of course labels are useful to a certain degree. But, like democracy, they are also broken to a certain degree. There's no perfect system and here I poke at the imperfections.

I use labels. I have a soft spot for zombie movies to enjoy with beer and peanuts to hand. And so I have on occasion Googled "best zombie movies" and checked to see if I missed one.

But the flip side of this approach is that it often walls us away from something great based on a one word label that wholly fails to capture the brilliance of the thing we're denying ourselves because of a trivial categorization.

And I see it taken to such extremes...

(click for detail)

When someone asks for very specific elements in a book, and I have seen requests like "should include centaurs and detailed accounts of sword-making", they appear almost to be taking the quality of the book as irrelevant. Give me a book that justifies this label. Not give me a good book.

Similarly when they use a broad label to rule out an ocean of novels it seems equally strange. Some readers may say, for example, "I don't want to read any steampunk" or "If there's an airship in it, count me out," And I boggle. It's the fault of the label ... of the idea of a label ... that these ten thousand hugely varied things can be tied together with one word and that one word can then allow them to be safely discounted from your consideration. Maybe you once read a book that sat under Label A and didn't like it. Maybe you read three. And now all books under Label A are tarred by association. You walk right past that shelf.

Consider it again. Literally, if there is an airship in it ... I'm out. The presence of a mode of transportation seals the deal. Forget how compelling the story is, how vital the characters, how powerful the prose. How you might need to put the book down and breathe away the excess emotion. Nope, it has hot air in a bag. I'm out...

Free choice is exactly that, free, and everyone is totally entitled to make it based on arbitrary considerations, prejudice, or the shake of a magic 8-ball if they so desire. I'm just encouraging a step back from the ontological brink,

Labels are too small for novels. A good book, whatever its page count, is a vast, sprawling thing, a work of intellect, poetry, insight, fun, enthusiasm, loves, tragedy, questions and more questions. Anyone, for example, who sidesteps the excellent Senlin Ascends because it contains an airship or can be stamped with the label STEAMPUNK, is missing out on a brilliant, literary journey.

And from my own personal corner. Anyone who avoids my work simply because someone else has stamped it GRIMDARK and they now expect some shallow tale of nihilism and violence, is likewise discounting something that may prove very different to their expectations.

When we label books it's rather like trying affixing a postage stamp to a container ship and considering you've covered it.

When I write I make no effort to colour between the lines. I wander from fantasy to sci-fi to horror. I may even stray into romance. And when you can't even keep within one of the very top level labels it seems strange to tow around a label from the sub-divisions of just one of those.

OK, you got me. Genres aren't stupid ... but it helps to think past them sometimes.


  1. 100% agree with this, no story can be put into a single genre, but if it can, arguably it won't be a good story due to lack of depth. The problem is when you want to sell your story, publishers want a genre, and readers also want to filter the thousands of stories out there by the genre they like. Unfortunately it's a necessary evil. I think it's only a problem if people use genre to shape their writing, for me I'll write the story I want to tell, then worry about categorising it by genre once it's done.

  2. Genres are stupid, and so too is the need to be able to write 'for fans of George RR Martin' on the book cover. Categorisation turns people off many a good book. My solution - I write what I want to read.
    My particular breed of fantasy is no longer 'in fashion' - yep fashion in books is also stupid, and means that any bookstore will only have shelves of what's currently popular. But I try. I try all the time to find something new to read. The line 'for fans of' immediately turns me off. I don't want to read something I've already read all over again!
    I like my fantasy to be new and fresh - something that's not been done before. Is there a genre for that? 'Brand new fantasy, not like George RR Martin, characters to die for, a storyline that will blow your mind?' Nope. I didn't think so.

  3. The thing I don't like about genres is the 'recommended for you' selections on Amazon (and others). I feel it limits me to finding New Good Stuff. Sure, I'm happy to find New Good Stuff that's similar to the last book I liked, but assuming I won't like anything else bugs me to no end. Browsing (library shelves, particularly) has lead to wonderful surprises that I never would have found if I was corralled into a section only of things recommended for me based on my prior purchases.

    1. I think the the main point here is Amazon caters to the masses, where the profit is. As someone reading a writers blog you may be in the minority of readers scanning through Amazon for new books. A lot of people do just want to read the same type of book time and time again; back to Mark's example of complete rejection of anything steampunk related, it's a sad state of affairs but true. And Amazon pays a lot in research, so if their strategy is to cater to the blinkered readership, I would put money on the fact this reading behaviour is the majority

  4. It's bad enough to pigeonhole books by plot elements, but what drives me crazy is "literary fiction." Someone, somewhere decides that this set of books over here is "literature," while that set over there is not, creating a genre based on nothing more than a value judgment. It's ok for a reader to make that judgment and it's ok for history to make that judgment but for a new book to arrive that way is ridiculous.

  5. Your are not wrong but..
    I need some way to sort through the tens of thousands of reasonably good books that are available. I'm aware that when I dismiss all books with time travel I'm rejecting one book I'll probably like for every two that I won't like and that's okay. Because even after applying a bunch of somewhat trivial and arbitrary criteria, I'm still left with more books than I could possibly ever read to choose from.