The Death Of Genre: Drifting Toward A Post-Genre Future
*hands you a brick of C4*
It’s time to blow up genre. It’s time to explosively obliterate the very idea of separating our fiction into these neat little categories — these tropes and plots, these shelves and slots.
Genre of late has been a thing largely used to determine a book’s place at the point of sale — a bookstore, quite understandably, only has finite space. (Well, I’m told that the bookstore known as Herman’s Infinite Accumulation in Duluth figured out a way to rend a vent in the fabric of time and space and thus host all the books all the time, but Herman reportedly stole ducats from the Hyperborean Cat Mafia and he and his store ended up being eaten by moon sharks.) A bookstore cannot hold all the books, and so one must apply a meaningful organization to what lurks there. But the Internet has changed all that.
The Internet is, of course, theoretically infinite. Its shelves are fucking endless.
Once, an author had to ask — “Well, where the hell will my book end up?” A bookstore with clearly limited shelf-space was not so keen on buying a book that had no easy place on those limited shelves. So, genre — a thing that affects the point-of-sale retailer — was a necessary concern of the writer long before the point-of-sale. Genre therefore begins to codify the types of fiction we read: it creates pre-defined plots, character arcs, it relies on a series of shared and continued tropes. Genre at the inception of the story and at the point of shelving and sale then becomes a thing that helps to train both reader and writer.
Genre is comfort, after all. You know what you’re writing. You know what you’re reading.
Comfort in codification. But fiction often works best when there exists some measure of discomfort.
And again, there’s that nagging cloud of gnats hovering around all our heads…
We are readers and writers who grew up on multiple genres and multiple formats. We don’t just read deep in a single genre. Our reading tastes are a shotgun spray, not a sniper’s bullet — space opera to superheroes, horror to thriller, splatterpunk and steampunk and cyberpunk and monkeypunk, epic fantasy to urban fantasy, erotica to spec-fic to spy novels to comic books to movies to pornography to cat videos to whatever.
Our heads are full of this crazy shit.
The Internet brings all that together. In one place. And it fosters the power of remix culture — we like to take all the things we’ve absorbed and glom them together to see the pop culture Voltron we create. We’re the ones pouring maple syrup on bacon (to quote Adam Christopher a little), bringing together the sweet and the savory. We like to read and write the intellectual equivalent of fusion cuisine.
But genre is law. And the law doesn’t really make room for that, does it?
You mash-up two or three disparate genres in a single book, where the fuck does your book go? How do you tell an agent what to do with it? How does the agent tell a publisher, and how does a publisher tell a bookstore? (And here the secret is that bookstores are actually the ones doing the dictating, meaning that the power still lies with a dwindling supply chain and distribution system.)
If you’re an author mashing up genres outside a single book — you write one fantasy novel then move to something more toward “literary horror” — the story goes that you run the risk of alienating fans. That they’ll find your book on the shelf and read both and they wanted one thing from you and didn’t get the same thing every time and so they’ll come to your house and cry, “I WILL AUTOGRAPH YOUR DOOM” before plunging a fountain pen in your neck and signing their name on your corpse.
But the bookstore shelves? Not so populous anymore. And even when they do exist, the Internet is always in the background, able to support that theoretical infinite which then backs up the physical shelf-space.
Plus? Readers are growing savvier. And writers want to play in other playgrounds.
That’s a theme I noticed, by the way, at Worldcon — not just in our New Pulp panel, but in discussions with writers throughout. Genre can be a comfortable starting point — but it can be a bit of a prison, too. We want off our leash. We want to write what we want to write, and we trust that the readers will be with us (and whether that’s a naive trust or an earned and confirmed one, I don’t know).
So, I propose, it’s time to make genre go boom.
We assassinate the current codification of genre.
We liberate the writer and the reader.
VIVA LA REVOLUCION.
The question now becomes: just what the fuck does this all mean?
Instead of obliterating genre in its entirety, consider the notion of committing to it in a deeper, crazier way — see, right now, genre is not particularly granular. We have a handful of very big boxes (fantasy, sci-fi, literary, whatever), and inside those boxes one set of smaller boxes (epic fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.), but then no more boxes within those. And once you’re in a big box, you very rarely get to have a project that can be slotted into another — “science fantasy” is a thing we talk about, but it’s not really a shelf designation. So, get rid of the boxes. Eradicate large categories.
Instead, dice up the elements of our fiction even more finely — mince those motherfuckers. Think of fiction as having aspects or elements (and those of you who game in the RPG sense will see the value of this) — a piece of fiction might have a “time travel” aspect, a “tragedy” aspect, a “detective” aspect. One novel might be “serial killer / robot / erotic love triangle.” Another might be, “dinosaur / noir / bioethics.”
What this ideally allows for is a greater breadth of what we find “interesting.” At a place like Amazon, filter and discoverability is utter fuckporridge — and this is bad for writers and readers. Think instead of a Pandora-like app that searches your e-book library and uses these very axes and aspects to help you discover new authors and stories. I want that! And I think we need it, too.
An obvious thing was pointed out to me at Worldcon but I hadn’t really realized it before — Young Adult / Teens is frequently uncategorized. And, likely without coincidence, YA tends to be some of the bravest, weirdest fiction out there right now. You go to the shelf inside the bookstore and it’s just a big mash-up of books and genres. (Okay, B&N actually separates them out a bit — Teens to Teens Paranormal Romance to Teens Fantasy / Adventure.) But often, YA is just YA. An age range without genre limitations.
These teens are going to be the same eventual non-teens (aka “adults,” if such a distinction even matters anymore) — and if they’re not pinned down by genre conventions and they grow up with fewer expectation for genre, isn’t it time to start configuring our shelves for them and not for everyone else?
The “New Pulp” panel at Worldcon was fascinating because it was essentially the three of us (Stephen Blackmoore, Adam Christopher, and some bearded bespectacled shitbird) trying to figure out what the shit we were talking about and why we were even there. At first that seemed terrifying but as we orbited the topic and closed in on an answer it became clear how powerful it was to not have a certain answer to this uncertain question. Through the panel one of the distinctions we seemed to come to was that we, as authors with great heads full of stories from all corners, wanted to write what the fuck we wanted to write.
And so it emerged that “author-as-own-genre” seemed a very lovely thing, indeed. After all, Stephen King writes “horror” only to those who don’t know any better. He writes a bit of everything, all told — fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, literary. He is himself a great big mash-up of influences and possibilities and you don’t go to a Stephen King novel looking so much for horror as you do looking for, well, a Stephen King novel. King’s novels contain all the trappings of King himself — his voice, his auteur aspects, his storytelling hooks.
To me, that’s a win for the author first and foremost — to be able to write not to genre conventions but rather to your own personal conventions is a very good thing. It becomes “double-plus-good” for the readers because we, the writers, are writing work that speaks to and engages us as creators, ideally meaning we’re writing more to our own strengths and thus producing more kick-ass stories.
Okay, Fine, Fine, Genre Isn’t All Bad
Listen, I’m not saying genre distinctions don’t have value. They do. You like X, so you go to X shelf. Sometimes that comfort is a good thing. We want readers to be comfortable.
But we also don’t want endless regurgitative human centipede storytelling. Genre and its rigorous classification is why we have epic fantasy that reads the same every time, or why we have urban fantasy stories and book covers that are so reiterative it starts to feel like a joke. We are not served well in storytelling by saying This is X and That is Y if all that does is give us the samey-samey time and again. Some of the greatest authors — whether we’re talking Gaiman or King or Mister R. R. Martin — exist because they carve open their own portals into different genres.
So, I’m not seriously suggesting that we obliterate genre as a “thing” — first, it’d never work, and second, yes, they have value. But I am encouraging a widening of that definition and a greater look at how a more diverse and deviant genre classification can allow us to deliver a more meaningful class of filter and discoverability for authors and the readers who read ‘em. That’s a win for everybody.
Or I’ll Taser you in the mouth.