The Genre Question; or Rambling about Genres

In Sullivan's Travels a director finds out that comedy can be more important than drama.

Genre is a bookstore problem, not a literary problem. – Rick Moody

What the heck do genres mean to artist and their audiences? I recently made my top 100 films list and at the end I did a little wrap up and broke down the number of movies from each genre. Seems like a simple task at the start. We all know what the basic genres are: comedy and drama, sci-fi and western, war and romance. Where it becomes difficult is trying to pinpoint each movie into the confines of one genre. Let’s look at my top 5. Magnolia is a drama, certainly. But it’s also pretty funny. And the ending makes it a kind of fantasy, or at least a fairy tale. Which brings us to Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a fairy tale, too. But it’s also a war film. And a coming of age story. Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the easiest to classify as one thing. It’s an adventure film through and through. Blade Runner is sci-fi, obviously, but it’s also a neo-noir romance. And There Will Be Blood is a character study-western-epic. It’s not so easy to just pick one of these and put them on that particular shelf. So what does genre matter?

As an aspiring writer, I struggle with my choices about what I read and what I write. I feel like I read way too much fantasy and everything I’ve written has been in that genre to some degree. There’s a sense among literary people that genre fiction is somehow less valuable than straight literary books. There’s a reason why the sci-fi/fantasy sections are always at the back, behind romance and before comic books. Is there something wrong with reading and writing genre pieces?

Pity those—adventurers, adolescents, authors of young adult fiction—who make their way in the borderland between worlds. It is at worst an invisible and at best an inhospitable place. Build your literary house on the borderlands, as the English writer Philip Pullman has done, and you may find that your work is recommended by booksellers, as a stopgap between installments of Harry Potter, to children who cannot (one hopes) fully appreciate it, and to adults, disdainful or baffled, who ‘don’t read fantasy.’ Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, ‘serious’ and ‘genre’ literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power. – Michael Chabon

I have, in my travels through literature and movies and music, decided that magical realism is the best of all possible genres. In fact, with a few exceptions, I think it could probably be used to describe every work of fiction. There’s something about storytelling that necessitates both invention and some degree of grounding in the real world which leads to every story being a little bit fantastical. The idea of Magnolia, that each of these lives are connected in obvious and obscure ways is fantastical without the ending, though that ending cements it firmly into the fantasy-ish genre. The act of condensing stories to be told in two hours or two hundred pages or two minutes means you have to cut out the boring parts inbetween the big events. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions often change the story in other ways so that everything becomes both magical and real at the same time.

There're more important things to struggle with when it comes to writing than genre.

A movie I like has a line in it that goes like this, “All stories say something.” I think that’s true, and that’s the most important aspect of art, for me. The way a story is told shouldn’t matter as much as what the story is trying to say about the act of living. A genre has almost nothing to do with the potential quality of a story. Sure, sci-fi movies have a bit of an easier time talking about technology and humanity while romance has it pretty easy when talking about the love element of our lives and comedy allows the inherent silliness of our existence to be pointed out better than any other genre. But none of that says you can’t have a really great sci-fi story that gets at what it is to love somebody or a fantasy story that demonstrates how absurd our ways of thinking are. Heck, that’s what Terry Pratchett has done his entire career. So don’t be afraid to read what you want and write what you want. There will be people that make fun of you for it, but those guys are the real suckers, falling for silly distinctions while you enjoy great art. Ha!

8 thoughts on “The Genre Question; or Rambling about Genres

  1. Hear, hear. I hate how we let genre labels limit us. Pan’s Labyrinth is really a perfect example of a cross-over, which works beautifully.
    And I totally share your love for magical realism.

    I’m afraid your link to a movie you like is broken.

  2. I think the genre definition is useful for readers, but not as important for writers. I enjoy fantasy novels, as such, going through that section of bookstores to me simply means that I’m more likely to find books that I’m going to enjoy in that section. For a writer, just write the book you want to write, let your publishers figure out what section of the bookstore it’s supposed to be in.

    As for the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, I think it mostly comes from the “educated elite” (people who have high level degrees and teach at universities). Many of the complaints that literary fiction is better than genre fiction comes from these people, many of whom are authors themselves and are probably in large part jealous that their writing is not as widely accepted as genre fiction. They are quick to point out examples of below average genre fiction but ignore badly written literary fiction. They are also quick to bring up examples of the classics written throughout history, but they always bring up the same books that have stood the test of time. There were bad books written when Jane Austin was writing just as there are bad books written now, the only difference is that we don’t read those badly written books anymore. By comparison, we haven’t had the same amount of time to get the badly written books out of the canon quite yet for genre fiction.

    In many ways I think the outcry against genre fiction in the literary world is just the usual outcry by the establishment about anything new. In 50 years or so I don’t think there will be nearly as much of an issue involving the discussion of genre fiction vs literary fiction. The literary world has already accepted the fact that Tolkien’s wrote at a very high level, and in the future other books that have stood the test of time (such as Jordan’s Wheel of Time series or Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire) will also be recognized as great works of literature, and not merely as genre fiction that sold well.

    1. Well said. I certainly agree and the part about how we haven’t had the time to weed out the crappy current stuff is a point I’ve made over and over again.

      The other interesting aspect is how much of our canon is genre fiction. Frankenstein and Dracula are obvious picks, but even stuff like Moby Dick is more genre than not. I think there’s an element of “the populace can’t be right about what’s good art,” when it comes to genre stuff but I’d change that to “the populace is often wrong about what’s good art but they have the ability to be right sometimes, too.” It’s a little longer but it works.

      1. In an interview I found online where Pat Rothfuss was talking about fiction, he mentioned how most of the great works of the past would today probably be considered fantasy. He specifically pointed out The Iliad and The Odyssey which have a huge fantasy element to them. He also mentioned that even Shakespeare has elements of fantasy, with some of his plays having ghosts and others having witches and other people using magic as well.

        1. Totally! I think a big part of the problem is that a lot of kid-lit is fantasy so when adults read and write fantasy they are seen as childish. We’re growing away from that but it’s a slow process.

  3. Nice piece and I would totally agree. One example I would like to bring to the table is that of Vince Gill, the country music star. He used to be huge in country, winning performer of the year a few times in the 90s, but recently he released an album called ‘These Days’, which was the direct result of advice he got from his friend Eric Clapton, who told him to just make the music he wanted to and not worry about any expectations. This ties in perfectly with your opening quote. Let everybody else worry about what it is, just do what you set out to do.

    1. I’m always fascinated by people that are established in one genre and then move to another. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s usually interesting.

      I think that advice is sound, it’s just hard to actually act on.

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