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.
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!