What's the Point of a Genre?

Working at the bookstore, I come across a constant annoyance: trying to put a book into its proper place, using BITS, the internal store inventory system. The program is antiquated, clunky and a pain to use, and whomever is hired to enter the information into the system in the first place should be duct-taped off the ground and had rotten fruit thrown at them. It would be a good incentive to get the information entered in correctly and consistantly. Still, while annoyed about this the other night at the store, a thought came to me that’s been further pushed along by a post from John Scalzi on his blog, Whatever.

This recent post highlights something that I’ve noticed within the SF genre, and fandom: a general cry to be recognized by the literary establishment as a whole. Science Fiction, in general, has been trivialized by a number of establishments and authors of other genres – Margaret Atwood‘s comments come to mind at just how against being labeled in the genre some peopel can be: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen”, and “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” (From the Guardian and Book of the Month Club).

To some extent, there’s good reason for this – early science fiction, while fun, is loaded with rubbish, pulp and childish stories that were primarily geared towards selling as many copies as possible to the lowest common denominator demographic. Atwood’s characterization of the genre is highly flawed – science fiction is far more than intergalactic travel and aliens, and while that’s a common element, I see little difference between the superficial elements such as those, and the elements that contain a so-called speculative fiction. In the end, it’s the story that really matters, and provided that an author can put together a compelling plot and array of characters, I’ve often found that those more unbelievable elements, such as ‘monsters’ and intergalactic travel works out just fine.

Scalzi’s argument brings up a further version of this point – if the surrounding plot elements don’t matter all that much – and I’ve noticed an increasing number of books with horror, science fiction, paranormal, fantasy, urban fantasy and other themes – where does the overall label matter when it comes to books? Indeed, with the aforementioned types, they’re all lumped into the same small section in the larger bookstores, usually towards the back so the bookstore owners can hide the nerds and geeks from the rest of the cliental. (You know, kind of how the pretty people in gyms are always working out next to the windows?) I personally love the science fiction genre for its ability to tell stories, in addition to the settings and out there concepts that generally crop up. However, my enjoyment of one particular genre doesn’t necessarily cloud my feelings towards books of another, nor does the label on the back of the book affect how I feel about another genre.

To some extent, I think that the argument is largely fueled by egos and excess time of overeducated people, and out of marketing necessity. Since much of bookselling comes out of browsing, it makes sense to group books accordingly, by genre, which is in turn placed on a pedestal, as something that is so profound, it can’t possibly be associated with other books that have the reputation as science fiction / fantasy has.

This is where I have problems with the people who insist that any one particular genre is worthy of attention more so than the others. The same issue appears in Military History – I had a reading about this very same issue, as Military History is percieved by the larger academic community as an unimportant, somewhat annoying little cousin that wants to join in on the fun. Unfortunately, with the more established genres pushing out the newer ones, they miss out on a number of really good stories and insights into their fields. Cormac McCarthy‘s book The Road is arguably one of the better books of the past decade, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, despite the post-apocolptic storyline that appeals to the many followers of the ‘geek’ genre. Still, it wasn’t marketed as such.

Marketing aside, I think the best alternative to all of this would be to get rid of the genre labels, sort out everything between fiction and non-fiction sections and shelve everything by the author’s last name. Non-fiction can be sorted by subject, while people can just figure out what they like ahead of time and just go by author. Scalzi’s hit on a huge point – this is an intellectual argument that really doesn’t matter in the long run. Honestly, if Science Fiction starts scoring more people, longtime fans will just find something else to complain about – the new fans who don’t have quite the same appreciation for the genre as they do.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “What's the Point of a Genre?

  1. It’s so cute that Atwood disclaims the scifi angle of her books — post-apoc weird shit and the human condition? If anything, “Oryx and Crake” is another take on a popular modern scifi convention. Bless her modern emancipated women’s lit heart.

    (That being said, she wishes she was classed beside Asimov on the bookshelf.)

  2. I agree, although to be fair, I haven’t read anything by her. This is the thing – literature as a genre seems to be focused more on the actual writing – I’ve always found it to be better written. That’s fine by me, but there is a ton of SF out there that is up to par – look at Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Tolkien, etc.
    That all being said, I think SF is by far the most commercial of all of the genres, so maybe it’s some sort of elitism when it comes to art as a commercial venture?

  3. Atwood writes some fine, fine lit. (Usually, the type that comes from modern women and their dealings with the world, i.e. the men that oppress them/etc.) And then occasionally, she pops out some crazy scifi hijinks thing. It’s pretty hilarious.

    You know, if “classics” would stop taking the best of scifi to its own shelves, maybe the genre would have a fighting chance with its reputation. (This practice also reinforces the opinion of scifi = kinda bad writing.)

  4. Sounds very literature-like.

    I’m not sure that literature takes the best of SF ‘away’ from the genre – the opposite, I think. There’s a lot of really fantastic SF works out there, but essentially, their drowned out by lesser works such as Harry Potter and Twilight that seem to come and define the genre.

Comments are closed.