Genre and Taxonomy

I’ve been thinking about genre lately. It came up as a panel topic at PCon and there was a lively discussion about what constituted genre and how that affected books. Cheryl Morgan came up with an erudite and academic-sounding definition. I wish I’d written it down.

One of the conclusions of the panel was that there are two types of genre, marketing genre and category genre. The purpose of marketing genre is pretty obvious. If bookshops had to read every book before they could stick it on the shelves then they would never sell any books. By allowing the marketing department of the publishers to categorise the books for them, they can appropriately shelve the books so that people can find and purchase them. Marketing genre allows readers to enter bookshops and limit their browsing to a part of the bookshop, saving time and making it more likely that they will purchase a book. At least that’s the theory.

Category genre is harder to pin down. I think we can all agree that Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series are thrillers, whereas Jane Austin is classic literature. The problems come when the boundaries blur. I’ve previously posted a recommendation for Phil Rickman’s – Merrily Watkins books, which are crime/mystery with horror elements. Another strong recommendation is for Janet Evanovich’s – Stephanie Plum novels, starting with One for the Money. I can’t tell you whether it’s a crime/mystery, thriller or comedy. All I can say is that while reading it on the train, the person sitting opposite tapped me on the wrist and asked me what the book was, I’d been laughing so much. At the same time, some of the later books in the same series are genuinely creepy.

The concept of marketing genre leads us to create a hierarchy where there are major categories like Crime, Romance, SFF and then Fantasy breaks down into High/Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, etc. but as with the books mentioned above, the hierarchy degrades where the genres blur. You can end up with Thomas Harris: The Silence of the Lambs (Crime or Horror?) next to Carl Hiaasen: Hoot (Mystery/Comedy) – two very different books.

I’ve already said that the purpose of marketing genre is to sell books. If you like a book then you are likely to purchase another work by that author or by another writer in a similar vein. Some authors even change names when writing in different genres. I found out why they do this when I picked up a Janet Evanovich novel on the strength of her Stephanie Plum books and found it was a fairly lightweight romance. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected.

Some suggest that genre should be broadened out. I’ve heard people say that SF and Fantasy should be under Speculative Fiction, but it’s a writer’s job to speculate. The one question authors continually ask is: What happens if?  There is as much speculation in John Le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy as there is in Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, so where does that leave us?

Category genre is misleading. It invites us to divide books using an taxonomy – comedy, suspense, horror, romance, fantasy – but these are not genres, they are the the tools of writing and a good story may use all of them, forging them into new alloys of meaning and understanding.

Readers, though, want to be able to find books that they will enjoy, and marketing genre allows us to support this to a limited extent. Category genre, on the other hand, serves to perpetuate a reading habit that continually narrows into sub-genres. Readers are encouraged through category genre to read everything in a narrow field until it is exhausted. This can lead ultimately to a sense of dissatisfaction, since by limiting choice to a narrow field the books become formulaic and repetitive. This is especially true where a sub-genre, or a sub-sub-genre becomes highly fashionable as in the case of kick-ass girls in leather pants with vampires, which can be traced through Urban Fantasy to Contemporary Fantasy to SF & F in the genre hierarchy.

When I went into Foyles in London recently, a very well-respected bookshop, I was shocked to discover an entire wall of Young Adult Teen Vampire novels. I was also surprised to discover that Waterstones seems to have re-branded Horror into Dark Fantasy. This is great for the teen vampire lovers but leaves some excellent Horror writers without a natural home. Incidentally, it did amuse me to see Joe Hill’s – Heart Shaped Box among the Paranormal Romance.  Someone is in for a nasty surprise.

I am guessing that the wall of YA vampire books will be a temporary affair. Once the rush to be the next twilight dies down, the shelf will vanish like a vampire in a tanning booth, but the re-branding of Horror to Dark Fantasy may persist, and though it will be greeted by some with trepidation (What, no Horror?) it may not be a bad thing in the long term. The books from the Horror shelves will be re-shelved elsewhere, perhaps next to a Carl Hiaasen or a John Le Carré and some readers will see them for the first time, and maybe pick them up and give them a try, breathing new life in to the readership.

Can we contemplate a world of books without genre? If you want to try this for yourself, go along to Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street in London. Apart from the charming architecture, it is worth visiting because it is not organised into genre, but by geography. In the section on Italy you will find books on Tuscan Cooking alongside Lindsey Davies’ – Falco Mysteries. In the books on the United States you are likely to find Raymond Chandler’s – The Big Sleep, next to Jim Butcher’s – Harry Dresden novels. It’s a refreshing experience.

For myself, I try not to be limited or constrained by genre, while respecting genre boundaries and delivering on my readers expectations. It makes my books difficult to file, but hopefully interesting to read.

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