Generic Genres

16 Jun

An article in Writer’s Magazine (it was discussing the number of writers who ignore guidlines) got me thinking about genre. The particular point that caught my attention was a reference to an author submitting a fantasy novel to a crime novel review site on the basis that it featured the theft of a chalice. Now, most likely, the submission was a foolish one with the story falling into the classic fantasy trope of the quest, merely set in motion by a theft. Not a crime novel, just as a romantic novel that features a theft at some point does not magically transform itself into a crime novel, either.

Yet, there seemed to be an assumption that no fantasy novel could fall into the crime genre. An assumption that ‘fantasy’ is a genre when, in reality, it is a setting, just as ‘Ancient Rome’ is a setting and not a genre. Thus, whilst you most often find that novels with a fantasy setting are quest novels, not all are and it is quite plausible for there to be a fantasy crime novel, just as there are Regency romances, historical crime novels and SF war novels. Would the reviewer have been willing to review such a crime novel? They might not feel able to do it justice, if unfamiliar with the fantasy genre (although, really, anyone should be able to review any story on its own merits as a piece of fiction; it’s only if there are technical elements – whether the use of magic or the more arcane aspects of police procedure – that are beyond your ken to judge in terms of accuracy or workability that there may be a problem – in this example, readers of crime novels would only want to know about the work as a crime novel and whether the fantasy elements obscure the underlying plot, not whether the fantasy elements enrage some purist somewhere, nor the background to the motifs).

Unfortunately, many people confuse setting with genre (something furthered by the use of such terms as Fantasy and Western to mean a certain type of story as much as the setting in which it takes place). A reader may choose a story based upon one or the other, or both – but they are not the same, whatever some people seem to think.

Only a fool would think that a fantasy novel is restricted solely to the quest genre. If you are shaking your head at this point and assuming that I’ve lost the point, pause for a moment to consider whether you would accept a historical murder mystery or a police procedural from another era or another country as falling under the umbrella of crime. Of course you would. You would likely qualify it to prevent confusion, thus a historical crime novel and a Danish crime novel, but you would not argue them away into different genres. Different niches, yes, but all within the same genre. Thus the fantasy setting, itself extraordinarily broad, can play host to quest novels, crime novels, romances, speculative fiction, spy thrillers and almost any other genre you can imagine. The trappings of Elves, Wizards, Dragons and the like might not be the usual fare found in a police procedural, but, whilst not perhaps as distant, nor do the trappings of the Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, the 1950s or Nigeria match those that we would expect in one set in modern day Britain or America (and neither are those two identical), yet we understand that they all fall within the same genre. The past is a forign country and foreign countries literally so; fantasy worlds and distant planets are just a step further out from normality.

Of course, genre and setting can be useful pointers towards an enjoyable read and are not to be abandoned altogether, but a slavish reliance upon rigid definitions does neither reader nor writer any good, nor, whatever publishers might think, is it necessarily much good for books sales (sure, you may dupe some readers into buying books solely due to genre fixation, but how many more are lost because they dismiss something solely based on genre conventions?). By limiting what they read, readers miss out on some good stories. By binding themselves tight with genre conventions, authors can stifle their creativity. And, by enforcing such codes, publishers deny us great tales that refuse to play by their rules and do not neatly fit into their sales categories. Many of the best novels I have read do not fit comfortably within any one genre and I would not sacrifice a single one of them on the altar of conformity just to make cataloguing books easier. Personally, I pay little heed to genre when reading or writing – I let my stories take the form they need to take to be told and I read what intrigues me, even if it does not fally into those genres I seem to read the most of.

Genre can have its uses, but it must not master us. Use it wisely!

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