Monday, July 23, 2012

Deborah on the multiplicity of sub-genres

Over on Amazing Stories, the "Chain Mail" discussions with Book View Cafe authors tackled this question:

Recently there has been an uptick in the number of “sub-genres” related to the field. Where before there was just “science fiction”, that split into ‘space opera’, ‘hard’ and ‘new wave’ during the late 50s/early 60s, now there’s — science fiction romance, western sf, post-apocalyptic, slipstream, alternate reality — the list goes on. Is it helpful to have all of these sub-categorizations (allowing readers to find what they really want) or detrimental by pigeonholing work and placing impediments between a reader and the discovery of new types of works?

Here's my answer:

I have no idea if this is a good thing or a bad thing, and even if I did, I would most likely be wrong. However, I do have some thoughts on the tendency to make more and smaller sub-sub-sub genres. One pertains to the desire on the part of many readers to find a book that is exactly like the last one they loved in terms of reading experience. This tendency explains why there are so many sequels-ad-nauseum in both film/TV and books.

Years ago, I took over stewardship of the library at my daughter’s elementary school, so I got to watch what books which kids were picking. The big thing back then was Goosebumps. We parent librarians had high hopes for the series, because the titles and covers appealed to boys who were otherwise “reluctant readers.” With glee, we watched the boys check out one after another of these books. I at least had my fingers crossed that at some point, they’d branch out. Mostly, however, they didn’t. They wanted that exact experience, and after reading three or five or twenty books with basically the same plot, they’d get bored and stop reading. As frustrating as this was to witness, I believe that some reading is better than none, and those kids carried with them the memory of first discovering that books can be cool. And picked up another book some day. Maybe Harry Potter.

The other thing about sub-sub (etc.) genres is that so many of them are crossovers. Science fiction mysteries. Westerns with magic. Paranormal Romances. Steampunk vampires. There’s a playfulness in taking elements we love and seeing how many new ways we can combine them. It must drive the marketing people nuts.

This, I think, is a very good thing.

The photograph is by Eva Watson-Schülze (1867-1935), public domain.


  1. OK, I'm going to get my two cents in here.

    Genres, sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, etc. are all useful as descriptors for things. That is, as a reader, if someone has their work described using certain genre-marker tags, then I can more quickly determine what sort of experience I am looking at when I get into it.

    That said, I always think that really specific tags are the sort of thing one applies to the work after the writing process. The problem I find with genres is that, too often, the author decides "I'm going to write a story in this very narrow sub-genre," and as a result ends up confining himself to a limited set of used-up tropes.

    My thought is this: create what you are going to create, then start applying labels if you want. It starts to get choking if we do it the other way around.

  2. Frog, you are right on about not allowing artificial sales categories to distort the natural shape of a story. That will suck the life out of one's creative soul.