Genre is defined in the Merriam- Webster online dictionary as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” A genre categorization is a convenient way for us to better understand what kind of book it is. But like all classification systems, genres tend to break down where there is overlap. As Britannica Encyclopedia notes, “Despite critics’ attempts to systematize the art of literature, such categories must retain a degree of flexibility, for they can break down on closer scrutiny.” An insightful example of this – trying to distinguish between “autobiography” and “memoir” – is given by a member of the staff at the Waverly Public Library in Waverly Indiana.
As publishing opens up to more participants, the rapid spawning of new genres is likely to frustrate all attempts to maintain a book classification system that is meaningful and useful for ever fragmenting book audiences. The most provocative writers like to hang out in the overlaps between tried and true categories. One area where this seems to be particularly evident is science fiction. When I was growing up, science fiction usually meant aliens, spaceships and travels to exotic planets and galaxies – ala Asimov and Heinlein. Over the years, science fiction has splintered into a complex fractal montage. A short list of science fiction sub-genres found on SF Site now includes:
- Military science fiction
- “Hard science” fiction
- Parallel / alternate universe
- Space opera
- Epic fantasy
- Court intrigue
- Quest fantasy
- Historical fantasy
- Contemporary fantasy
- Urban fantasy
- Science fantasy
An example of how far the old uber concept of science fiction has stretched can be glimpsed in an interview with Charles de Lint– one of the pioneers of urban fantasy – by Michael McCarty of Sci-Fi weekly in 2002. Now add to this the sub-subgenre – female urban fantasy. Liz Scheier, an editor for Penguin Group’s Roc imprint, posting on the Irene Goodman Literary Agency blog, provides an entertaining characterization of female urban fantasy and how it evolved. She describes its appeal this way:
There’s flirtation, sex, snarky humor, snappy dialogue and quick pacing. The women are strong, they’re funny, they’re true to life, and they’re frequently getting action from vampires and other charmingly kinky sources. They are leading the lives many of us would like to – and doing it with style.
So, how will we keep track? If I go into most bookstores today, I’m likely to encounter only a science fiction and perhaps a fantasy area. And probably what I discover there will be different than I expected and different in each bookstore. All this makes me wonder if the concept of genre finally outlived its usefulness. Tags are an alternative. Tags have more expressive power, aren’t limited by rigid concepts and work well in cyberspace. But we still live in a world of shelf space and tags don’t function there.
In the meantime, genres continue to spawn, grow, fragment and decline like some promiscuous alien liffe forms. (Hey – this could be the plot for a great cyber-urban-label-horror-fantasy title.)
- The Categorical Imperative
- Widgets, Nuggets and Tags on the Cut and Paste Web
- Making Sense of the Big Miscellaneous