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eBooks and the Death and Ongoing Life of Genre


So the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of interesting discussion around the nature of genre, and the future of speculative fiction. What really got me going on this started in a fascinating Twitter discussion with @JMMcDermott and @EruditeOgre, and was then furthered by Elizabeth Bear’s hilarious essay at Clarkesworld, to which Abi Sutherland at Making Light offered a poignant rejoinder, and then Charles Stross posited that e-books will kill the concept of genre within our lifetimes. These essays are part of the periodic paroxysm of existential fright that grips genre aficionados about once every eighteen months. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the second book printed on a Gutenberg press was a polemic about the death of genre.

And yet, we come back to this question time and again because it does have value. It is valuable to us as both creators and consumers of speculative fiction, in that it forces us to explore our consensus definition of genre, and shapes the borders at which innovative creators strain. I have nothing significant to add to either Bear’s essay or Sutherland’s response, but Stross’ contention that “within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die” (emphasis his) is one with which I strongly disagree.

Stross argues that the concept of genre is relevant inasmuch as it assists in channeling economic activity: facilitating the organization of physical books in a bookstore so as to aid consumer navigation, and indicating to consumers books which share characteristics with other titles they might have enjoyed. And yes, genre and the genre markers that adorn (so often laughably) book covers do serve these two purposes. And Stross is absolutely correct that as digital distribution of narrative increases (and potentially overtakes its analog ancestor) the relevance of genre to these economic functions will decrease (possibly to zero, though I doubt that). But this will not mark the death knell of genre for the simple reason that genre’s uses go beyond the two economic purposes he focuses on. To paraphrase V for Vendetta, genre is an idea. And ideas are very hard to kill.

The Idea of Genre

When we talk about genre – about speculative fiction, historical romance, literary fiction – we are engaging in an activity that separates homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom: pattern recognition. As we read and write, we notice patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into our neurology, and it is something that our brain just does. And it is precisely this capacity for pattern recognition that gave rise to genres: when the first audience told the first storyteller to tell them a new story “like that previous one” genre was created.

Whenever we compare one work of art to another we are engaging in a discussion of genre. When we label a genre (mysteries, for example) we use that to define what Brian Attebery calls a “fuzzy set”: a porous, inexact understanding of shared characteristics. What I understand as “mystery” might differ significantly from your understanding. But if there is enough overlap in the characteristics that comprise our definitions, then my mystery and yours become compatible. And we can discuss them. At its heart, this is the core of genre. It does not have a purpose other than to group a set of narratives which share some common pattern. But such a pattern can be utilized for a variety of purposes – including, but not limited to those that Stross suggests may be doomed.

The Utility of Genre

Because genre is a construct that emerges from our human nature, we all use it. Consumers use it. Booksellers use it. So do publishers. And writers. And yes, even critics. But the ways in which each actor makes use of genre differ.

In essence, a consumer’s primary relationship with genre is to identify it when they see it. Whether consumers apply a genre label to a work of art or not, it is their consensus view of shared characteristics that ultimately defines a genre. Even if – as Stross describes – traditional genre labels (science fiction) grow more fragmented (becoming police procedural, cyberpunk, near-future), consumers will still rely on the concept of genre to differentiate between types of texts. But consumers do not operate in a vacuum: their view of characteristics is shaped by (and in turn shapes that of) all the other actors, especially other consumers.

It is in this sense that the idea of genre defining and being defined by a community arises: a mutual appreciation for a set of narrative characteristics implies further commonalities between people. It’s that old pattern recognition deal again: if we both like X, then we have similar tastes, we think the same way, we are fans, we are friends. And at extremes of identification, it becomes “we are Borg”. This natural sense of community is centered around the thorniest aspect of consumers’ relationship to genre: value (which stems partially from individual taste, and partially from socially-constructed norms). When we mix genre and community with value (which is wholly independent from either), then we get conflict. Bear in mind, however, that this conflict can occur either between genres (SF versus mainstream literary fiction) or even within a genre (e.g. light-hearted vs grimdark). Yet when such conflict arises, it ultimately strengthens community ties within genre, though this can lead to ghettoisation of genre (or sub-genre). And this evolving identification and valorization of genre and its constituent components feeds back into the other actors’ and their view of genre.

The backdrop to Stross’, Bear’s, and Sutherland’s points is that we now live in a world where the traditional lines conflict between various genre labels is fading. Today, one traditional genre (mainstream literary fiction) can blithely adopt the devices and conventions of another (magic, imaginary technology, etc.) and vice versa, all without finding its genre label changed. This is not – contrary to Stross’ point – an erosion of the concept of genre. It is merely the evolution of our current genre labels.

Booksellers – whose goal is to get a consumer to purchase a book – have the narrowest set of uses for genre, and rely most heavily upon genre labels and their external markers. They use the concept of genre in exactly the sense that Stross discusses: to help consumers find books that may appeal to them. The conventions of a genre and the intertextual dialog within and across genres is irrelevant to their needs: such an understanding will rarely help them sell a book. But having the ability to identify the characteristics endemic to a particular genre will tell the bookseller where to shelve the book, and give them a sense of what it may be similar to. For this particular group of actors, Stross is correct: ebooks are starting and will continue to disrupt both the process by which consumers find books that will appeal to them, and the reliance on physical genre markers (which brick and mortar stores need). But this is not to say that genre distinctions will become irrelevant. More fragmented, as Stross suggests, possibly. The list of “usual suspects” might change. Tag clouds might replace menu systems. And yes, “science fiction” may become a sub-genre of literary fiction. But writers will still write, and they will still write in dialog with one another, and they will still rely on conventions and characteristics in creative ways…thus perpetuating the existence of genre itself.

At one level, all writers are fervent consumers of the written word. They are passionate and vocal members of a self-defined community centered around the object of their appreciation: the genre of writing they enjoy and produce. But because writers are engaged in the production of art, they are by necessity forced to a greater awareness of the characteristics that constitute their chosen genre. And that awareness seeps into the writing, and manifests itself in the intertextuality many genres are known for. When we write, our oblique references and thematic responses to, and structural divergences from earlier writing within and outside of genre represents a dialog across years and bookshelves. Intertextuality is not limited to speculative fiction, though sometimes it seems like we think it is. All genres are intertextual, whether it is mainstream southern gothic or paranormal romance, and it is the writers’ role to direct the progression of their genres’ evolution. By choosing which characteristics to reject, which to adopt, and which to tweak writers are steering the ship of genre. Of course, provided that publishers print what they write.

I suspect that publishers have the most complicated relationship with genre, because they exist at the nexus of all other actors. In one sense, a publisher can be thought of as a collection of more specialized actors: senior management, editorial, design, sales, marketing/publicity, etc. Just as booksellers use genre to facilitate a consumers’ purchase of a book, publishers use genre to optimize their unit sales. Across all of the specialists within a publishing house, everyone must have an awareness of consumers’ approach to genre for the simple reason that the publisher is always chasing consumer taste, desperate to get ahead of it.

Consider how senior management responds to new trends through their imprint portfolio and list management strategy: is leprechaun fiction the hot new sub-genre? That makes it time to either buy an imprint that understands that sub-genre, or to expand the list into that arena. Which falls to editorial, who rely on their sense of genre to identify and position titles within their lists, as well as to provide a vocabulary for interacting with their writers. Editors work with writers to “make the best possible book” – but what that really means is that editors use an in-depth knowledge of narrative conventions (spanning all genres or particular to a particular one) to coax writers into optimizing their work such that value (the subjective assessment of quality simplistically represented through sales) can be maximized. Editors’ familiarity with genre conventions, with the bones of storytelling and structure, facilitate this discussion and help them to select the best (read: most likely to sell or earn critical acclaim) titles. Designers must use their awareness of how booksellers utilize genre to make choices about book specs and cover art. And marketing, sales, and publicity must all understand the relationship that consumers, critics, and booksellers all have with genre so as to engage with each group of stakeholders when and where appropriate. If the publisher or some department thereof does not understand the genre, then performance (as measured by sales) will be weakened. From the publishers’ perspective, value is equivalent to sales. But that is not necessarily the case: a book may be immensely valuable, but have rather abysmal sales. And to a great extent it falls to critics (and consumers) to direct this consideration.

In this context, I mean critics in a broader fashion than that of people who write book reviews. Instead, I mean all those individuals who engage with writing in a critical, exploratory fashion and who – as a consequence and over generations – shape consumer opinion and understanding. This includes professional reviewers, book bloggers, vocal consumers, and university professors. Each of these uses genre to explore four different subjects:

Quality The readability, entertainment value, and philosophical worth of a work of art.
Intertextual Relationships The relationship of one work of art to other works (essentially the exploration of the genre itself).
Cultural Observation The relationship between one work of art and our society or a subset thereof.
Writing Techniques The techniques through which a work of art achieves its effects.

The latter three subjects all require a fluency with genre characteristics to be successful. One cannot comment meaningfully on the intertextual relationship between John le Carré and Ian Fleming without being familiar with spy fiction. One cannot meaningfully explore SF fandom without knowing its community. And one cannot explore the structure and content of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland without knowing both epic fantasy and travel guide conventions. But it is the first critical subject – that of assessing quality – that is most problematic.

Critics are consumers first: they have their own tastes and their own predilections just as any other consumer. They are part of a community of readers and fans, whether they self-identify as such or not. Their tastes and membership of a particular community centered around one or more genres shapes their perception of quality: I know what I like, and I like what I know. The broader a critic’s familiarity with multiple genres, the deeper and more insightful the criticism they can provide. But the critics most (educated) consumers interact with are university professors, who are often woefully narrow in their tastes: whereas professional reviewers and bloggers tend to read widely, the modern academic world puts a premium on specialization. And when these critics’ critical assessments of quality run up against a consumer’s or another critic’s tastes, conflict is produced. When this happens repeatedly, we get into a conflict of community that gives us a ghettoisation of a particular genre. And so the cycle continues.

Quo vadis, genre?

So is Stross right that ebooks will doom genre? I don’t think so. As I’ve outlined above, ebooks will mostly affect two actors in the space that defines genre: booksellers and publishers. Consumers, writers, and critics (and for that matter editors and to a lesser extent designers) will continue to spot patterns in what they read and write, and they will continue to make future decisions/purchases based on the patterns they have identified. Until and unless our neural wiring gets completely redesigned, that is not going to change. At least, I hope it won’t.

The concept of genre is, I think, quite safe. But the particular genre labels and the relationships between those labels is likely to change. For one thing, as Stross points out, it will become more fragmented. But that fragmentation is the fate of every genre, as it fissions into sub-genre after sub-genre, until eventually a sub-genre eclipses in relevance the genre that spawned it. After all, that is exactly what happened with mainstream literary postmodern texts and the modernist fiction that preceded them. We will just have to work that much harder to stay abreast of changing genre labels and conventions. But this is nothing new (see my earlier rant about ignorance of contemporary YA SF).

But just because ebooks won’t wipe the concept of genre from the planet, the world of literature will nevertheless be changed by them. The internet is lousy with insight into how ebooks will affect publishers, and booksellers, and consumers, and writers. But I have seen no real discussion of how ebooks will affect literary criticism. I’d love to know what you folks think about that: I have only just started to think about this dimension of ebooks, and as it stands I don’t have any real opinions yet. What implications do ebooks have for literary criticism?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. crotchetyoldfan #

    Thanks for continuing this discussion which I will be addressing myself in a review later today.
    I think the future of genre is assured so long as one person continues to ask another “so, what do you like to read?”.

    May 11, 2012
    • Absolutely. The concept of genre is a way to condense tons of descriptive information into a compact, easy to use shorthand. As long as we’re going to talk about books / reading, it will be useful for its information density.

      May 11, 2012
  2. Really interesting discussion, thanks. I’ve yet to succumb to ebooks of any description so may not be in a position to influence developments. But I think you’re absolutely right, the situation will be very fluid.

    March 7, 2013

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