100 Aspects of Genre: Learning from the Dead and the Dying
In thinking about genre, the thing I struggle with the most is that it doesn’t exist. Genre can’t exist within any given project or any given author. To the degree that it’s anything at all, it’s a relationship between individual projects, individual authors, and individual books. When I say China Mieville is New Weird rather than Urban Fantasy, I’m not actually saying anything about Perdido Street Station or The City & the City as books. I’m talking about a taxonomy that exists entirely in my head (and the heads of the fine marketing folks at the publishers and bookstores who want to make sure I’m happy with my purchase).
What we really have is a huge count of individual books, all different from each other, but with some sharing certain characteristics. Most of these books fall into the marketplace like a stone in the ocean, barely leaving a ripple. A few bec0me massive cultural phenomena — often for no obvious reason. But then there’s this bit in between. When we look at the patterns of what achieves commercial success, we see pools of books that seem related. These authors are working on similar projects, and the percentages of successful books with similar characteristics is high. So, for instance, books with a female protagonist, a plot that revolves around heterosexual romance , a resolution that relies on the successful love relationship being formed between the protagonist and the object of her desire, and with a theme or moral that argues that romantic love will conquer all obstacles appear more likely to find commercial success than some other books with different characteristics.
Those sets of “winning” attributes begin to define a genre. Romance for that, but we could build a different set of attributes for fantasy or mystery or whatever.
Evolution is often misunderstood as a continual process of refinement toward excellence. It isn’t. It is a desperate, generational struggle to adapt to a changing environment. An organism that was the top predator at a pH of 6.8 may be free biomass for other organisms to eat and use at a pH of 6. The relationship between organisms and their environment (and so also with other organisms) is in constant flux, and a winning strategy in the Pleistocene may or may not be a winning strategy now. Species flourish, and become extinct. Ecological niches open, and they also close.
And so it is with genres.
I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time. When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers. You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty. (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)
But what we’re anxious about changes over time, and it doesn’t always change back. If I’m right, then I’d expect to see new genres being born as books struggle to address the landscape of the time. And also dead genres whose stories spoke to a moment that has in some way passed. And that’s exactly what I see.The problem I’m sitting with right now is that I have some sense of what function present genres have.