That word again

Genre.

The Encarta World English Dictionary that came loaded on my iBook gives one definition of “genre” as “one of the categories that artistic works of all kinds can be divided into on the basis of form, style, or subject matter. For example, detective novels are a genre of fiction.”

What triggered that interest in the definition of the word was an eye-catching item in the latest Authors Guild Bulletin. William Gibson, in a recent interview, was asked if he felt that his work transcended the science fiction genre. He replied, “My roots are in the genre. That is the funny thing. Novels are called novels because, ideally, they provide a novel experience. But in genre, you’re sort of buying a guarantee that you’re going to have essentially the same experience again and again. It’s a novel. It won’t be too novel. Don’t worry.”

I stared at that quotation after I first read it, and finally decided that while I disagreed with it vehemently on one level, I sort of agreed with it on another. I’ll stick with detective novels as my examples. I derive nothing close to the same type of satisfaction from a Lillian Jackson Braun tale about Jim Qwilleran and his cats that I do from one of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus police procedurals. While at a great distance, the general outlines of the stories appear the same–murder, investigation, resolution–the flesh that covers the genre skeleton couldn’t be more different. The Braun books are comfortable, even when there’s murder involved. Quick, enjoyable reads about familiar characters in a pleasant–despite all the killings–small town setting. The Rebus books, on the other hand, are unsettling, detailed accounts of crime and its effect on victims and perpetrators, spiced with healthy doses of office politics and played out against the vivid backdrop of Rankin’s Edinburgh. Same, yet not the same–there is that skeleton. But it’s just a dead stack of bones until you add the details, and those details are what make these books so different. Diametric opposites. Yes, they’re both mysteries, but come on…

But they are both mysteries. There is a pattern that is followed, and it is a very satisfying pattern to fans of both series, and of the genre as a whole. That pattern is why readers seek out those books and others like them, because they like to dig out clues, and see if they can guess whodunit before the protags do, and root for Qwill or Rebus as they overcome whatever obstacles Braun and Rankin have thrown in their respective paths. There are rules that the authors follow. For example, they play fair, laying out all the information necessary to determine who committed the crime over the course of the tale. Writers have broken that rule in the past, and some of the resulting stories have worked, but the rule-breaking stories I’ve read don’t work for me as mysteries. There was a certain expectation, and it was not met. I had wanted a variety of The Same, and I got Different, and I muttered to myself about fair play and read on.

I used mystery as my genre example because to me, science fiction has less skeleton to start with. For me, the science provides setting, background. Plot points as well, but not major ones. Others would disagree, and maintain that the definition of science fiction is a story in which the science, The Shiny, must be the point of the tale. And sometimes it is. Other times…

Bujold’s Vorkosigan tales and Peter Watts’ Blindsight.  Both science fiction, but do they really provide the same experience? At a distance, there are the similarities, the skeletons. Alien life, or human life reengineered enough to be considered alien. Journeys in spacecraft. Threats of war. Humanity, or the population of a world, at risk. But does that bare skeleton of commonality make them the same?

Human beings are genre, if it comes to that.  Skeleton, muscle, brains, organs, over and over and over…

Novel: a fictional prose work with a relatively long and often complex plot, usually divided into chapters, in which the story traditionally develops through the thoughts and actions of its characters .

I didn’t set out to write a defense of genre fiction. In my opinion, all novels are mysteries. There are questions asked, answers to be mined, resolutions to be sought and sometimes attained. I think Gibson settled on one flavor of SF as indicative of the whole, and I don’t believe that was valid. I think he gave it short shrift, for whatever reason.

The same, yet different.

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    Interestingly enough, I blogged on a similar topic today, based on a London Times article on how the British perceive science fiction as a genre. The journalist who wrote that article opined that science fiction was an important genre that was getting short shrift because of a lack of respect. But I think your topic goes beyond that to whether or not genre is, in general, a good thing or not. Is “pattern” the same thing as “formula”?

    I don’t think so, but I do think some genres are more prone to whatever this amorphous quality is than others. I read a new Martha Grimes book recently. Aside from some plot holes, I was incensed that at the end, the detective and the reader both knew the murderer but in spite of scenes that led me to believe he would find the evidence, the detective couldn’t prove the murderer guilty.

    Perhaps the best phrase is “implied contract with the reader.” I certainly felt Martha Grimes had broken it.

  2. 2. Mike Brotherton

    I kind of think science fiction and fantasy are the only genres that ever even promise anything novel. In a good sf/f book (let’s avoid Gibsonian word games), there should always be something new that hasn’t been see before, and, also equally importantly, a new human reaction to it. You find a new “what if?” to hold up, and then search for a new truth about humanity when confronted by the new situation/technology/world.

    Pretty much everything *but* sf/f promises more of the same, so I strongly disagree with Gibson, too.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    I’ve always thought that mystery and romance are genres defined by a certain plot structure, whereas science fiction, fantasy, and western are defined more by tropes of setting. (Horror seems to be defined mostly by affect — the reaction it’s trying to provoke in the reader).

    Which is why you can cross-breed easily across those lines: a fantasy romance. A science fiction mystery. Etc.

  4. 4. Kristine Smith

    Marie–I think you’re right. In which case, it reduces even more the chance that any given group of books will boil down to repeats of the same old same old. And makes me wonder even more how Gibson could have said what he said.

  5. 5. Skip

    I think I’d have to disagree to a certain extent with Gibson. I mean, sure, there are certain things I know I can count on. If I buy some military sf from Baen I know basically what I’m getting, and that I’ll likely enjoy it. But it won’t be too deep. And if I buy some fantasy novel that appears Tolkienesque on the cover, by and large it’s going to have elves, dwarves, and a standard Campbellian hero’s journey.

    But on the other hand, take a guy like Lewis Shiner, who was lumped into the cyberpunk genre when it first started out. Every book he put out was different. They all affected me emotionally. And even containing some futuristic elements, they all probably shouldn’t have been on SF shelves. But yet if they hadn’t, I’d probably have never found him as an author to read. SF/F encompasses authors like this, and I think this is a good thing.

  6. 6. Joerg

    In the age of tagging, genres really seem like an anachronism to me. It’s the concept of exclusiveness that destroys the possibility of genres to work, especially in idea-based works like Science Fiction (and by that, I mean the tag “SciFi”). If you think of these words as tags rather than categories, it becomes so much easier.

  7. 7. tycho garen

    In the end there are good books (ie. books you like or appreciate) and bad books (books you don’t like or appreciate), and most other classifications (genres) are meant as abstractions on this, and literary criticism exists on some level to moderate this system, I guess. If a critic calls something SF it likely has a higher burden.

    Having said that, while I appreciate the logic of Gibson’s remarks, the tone and spirit turn my stomach. I sort of think that by distancing himself from the genre, he’s able to say “I came out of the genre but I’m better than that now.” And I don’t mean to pick on Gibson, but the general dismissal of the genre by clearly genre writers. I’m thinking also of the field of “Magical Realism,” which seems to me to be science fiction by a less prejudicial term.

    I think there’s probably a benefit to beginning as an SF writer, there’s a community, there are conventions, there are fans. This is a great thing, and while I think when you’re at the top of the genre game it might seem like a limiting factor, but I think respecting and showing solidarity for the genre is really crucial.

  8. 8. Kristine Smith

    SF is not monolithic. Nor is fantasy, for that matter (and fwiw, I’d relabel magic realism as “fantasy acceptable to critics.” If you outgrow one aspect of one or the other, there are plenty of others out there ready to grab you by the ears and swing you around the room. So to speak.

    I’m surprised that Gibson said what he said. I don’t know if he was trying to distance himself from SF as a whole, or if he just not thinking. The reply seemed to confirm the opinions of those critics who consider all SF a mish-mash of space squids and ray guns. If they find stories that don’t contain those things, stories that they find themselves liking, stories that are outside the very narrow limits of what they think of as SF, they say that they transcend the genre. It makes them feel better, I guess. It’s also utter bilge.

  9. 9. Laura Reeve

    Gibson may be referring to the reader that rigidly stays within their comfort zone and I’ve met very few SF/F readers like this. I do have a friend who only reads Star Wars novels and that’s how he defines SF. Another friend of mine loves the Charlaine Harris books, but didn’t like the Kim Harrison book I loaned her because it was “too different.”

    However, these readers seem to be in the minority. Science fiction and fantasy has a large readership that appreciates the new and unique (as Mike B. has said). While they can be depended upon to understand genre tropes and settings (see Marie B.’s comment), they’re not going to be satisfied with the “same old thing, just a little different.” Gibson’s words are pretty thoughtless, considering that these readers are the ones that opened his books and gave them a try, perhaps eventually becoming his fans.

  10. 10. Daemon

    I think it helps if the word “genre” is broken down. It doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing all the time.

    Take sci-fi and fantasy. While many SF stories revolve around a particular “shiny” – most of the ones that I’ve read and really enjoyed aren’t. Same thing applies to fantasy. Whne you get down to it, the only thing that is required to be qualified as sci-fi or fantasy is for the setting to hold a few basic traits.

    In the cases of mystery, horror and romance, setting isn’t really a core concern of the genre. Horror and romance both seek to elicit emotional responces from the readers. Mysteries present the reader with a puzzle to solve.

    I’m really not sure what the hell Bill is on about. I mean, yes, there are some stereotypical plots within SF – but SF is just a setting. Within that setting, there is every kind of story that can fit within it’s, rather broad, constraints. Pern is SF. Dune is SF. the Ship Who series is SF. Johnny Mnemnonic is SF. A hardboiled detective novel that happens to be set in a lunar colony would be SF (though it would also be mystery).

    SF is so huge that it’s divided it into all sorts of sub-categories that are often only tengentially related. There usually isn’t much in common between Cyberpunk and Space Opera for example.

    I mean, I know what he’s on about in a general sense… There is a fair amount of repition within the genres, some more than others. Romance is the most notorious for it with mystery probably coming in a close second. Now look at poetry. Many forms of poetry have very strong restrictions. The traditional rules for creating a proper haiku are actually fairly restricting – certainly moreso than the rules of the romance genre. Yet few people object to haiku or sonnets or what have you based on the fact that they have similarities to other similar works.

    When all is said and done, I can’t see SF or F being very constraining. It’s almost like he’s complaining about being limited to using history as the basis of a historical novel.

Author Information

Kristine Smith

I'm a scientist by day, spec fic writer by nights and weekends. Author of the Jani Kilian SF series. Owned by two overgrown puppies. Visit site.

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