Words Mean Things: Genre
Genre is one of those words that gets tossed around in book circles frequently. We talk about “genre fiction” more often than not, sometimes with a disparaging note in our voices. We’ll talk about kinds of movies or music. We walk into bookstores and we’re greeted with helpful labels telling us where to find books in particular categories. When you’re publishing a book, you’ll even be asked what “genre” your book is.
Finding a Definition
But how many of us can really explain what a genre actually is? We know lots of them, sure: fantasy, romance, mystery, comedy, horror. We might even be able to explain the differences between fantasy and sci-fi, or tell someone about the hallmarks of our favorite (you’ll know you’re reading a romance when …).
But do we actually know what it really is?
The problem is that “genre” is kind of a useless concept that people make a big deal about. The word comes to us from French, where it originally meant “a kind of.” Synonyms include “category,” “type,” and “kind.” We can ask what “kind” of book or movie someone is enjoying just as easily as we can ask about “genre.”
The concept, though, seems to mean something more than just a type, kind, or category. It’s evolved to become a concept that we use to categorize books or other works of art based on shared characteristics, often tropes or stereotypes.
That’s why we can talk about the “sci-fi genre” or the “fantasy genre.” When someone tells us they’re reading a sci-fi novel, it sets up certain expectations for that book: what it will be about, what the plot might be, the characters it involves, the landscapes it’s set against. We might be dead wrong, but we use “genre” as shorthand to make inferences about what the book will be like. Genre, then, begins to transcend just a “type” or a “kind.”
It becomes hugely problematic when we start talking about it, because so many genres overlap and intersect with each other. A book might be a sci-fi novel, but it also might be very humorous—so it will also fall under the “comedy” genre. A sci-fi fan might not like it because it’s not sci-fi enough. A person looking for a funny book may not find it comedic because they aren’t familiar enough with the sci-fi genre to understand what the book’s making fun of.
Another issue with “genre” is that it so often encompasses a huge swath of books. “Fiction” is listed as a genre; within that label, you have different sub-genres. The realm of fiction is huge: fantasy and sci-fi both reside there as murder mysteries, horror novels, and romance stories also do. All books in the “fiction” genre share one characteristic: they’re not true stories; they never actually happened.
Meeting Reader Expectations
This becomes an issue when people start hating on “genre” novels. Usually, they mean category romance or sci-fi novels—that is, those books that stick very close to the tropes. These stories are often criticized as being poorly written or for being “cardboard copies” of other stories. Genre fiction carries with it a negative stereotype for this reason.
On the reverse is books that don’t conform to those genre expectations. Books may be labeled a roman or a sci-fi or a fantasy, but if they stray too far from the tropes genre readers expect, they’ll be villefied. There’s a reason genre fiction tends to stick with the tried-and-true: it’s what readers want.
It’s a fine balance then, trying to be fresh and innovative in a genre, yet also conforming to notions of what makes something belong to a particular category.
Square Pegs, Round Holes
But everything is—or can be—a genre. And most books overflow the bounds of any given genre. Categorization is rarely a neat and tidy affair for anything—people, for example, rarely fit into neat little boxes, even if we do want to give them labels—and genre is much the same.
Trying to fit any book–even one that bills itself as “genre”–into a single category is likely a mistake. There may be a predominant genre or trait. For most novels, that would actually be “fiction” before anything else. Yet we tend to think of “romance novels” or “sci-fi” before we think of the “fiction” category.
Immediately, then, a huge number of books have more than one “genre.” Even when we move from there, exploring romance, we find an ever-expanding number of sub-genres. Your novel might occupy fiction, romance, historical romance, and comedy genres. Or it might end up with a mix of romance, action-adventure, and sci-fi.
Is Genre a Useful Concept?
Amid the issues with categorization, we have to ask: Is genre even a useful concept? There’s often so much confusion about what even constitutes a category, or which books belong in what category, it hardly seems so.
Readers and authors both express frustration and confusion. Authors don’t know what to label their books. They frequently disagree with readers about genre. All too often, readers pick up a book in a particular category, only to be disappointed when it doesn’t conform to their expectations.
In many ways, then, genre isn’t even remotely useful. Trying to categorize a book into one neat little box is a fruitless endeavor. Everyone is going to have different opinions on whether or not the book fits the category “correctly.” This is true even of genre fiction. You might think your book fits, but there will be a group of readers who vehemently disagree.
Of course, some books more readily fit molds than others. They inspire less disagreement. Only a small number of people will disagree with the designation.
And what would we do without genre? Certainly, it’s useful shorthand–when applied correctly–to try to help readers sort through the endless wastelands of literature. If we didn’t have genre, how would we ever find anything we want to read?
It’s a muddled concept, to be sure. It’s not always useful. But in an era when the number of books is so rapidly expanding, any sort of guidepost is a welcome relief for readers who might otherwise be lost at sea.