More on Genres

In Wednesday’s post, I mused a bit on genres (mostly going along with Neal Stephenson’s talk.) Well, in the comments, Roy was having none of that. And he has a point. When I started thinking about it, trying to define genres or even fiction in general is difficult. I was reminded of the opening paragraphs of Clive Barker’s novel, Imajica:

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course — thousands in fact — but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.

Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.

I’m sure this philosophy isn’t anything new (sometimes I like to quote fiction to make a point), but what struck me about it is the way other writers immediately challenged the doctrine. As soon as Pluthero Quexos laid out his grand observation, I’m sure a hundred writers immediately set themselves a task to subvert it. Quexos calls them cheats, but are they? I’d say they probably aren’t. The problem is that by talking about genres or even fiction in general, we’re trying to put a box around it. However, anytime we put a box around something, especially something as subjective as fiction, it’s tempting to think outside the box. Actually, it’s fun to think outside the box.

I think this is why I like genre fiction so much. The very premise of a genre is to limit the story to some series of conventions… but the definition of what constitutes any specific genre is blurry, and writers like to play within that gray area. It’s fun. A while ago, I wrote about the definition of a weblog, and I basically thought about weblogs as a genre:

A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces “cross-genre,” though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates “Drama”). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.

A lot of fiction does this even within itself. It sets up a paradigm, and then sets out to subvert it somehow. A great example of this is Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. In those stories, Asimov laid out the now infamous Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov was able to work wonders within the seemingly limiting framework of the three laws. Without going into specifics, he was actually able to have robots murdering humans. Technically, Asimov was thinking inside the box, but by the end of the series, the three laws were completely unreliable (and he’d broken out of the box). Of course, anyone familiar with formal systems is also familiar with the deductive process Asimov used, and the three laws probably isn’t that notable of a system except in that it is easily understood by an informal audience (and don’t mistake me, that is the brilliance of the three laws). Of course, by breaking out of the box, Asimov cheated a bit, but again, that’s all part of the fun.

In any case, I like talking about genres, even though it’s probably not possible to be definitive. It’s fun anyway, and subverting the genre is definitely a part of that…

3 thoughts on “More on Genres”

  1. “The problem is that by talking about genres or even fiction in general, we’re trying to put a box around it. However, anytime we put a box around something, especially something as subjective as fiction, it’s tempting to think outside the box. Actually, it’s fun to think outside the box.”

    It is, isn’t it?

    I think that the other problem with labeling and boxing things is the reality that things aren’t always nice and square. As often as not, what we’re really doing is cramming square pegs through round holes.

    And, the bigger the pool being categorized is, the more overlaps you’re going to find. If I’ve only got a few dozen films or books to mark, I’m not going to need very many genres to do so. I’d probably break it into Fiction and Non-Fiction first, and then probably have the major breaks after that- Drama, Action, Romance, Comedy and Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy, for example. Breaking things down more than that would approach silly with so few items, because the break-down would cease to have meaning. If I’ve only got three films under drama, there’s no need to break them out into Mystery and Medical Drama. But, give me a few hundred films, and I’m going to start having more categories, because the pool is larger. I’m also going to start noticing more overlap. I’m going to start getting categories like “Sports Films” or “Horror-Comedy” or “Romantic Comedy”.

    I’ve got a ton more to say, but I keep having new thoughts and deleting my comments. Maybe that’s a sign to think about it some more. =P

  2. When you really think about it, the difference between fiction and non-fiction becomes a little blurred too. How many times have you watched a documentary, then found out that there were key elements missing? The best documentaries are the ones that acknowledge the incomplete picture they paint. Books seem less susceptible to this, but ultimately, perhaps not.

    And yes, genres are getting more and more specific. You mention “Horror-Comedy” for instance. What about “rom-zom-coms” like Shaun of the Dead? Heh.

    I look forward to your additional thoughts:)

  3. It’s funny you should mention books- I think they’re every bit as suceptible to that. In fact, they’re probably moreso in some ways. Think about “memoirs” like Million Little Pieces that turn out to be fictional. I just finished a book called “Have You Found Her” by Janice Erlbaum (great, great book, by the by) that I thought was fiction the entire time I was reading it, only to discover after-the-fact that it was actually a memoir, and that the “story” it tells actually happened to the author. I think that we’ve come to expect a certain level of, shall we say “fudging the facts” from films. I certainly don’t expect Mike Moore’s films- documentary though they claim to be- to be untouched by bias or hyperbole for effect. But, with books, *because* they’re books, I think that we have a higher expectation that they’ll be what they pretend to be. And that leaves them ripe for abuse. As with Million Little Pieces.

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