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Are We Post-Genre? by Harry Markov

Don’t mind the foreboding title. I am not implying that the genre as a means to identifying the books we want to read will cease to exist, but wondering whether or not we are past the point, where a reader, a reviewer or even a writer can pinpoint with certainty, to which genre a book belongs.

From a reviewer perspective I need to know a novel’s genre in order to be able to adequately comment upon its strengths and weaknesses in the subgenre context, which brings a distinct criteria set that aids the reviewer in his work. As a writer on the other, there are a few reasons why genre/subgenre plays an important function and that is namely marketing and placing the novel in the right section, pitching it to the right agents, editors and audience and last but not least identifying it with something that already sells. For the reader the genre system is the literary equivalent of the “I am a Mac” and “I am a PC” commercials. Because the bookaholics are in the millions and the way they click together is via the genre system.

But what happens when statistically the secondary genres grow, breed tertiary genres and then some, and also the guidelines between these aren’t actually that tangible and easily subjected to interpretation? Right about now I have counted around sixteen give or take science fiction subgenres. I’m not at the least knowledgeable there so I’m leaving this genre on the side and focusing on fantasy, which seems to be industrious at creating new genres and hybrids with a number barely reaching thirty subgenres. And yes, there are genres by theme, by setting and by time, all of which overlap at some point or another.

If the rough home-made statistic is not enough, let’s nitpick at some of the hottest subgenres, which have been on the rise. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance spring to my mind in an instant. As far I have talked with authors from both genres the difference between the genres lies within the focus the author puts on the elements and plot. Urban fantasy accents upon the dangerous mystery, while paranormal romance spotlights the passionate romantic relationship and this is it. Both genres have a modern urban setting, a hidden magical world, a strong hero or heroine, who is more or less involved emotionally.

Urban fantasy is often associated with powerful heroines, usually described as hard-as-nails and butt-kicking, with complicated love lives. But amidst those we see Seaborn, where the politics and intrigues are on a bigger scale and actual wars are thought not unlike high fantasy, and The Dresden Files, which star a male protagonist. Also there is Emma Bull, Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman and others, who show exactly how varied this genre is. Confusing, eh?

Literary works need two elements to be considered urban fantasy: 1) a modern setting and 2) a magical world that seems to be either hidden or accepted. Now this definition also brings another subgenre to the table and namely Contemporary fantasy, which seems to be based on the same basic formula. Right about here I am lost as to what is UF and what is CF. If anyone can clearly describe the differences between both I would appreciate it.

Furthermore with the current movement to make every story harsher, crueler, darker, grittier and scarier thins the line between urban/contemporary fantasy and supernatural horror, which now hangs on the perspective. I explain it like this. With supernatural horror we’ve creatures and events, which are unexpected, alien and feared, while with urban fantasy the creatures and events are accepted and integrated and even anticipated. Otherwise try to explain to me how Stoker’s Dracula is any different than Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis, where vampires are also animalistic predators, but is marketed as urban fantasy.

I can go on with questions such as whether Gena Showalter’s Alien Huntress series should really be paranormal romance, when they are clearly set in a future Earth with aliens or has to be labeled as science fiction. Where do steampunk and alternative history belong: fantasy or science fiction? Can we even begin to peg superhero fiction anywhere? And also what about Science Fantasy, a subgenre further breaks down genre barriers? As far as Science Fantasy is to be concerned just read Ursula LeGuin’s Heinish Cycle to see for yourself how hard it is to place them solely into the science fiction canon, when we have too many fantasy elements in Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and The World for World is Forest.

To me these are signs that we are beyond the genre system. Now mind you I am not implying that genre itself will become extinct, but I think that it will become harder for us, the insiders to use narrowed subgenre tags, when everybody is bent on breeding hybrids and unique blends like Alex Bledsoe and his traditional fantasy pulp detective novels. This is so, because to me the functions the genre served once are no longer required.

Before Twitter, the review blogs, the forums and even the Internet, the genre was the sales pitch [not that I am sure, after all it wasn’t my time, but I hope it’s all sensible assumptions] and the customer could easily guide his purchases. I also think that this genre orientation was a considerately easier to do back then, when the market wasn’t as enormous and varied as it is now. Now when you say fantasy and imply sword fights and parties you get recommended for instance Joe Abercrombie and Chris Evans, authors that can’t exactly be compared. The sales pitch now is all about names, either author names or book titles.

If you’ve thought X was brilliant, then Y will also blow your mind. It’s how books are sold, how review copies are queried at reviewers, how unpublished writers market their idea to agents and editors. Fiction now is more or less clinging to an archetypical trope rather than a distinct arrangement of elements and it shows. Twilight’ [sadly] spawned a legion of novels that embody the formula “young love that wasn’t meant to be, but with a supernatural being” and Buffy [awesomely] created “the empowered woman against the hostile magical world.”

But apart from business functions, genres function as community builders. With time they grow and evolve into complex ecosystems, which can have an extremely high bar to enter and demand a rich reading background to access it at its current stage, if they are left out as closed systems. It’s like trying to understand A Brief History of Time without knowing a thing or two in physics. Genre ambiguity and the hybrids, which incorporate action, detective, thriller, mystery, romance and what not themes from commercial genres, lower that entrance bar. It’s evident on how many people bought Harry Potter, Twilight, The Time Traveler’s Wife and also how many people watched and loved the Dark Night plus other awesome super hero movies, Underworld and Groundhog Day.

So, conclusions. I think that the publishing industry is evolving rapidly and morphing into something nobody can exactly predict. Genres in the cruder sense won’t budge much, but I am not as sure that the subgenres will hold for much longer. Then again I may be wrong and find myself writing reviews with ten letter abbreviations to name the genre. Thoughts?

Harry Markov is a reader, a reviewer and a writer under construction. Detailed accounts on his exploration through speculative fiction as he hops from book to book can be found on his review blog Temple Library Reviews. As far as his writing journey goes, his ramblings on writing and the mechanics of the publishing industry, along with a few speculations are available on his blog Through a Forest of Ideas.