Why do we care so much about what’s in a genre? It’s been bothering me recently as I look at discussions about what is and isn’t steampunk or YA or science fiction. People get into heated debates on this, debates which, while academically interesting, seem to involve a lot of stupid stances. So, to put it in the most sophisticated way possible, what’s that all about?
The YA Debate
YA (young adult) is a hot fiction category at the moment, so of course it’s the focus of arguments. I recently watched a debate on the popularity of YA descend into groundless assertions about what was and wasn’t YA, together with unevidenced definitions and dismissing or embracing whole categories of fiction. It eventually evolved back into something productive and civilised, but for a moment I saw the thin end of the internet stupidity wedge.
Like any debate about genre this had potential to be interesting. There are a bunch of questions to be explored. Is YA really a genre? Why has it become so popular? Does its use as a marketing tool undermine its value for readers? How do different people define it, and why? What does this say about youth consumer power and its impact on culture?
Instead it became people trying to label books as YA or not, or to make value judgements about the whole of YA, in a manner as productive as Margaret Atwood’s assertion that, all evidence to the contrary, she doesn’t write science fiction.
Children, pirates and mixed genres
Also this week I watched Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists, a film which says as much about genre as any of these debates.
Pirates is a delightful film aimed at children and adults willing to embrace innocent delight and wacky goings antics. In a wildly roaming adventure story it crosses over into elements of fantasy – sentient animals, sea monsters – and steampunk – vast steamships, pneumatic underdresses, science both mad and sane.
Despite all these features no-one argues about the film’s genre. That’s probably because it’s aimed at children, who don’t care half as much about genre, its structures or its limitations. They’ll take whatever you throw on the screen, disjointed as it might seem to an adult, and call it fun.
So what happened to us grownups that makes us fight our genre corner?
The psychology of genre
I’m going to go out on a limb here and put forward my own hypothesis. I think that it’s all about identity.
Identity is very important to human beings. If you don’t believe me just look at the national and regional feelings currently stirring in the Crimea, or the way that in fluid times Britains still value their sense of class. Identity is about our sense of self, and if we feel that our identity is under attack then we will leap to defend it.
The problem is that defensiveness often comes across as aggression. If you view yourself as the sort of sophisticated reader who doesn’t touch YA then you may not be happy to hear a favourite book labelled YA, and may leap to attack the associated definition of YA as a way of protecting your sense of self. Similarly, if you consider yourself the sort of open-minded reader who has time for any book, you may take umbrage at people dismissing YA and trying to pare it down just to its shallowest, most commercial stuff.
Attack begats defence begats attack. And again, on a much less significant level, we see the psychology of the Crimea.
Loosening up on genre
After all that, you won’t be surprised to read that I have an opinion on how to approach genre.
I think that genres are useful. They help people to sell books, and other people to find the books they want. They shape the stories we read in interesting ways. But we shouldn’t get too attached to them.
Accept other people’s definitions of genres. They may see a genre differently from you, but that doesn’t make their view wrong, just different.
Don’t defend your interpretation of a genre, but explain it. Explanations give people ideas to think about. Defences give them something to fight.
Accept the grey areas. Lots of stuff falls between genre stools or crosses multiple genres. That’s a sign of creativity, not a threat to the genre you love. If you try to pin down black and white boundaries you’ll just go mad.
But how about the rest of you? Any views on genre boundaries? Any interesting debates you’ve seen on the issue, or points to raise? Then leave something in the comments.
Wait, are comments a genre?