The Semantics of Naming Genres For Books (and other things)

A Curmudgeon-In-Training Rant: cf. http://curtisagency.com/blog/about#comment-9784

INCOMPLETE / WORK-IN-PROGRESS

OK, so Richard J. Wilson asked on a publisher’s WordPress-maintained blog (and had received no visible response after MONTHS…):

Can someone please define these terms: “commercial” fiction; “mainstream” fiction; “upscale” fiction; “literary” fiction; “steam punk” fiction. Thank you!

 My immediate reply said in part:

The first four genre-indicators you list are essentially variations upon the same theme, and may apply at one point or another in the lifespan of any given book with equal degree of squishiness / accuracy (or failure to achieve direct semantic meaning when examined in isolation).  The first three in particular are more-or-less semantically null: a book falls into those because the publisher or a critic says that it does.  “Literary” is a bit more of a stretch, and often indicates something with a high degree of acceptance by critics and perhaps academia, but often lacks true market penetration with the majority of readers (at least within the year or two after initial release).  _Valley of the Dolls_ might be one example of a novel spanning all four categories within my lifetime (and I’m still short of six full decades as I write this).

Steampunk is actually the most descriptive out of the five, and also perhaps simultaneously restrictive and free-wheeling.  The most simplistic definition of steampunk is as a subgenre of science fiction (and fantasy) where technology has advanced or otherwise exists in combinations not seen in the “real” world.  From TV and film, approachable examples can be “Wild Wild West”, “Briscoe County Junior”, and “Back to the Future III”.  In books and derived works, the ancestors of steampunk include Captain Nemo (Jules Verne), the Traveller (H.G. Wells “Time Machine”), and Anthony “Buck” Rogers (Nowlan – yes, a novel came before the film serials, comic strips, and more recent TV series).

So here, in an initial form, is the Curmudgeon-In-Training’s long-form response defining some uses of “genre” in categorizing literary works:

Ground rules up front – what follows is MY opinion.  That opinion is based upon more than a half-century as a reader, and may in some ways contradict your own.  Almost certainly things I opine here will be at odds with one publisher, or academic, or critic, or any other individual who reads.  However, my blog = my rules.  (Grumpiness number one established.  Yay.)

OK, with that basic precept / (hopeful) understanding established, here’s the next biggie:  as long as my stories are getting sold, I don’t give much of a rat’s behind what some scholar in academia or critic hiding behind their position’s title might say, at least as far as I am accorded the right of defense AND (gosh-darn-it-all-to-heck) real and intelligent debate upon our differences.

Going for the third leg of the tripod:  genre definitions inherently begin with a value judgment as to the veracity of the work being defined by the genre. Is it a work of fiction? Is it a poetic examination? Is it NON-fiction? (Yes, there are cross-overs and cross-pollinations and cross-ups out there in the wilds of the “real” world. Live with them. I will attempt to recognize them in the chart/outline when we get there, but remember always that I never claim this to be THE definitive work on this subject. It will go further than the most simplistic basics, however.)

Batter up!  OK, yet, mixed metaphor alert should also be issued.  If I am going to batter at the gates of the literary castles out there, I’m bringing siege equipment to bear upon the task, including shovels to clear away the batter. (Some research may be needed on your part to follow portions of the preceding sentence — have fun storming the castle!…)

Definitions Before Definitions:  Topicality versus “True” Genre

Publishers have traditionally (mis-)used genre to such an extent that the term is indeed rather fuzzy around the edges.  My working Rule of Thumb is to differentiate Genre from Topic.  Genre is hereby decreed to cover a range of topics that have some (RATIONAL) commonality.  Sub-genre is often determined as restrictive to a narrow range of topics.

By way of example, consider the Fiction:Young Adult genre.  One traditional sub-genre of Young Adult popular in my own youth  was Animal Stories, which were further distinguished by topic as Horse Stories, Dog Stories, and the like.  In more recent years, a substantial subgenre of Fiction:Mystery has grown up around Cat Mysteries.

Generally recognized sub-genre in Fiction:Romance may be complicated about as far as any other of the top-tier genre can be.  Consider for the moment a romance set on an alien planet among the survivors of a crashed starship, who have the uncomfortable additional complication of developing psychic abilities due to contamination of the water supply.  Is it Science Fiction, Paranormal, Survival, or Eco-Disaster – or simply Romance in a strange setting?  Pity the traditional publishing assistant trying to market this one!

Genre:  The Essential short-List

  • Fiction
  • NON-Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Games/Simulations AKA Participative / Interactive Entertainment

That’s it.  Oh, you wanted more?  Therein lieth the rub.  You get as much out as you put in, and in this case that REALLY requires some skull-sweat on both our parts.

Also, here is as good a place as any to handle “and other things” from the title of this blog entry. “Media” has become another of those over-used conflated words that it really does yield results for us to peel back a few layers from every now and then. Every form of information presentation in a recorded and reproducible form goes into making up “THE MEDIA” — at least when it comes time to try and define genre. Whether a given tale is being related by written words or full-immersion VR, the story will at some point be categorized as existing within the context of one or more genre. I can read an adaptation of any entry in the Indiana Jones movie franchise or I can watch the films. I can do the opposite with Harry Potter, where the books existed first and independently of the cinematic productions. Likewise for The Avengers, or Superman, or One Piece (the last is anime-related, just in case your personal viewing habits aren’t the same as mine).

To maintain our rationality, and occasionally to challenge it, humans tend to categorize the disparate elements of the world we live in as we build up our cognitive understanding of that world. This happens on both individual and group levels, At the least, perhaps at the best, the practice tends to improve not only understanding but the communication of our individual understanding to others we come in contact with. Categorization reduced to memes begets genre. Or such is MY understanding.

Genre Within Super-Categories

I like outlines when dealing with multiple levels of description.  Blame my high school teachers who taught me how to use The Outline as a tool and not something to be feared.  Therefore, we are going to extend the definitions above as bullets-in-outline warrant doing so.  (I’ll keep these as visually consistent as I can, within the limitations of the HTML implementation I’m using to generate this blogpost.)

  • Semantic-Null Market Definition (Publishers / Critics) Gradations

See above, in my initial response to Richard.   “commercial”, “mainstream”, “upscale”, “literary” and – sometimes – “non-genre” all tend to blend in and out, mutable marketing terms in the main.  “Literary” is perhaps the one item in the list that is most often MIS-used, particularly when applied to works that haven’t yet been released to the general reading public. In my most curmudgeonly moments, I would advocate reserving Fiction:Literary to works that have remained in print (or return to print regularly) for at least 25 years, or whose authors are deceased and still continue to be reprinted, and / or can truly be described as “timeless”. Note further that I am very well aware that this definition is in serious need of refinement for the new reality of electronically-published works.

  1. Fiction (general catch-all heading)
  2. Fiction:Children’s
  3. Topics and sub-topics within Children’s Fiction generally are over-shadowed by intended age of the reader and intent of the writer. Much that is written for children has a substantial educational purpose above and beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but not all. Bless Dr. Seuss for now and forever! Theodore Geisl got it right, and brought back silly for the child in all of us…

  4. Fiction:Young Adult
  5. Fiction:Young Adult:By SubGenre/Topic
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Adventure
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Animal (may be better described as Animal-Centric: Lassie, Flicka, Black Beauty, Flipper, etc.)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Teen Angst (High School / College Life)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Mystery/Thriller (including series such as Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Rick Brandt, etc.)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Vocational (a [dated] series example is Cherry Ames: [whatever] Nurse)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, )
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Science Fiction ([dated] example Have Spacesuit, Will Travel)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Paranormal
  6. Fiction:Young Adult:Media-Driven
  7. Fiction:Science Fiction
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Space Opera
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Alternate Reality
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Apocalyptic
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Post-Apocalyptic
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Media-Driven
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Military
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Science Fantasy
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Slipstream
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Steampunk
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Sociological/Political

    and so forth… Science Fiction as a genre has been under attack of one form or another since the genre was developed.  Often conflated with “pure” Fantasy even by the practitioners in the field, there has been some push from time to time to use “Speculative” fiction to describe the combination — a somewhat misleading term, as ALL fiction is in some fashion speculative.

  8. Fiction:Adventure AKA Men’s Adventure (significant subgenre by topic exist)
  9. Fiction:Mystery
  10. Fiction:Nautical
  11. Fiction:Nautical:Pre-Napoleonic
  12. Fiction:Nautical:Napoleonic
  13. Fiction:Nautical:Other Historical
  14. Fiction:Alternate History
  15. Fiction:Western (“Horse Opera”)
  16. Fiction:Romance
  17. Fiction:Horror
  18. Fiction:Fantasy
  19. Fiction:Thriller
  20. Fiction:Thriller:Techno-thriller
  21. NON-Fiction
  22. NON-Fiction:Journals, Memoirs,  and Auto-biography
  23. NON-Fiction:Biography
  24. NON-Fiction:Erotica
  25. NON-Fiction:History
  26. NON-Fiction:Science
  27. NON-Fiction:Religion
  28. NON-Fiction:Textbooks and Instructional Materials
  29. NON-Fiction:Commentary And Criticism
  30. Poetry
  31. Poetry:Lyrics
  32. Poetry:Epic
  33. Poetry:NonRhyming
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