Tag Archives: language

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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Emerging Trends In Writing — The Downside Of Drivel

I’ll probably be strung up by my thumbs, figuratively, if Certain People ever actually read this particular rant.  However, I have opinions.  Strong ones.  Sometimes I even express them in written form, as opposed to simply shouting them into an empty well…

I don’t like bullies.  Never have, never will.  Does not matter one bit in the slightest whether it is a matter of brute force physicality or sharp-witted intellectualism.  Bullying is bullying, regardless.  Along the way, this attitude gets me in trouble.  That falls into place along with my other sterling quality of an inability to resist pointing out that the truth is other than some nitwit might be claiming.  “Flamewars”, “Blog Battles”, and the not-so-honorable art of “Trolling” in forums, boards, or newsgroups all — I repeat with emphasis ALL — deserve to be held up to the real light of honest truth and discarded as “not worth my time”.  Will they be?  Unfortunately for all of us online, not very damn likely.  Among other reasons that I propose they must continue is that we must each and separately aggressively preserve our rights to freedom of expression.  Ignoring the ignorant and the deliberately, willfully erroneous just is not where my heart lies in the fight for Truth.

Hmmmm.  Truth.  Sticky concept there.  There are self-evident Truths out there.  Trust me that this is indeed so.  Whether they are necessarily the same for you, me, or any other individual remains an unprovable position as long as we continue to operate under our current universe’s rules for proof and refutation.  What is preference for me and others born into my birth-culture may be utterly foreign to others of my species and race born into a different culture, sometimes even though both may express adherence to the same standards of morality and (substantially) similar religious teachings.  A third culture on the same spectrum may take those preferences and make them essentials of civilized behavior, treat them as self-evident law, and severely punish any who would choose a different manner of expressing the tenets.  Horrid and reprehensible wars have been fought for all of recorded history over just such differences.  We should expect more of modern human society, warts-and-all interconnected as we may be on some frighteningly final levels?  (Nuclear Armageddon is NOT anyone’s friend.  Global Winter may play favorites, but it still kinda ruins the day of the vast majority of the planet’s currently viable biomes.)

“Politically Correct” had a time and a place in polite conversation.  The egregious overuse of the term, the certitudes, and the mindset have all contributed to a distinct and urgent need to kick all three to the curb with vim, vigor, and carefully-applied velocity.  YES, with politeness too.  Politically Correct changes to the way we write have taken hold, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  Those changes should not necessarily be abandoned utterly.  It is the combative attitude of “Politically Correct” that has become less than truly polite and has edged far too closely into the thought-policed fringe leading toward Orwellian or Huxleyian dystopias.

There comes a time in the writing of fiction when the writer must choose the degree of verisimilitude to be applied to the “world” being created by the words being set forth to bring the story to life.  (Yes, Virgil and Virginia, this also applies to non-fiction writing of most coherent types I’m ever likely to put my own attentions to…)  For the best of the authors out there, now and in the illustrious (HAH!) past of human literature, the STORY came first, the “real” and desired systems of the non-story world that we live in have nearly always been secondary.  (Yes, even in the midst of a rant I can demonstrate tempering consideration.  Wouldn’t do to ignore Ayn Rand or that Sinclair fellow, among other counter-examples.)  I am encouraged by the extent to which most of my peers seem to understand this.

I am discouraged by the extent to which some of those willing to rant AGAINST the practice have apparently been gaining traction and radicalizing otherwise sane and sober folk through various means.

I write on both sides of the fiction divide for a number of reasons.  Some of those reasons directly relate to my desire to make fiction “better” in some way.  I’ve written about the history of weapons, the historical Bard (and modern descendants of the type), and about how to create more-believable corporeal undead.  My article on the last has even been reprinted (in a paying market, no less!), so at least one editor out there seems to think I can get an idea across.  I also wrote a column on grass-roots activism for a size-rights magazine a decade ago.

Does any of that make a difference when I sit down to write a fictional account of the next apocalypse to threaten human extinction?  Well, maybe a little — my zombioid critters may not have active mentality, but they also Make A MESS as they thrash across the story-scape, and the human survivors facing them don’t suddenly all have swords available to lop off the squishy bits.  Does my understanding and background mean that any of the human survivors will be anguishing over whether or not their gender/sex role choices are the “right” ones?  Not likely, unless / until they have some time to relax and think about anything beyond personal and perhaps racial survival.

Does my emerging culture of survivors care (much) what the remaining technologically-blessed enclaves are opining about politics in blogs written on the pitiful remnants of the Interwebsnet they have managed to keep running while the rest of the civilized world collapses into howling chaos?  Not likely, at least not until it makes a difference to  personal / species survival for the band of “winners” who crawl out of the chaos into the too-temporary safety of an enclave.

Does religion make a difference to any of the survivors?  Probably, but I haven’t gotten that far in the creation of the alternate universe this set of stories will occupy.  Hey, wow, I only started writing this particular storyline three days ago.  Give me SOME time to consider what the stories need, what I need for the stories, and what my erstwhile readership wants.  Will the type of post-apocalypse government forms make a difference?  Far more likely, BUT the functions and types of government the survivors will tolerate are going to be driven by the needs of my story.  They will not be bent to the expectations of any external body.  There may be some consideration of outsider opinion on the way to publication, but that consideration will be separate from the form and choices of MY ORIGINAL story.

I’m betting on more physical and immediate survival as driving the characters that will be most interesting here, those who will be living through their unexpected descent into nightmarish conditions.  The “Politically Correct” elements will go hang on a meat-hook in the corner for now.  They don’t contribute to surviving the next night’s challenges.

Does that make me less of a (insert genre tag here) writer?  Well, as long as the genre isn’t “Women’s Fiction”, “Politically Correct”, or “Message Fiction”, I Do Not Think So.

Absence and Presence

“Life Happens … sometimes, with great insistence on PAYING
ATTENTION”

Calendar 2013 was not kind to the household I live in, or to my family, or to many friends.

To that end, I spent far more time dealing with off-line events than I did paying attention on-line.  Oh, I kept writing (as mentioned elsewhere, I write like I breathe…), but my awareness was very much focused on physical and immediate matters of existence.  Friends and family facing cancer, loss of loved ones, and in one case a Parkinson’s-afflicted household member’s broken hip leading via surgery to long-term residence in a nursing facility (now expected to be permanent relocation).  More about that last in a bit…

Some of my creative outlets went away as well.  Others lost my regular attention as matters requiring focus and physical presence consumed my thoughts, time, and energies.

That all said, “I’m back!” and I have a backlog of commentary upon life, the universe, and everything to put into something like a permanent form of expression now.

That should account for my renewed presence in an on-line sense.

About that broken hip:  Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive and ultimately fatal condition, and some of how it affects the patient is all the more nasty because it is relatively slow in the onset of symptoms — and those symptoms may be mis-attributed or conflated with other medical events.  Add in the general declines associated with aging, the deterioration in muscle response, and stubborn (human!, after all) insistence upon maintaining as much of the daily routine as possible, THEN serve up a few lesser-known “Gotcha!” side effects.

There are other terms / descriptions that may be more medically-correct, but I will call one of those Parkinson’s “Gotcha” effects “anesthesia senility”.  Three and a half years ago I’d never heard of this, but it seems that there is a significant segment of the Parkinsons Disease patient population which reacts very poorly to general anesthesia.  Observed effects are that upon emergence from anesthesia, the patient exhibits marked decline in mental acuity and other symptoms generally associated with dementia and senility:  full-blown hallucinations, anger, diminished capacity for communication, and so forth.  Even worse, the impact appears to worsen with subsequent anesthesia events.

In the immediate instance, the household member I am helping to care for, a mistake in judgment led to a fall after a shower – a hook on the back of a door placed before physical decline was just THAT much out of reach – and a fractured hip.  General anesthesia, partial replacement of the joint, and off from the hospital to a skilled nursing / rehabilitation facility.  Fast-forward a week, and the rebuilt joint is recognized as being dislocated.  Back to the hospital, return to general anesthesia to allow a closed reduction of the dislocation (the physician was able to put the ball back in the socket without repeating the surgery).

The physical effects would have been hard enough to deal with all on their own.  Adding in the sudden mental deterioration was simply too much, with an end result of what is now expected to be end-of-life permanent residence in a nursing facility.  Physical therapy failed to regain any useful mobility in the affected leg.  General physical weakness, and a prior shoulder surgery, made other common alternatives unavailable or unwarranted, particularly in combination with the mental deterioration.

Parkinsons sucks.  Parkinsons combined with broken hip sucks far worse.

DPchallenge – “I wish I were…” (“Proper” use of Subjunctive Mode)

Language mavens take note – I’m a bit of a contrarian when it comes to grammar & spellynge. There are times that I wish I were more consistent, certainly.

There are also times that I revel in my inconsistency, or at least my willingness to maintain that a treasured construct is perfectly acceptable. “I wish I was in de land of cotton…” just does not have the same visceral impact with the grammar corrected. Same for “curiosity” as an object versus “curiousity” as a trait – or as a deliberate choice to invoke an accent and mindset through subtlety.

Not everything can be given a pass as some attempt at poetical song lyrics, however. Not everything needs, or deserves, an oddity from the depths of the writers love of language.

I wish I were able to better communicate these feelings on a daily basis. Guess I’ll just have to keep up my practice in order to demonstrate a practised hand at such things.

When Definition Does Not “Count”

There have been some interesting conversations cropping up in my mindsphere this last week or so, and many of them have rotated around differences in definition. 

(working definition of “Mindsphere”:  that part of existence and awareness that actually gets noticed by an individual’s active mentation processes… kind of like the BlogOSphere, but only inclusive of what is actually within immediate use/grasp)

One of the more troubling of those differences was heard during an installment of the “A Way With Words” radio program (on the Web at http://www.waywordradio.org), in which a caller was describing his daughter’s education and a teacher insisting that a FACT could be true OR false.  Silly me, I knew that facts are facts – but no, it seems that a secondary definition in at least some dictionaries has corrupted what was once a pure concept, an invariant of the thnker’s mindscape.  A fact can now, and is specifically being taught as, neither true or false in and of itself.

Then I thought some more.  What seems to have happened, at least as I theorize here, is that “statement of fact” and “fact” have been conflated  in a rush to (over-)simplify.  Or, phrased alternatively, the perfectly good terms “hypothesis” and “hypothetical statement” have fallen even further out of fashion than I believed they had.  Admitted, perhaps a bit beyond a third-grade level of comprehension, but is there a real NEED to so over-simplify a concept as to corrupt a perfectly good, solid word in our common lexicon?

No simple answer presents itself on this one – remembering that dictionaries are DESCRIPTIVE of actual word use and meaning, not PRESCRIPTIVE.  Le Sigh.

On a marginally related note, consider the writing genre of “Historical Fiction”.  Just what part / how much of our shared mental landscape agrees on the range of years that are covered by the concept?  For one immediate example, I learned just today that there is a rather extreme divide by national bias:  German publishers apparently only use the label on works set in the Middle Ages or earlier, while from direct personal experience here in America the divide is much, much closer in the chronicles.   

Or is it?  Consider novels set during the Viet Nam “conflict”.  When do they cease being “Contemporary Fiction” and become “Historical Fiction”?  World War II?  World War I? The Crimean War? 

What makes the “Historical Romance” so very different, underneath, and creates so many rich sub-types / niches (settings like Regency, Frontier, American Revolution, mid-1950s Nursing, etc.), that in turn take on their own narrow range of requirements?

All this becomes even more tangled if I include “alternate history” settings, such as created by H. Beam Piper, Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, or Eric Flint (and his collaborators).  Or others – the field has expanded considerably.  A few years back there was even a mainstream-ish effort to teach “real-world” history by contrasting against a backdrop of alternate history scenarios (What if LSD research had been successfully kept secret, or never happened at all?  What if Truman had aborted the Nagasaki atom bomb attack, or chosen a different target? What if the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had never occurred?).

I have been known to write speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, and other related genres never quite as accepted as “contemporary”.  The pigeon-holes have from time to time made marketing a given work difficult.  To draw upon examples from film, consider ALIEN.  Is it science fiction? Well, certainly?  Is it horror?  Undoubtedly!  Is it effective story-telling?  Individual opinion, but I believe so. 

Third theme for this post, and I’ll give my fingers a rest.  This past week also saw the first Presidential debate of the 2012 American campaign season matching the Democratic and Republican party candidates.  Won’t go into who “won” or “lost”, for in the context of this current exploration the far more important development was the extent to which external FACT checking was needed / required to truly evaluate the statements made from behind the podiums.  Things presented as facts were more precisely opinion even where number values were being given, or were made less reliable by rounding of those numbers.  (Five billion, my left hind cheek – the original source for that appears to have been 4.8 billion.  Two hundred million dollars is not exactly insignificant.)  

One of the problematic rules of the whole process should have been exposed more completely, I think:  the candidates were not allowed to use any written notes or similar references.  May have meant more words coming out of their mouths, did not make for better words.  Anywhere else in reasoned discourse, we would expect representations of “fact” to be backed by citations.  Gentlemen, where are your sources?  Who provided those glib numbers?

Who commands and controls YOUR truth?

(Disclaimer / usage note on applied definitions:  numerical word values throughout are as associated to American English, not British…)