We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

What Is Genre?

The quick and easy answer is: I have no idea.

(And on that note I’ll be off.)

Should, however, anyone be rash enough to really wanna ask this question, I fear you’ll find that the discussion becomes long, complicated and ultimately, not very satisfying.  It’s a dilemma I’m currently having with a book whose title, and indeed whose fate, I’m afraid, must remain secret until this thorny question is itself answered.  Is the book science fiction, or is it ‘literature’?  Whatever that means.

In many ways, it’s easier to define what science fiction is, than literature.  You can look at SF and say that on most occasions, there’s an imaginative element which pushes the boundary of what is currently possible, or what is currently the place, often through the use of technology which, as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, can itself frequently be indistinguishable from magic.  Okay, fair enough.  But what about literature?  Is that simply a ‘genre’ where the above statement is not true?  In which case, should George Orwell’s 1984 be reclaimed from the literature shelves and given a new shiny cover, perhaps featuring a glowing rat and an embossed silver font?  Is Cloud Atlas waiting to be placed in its rightful place between McCaffrey and Moorcock, or the Time Traveller’s Wife crying out for a tag line beginning ‘Temporal causality can be a bitch when you’re in love…’?  Does ‘literature’ preclude the insertion of those imaginative elements which make fantasy and science fiction so powerful?  Are all wacky dreams of writhing deities out of the question, flights of fancy about invading aliens, great hypotheses about things which have been and are yet to come – is there a quantitative cut off point at which we, the reader turn round and say, ‘whoa there, tiger, you’ve now had five pages of a flight of fancy, this book is science fiction, get thee hence!’

If you expand the question beyond simply science fiction vs. literature, the waters get even more muddied.  Are you forbidden, for example, from having grisly murders in works of literature, in case that pushes the matter into ‘crime’?  The appearance of a spy for more than 400 prescribed words is out of the question, because that may make it a thriller, perhaps?  And any kiss which lasts for more than five chaste, carefully constructed lines is enough to term the thing ‘romance’?

No, of course not.  The idea that you can quantify a book and say ‘ah-ha, you had ten pages of snogging therefore you are erotica’ is ridiculous.  All books, from all genres, include ideas from everywhere.  Fantasy books are full of hard bitten detectives and grisly murderers, high politics and thwarted loves; crime novels are soggy with romances won and lost, romance wades through tortured mazes of thriller-esque tension and fear, and ‘literature’ is nothing without the ideas and momentum of these ideas.  Because, frankly, once you remove love, death, fear, wonder and imagination, what’s really left?

Occasionally – and it still makes me angry to this day – the theory is offered that ‘literature is for grown ups’.  As it is almost entirely spoken by people who haven’t read a word of science fiction, it’s guaranteed to make me angry.  The idea that imagination is childish, is itself a truly childish notion.  Science fiction, at its best, pushes at the boundaries of the very biggest, very oldest questions – what are we doing to our planet, to each other, what is it to even be human?  If to be ‘grown up’ is to only prod and probe at people like us, with problems like ours then frankly, literature has a lot to answer for, as the horizons of mankind are so much bigger.

I suspect the problem we have is this – that in the good old days, fantasy was purely folktale, and the genres of crime, science fiction, romance and thriller were enacted only through cliches of big space ships, embittered detectives, love-torn couples and hunky rogue spies.  Whereas the reality now is that lines have blurred, and the classification of books into genres is as much about comforting familiar readers with familiar things, as it is an apt reflection on ‘genre’.  And this is no bad thing, in the sense that I don’t want to have to waste hours every time I go into a bookshop, trying to find my way through a single, unsorted shelf in search of good stories and big ideas, while all around romance, erotica and, my personal pet-hate, vampire porn, all offer themselves for my attention.  In this sense, thank god for genre!  However, if publishers don’t – or event can’t – help push the boundaries of our reading habits and proclaim that this is both science fiction and literature, and that is both crime and romance, and that actually genre is dead, long live the story, then I guess we, the readers, have to take the plunge, and do it for ourselves…