Seeking the True Heart of Genre
Our genre classification scheme is inconsistent. Can we fix it?
Genre dominates book marketing, and, to a large extent, how readers choose books. Yet genre is something of a fuzzy concept. Not all genres are defined the same way. Historical fiction is defined by time: it is set in the past. Romance is defined by plot points: girl meets boy, etc. Mystery is defined by a plot featuring a crime and its solution. Westerns are defined by location: the American West. Fantasy is defined by altered rules of nature: add beasts and magic.
The obvious problem with this is that you could have a novel set in the past in the West in which girl meets boy and a crime is solved and there are beasts and magic. In that case, what genre is it?
There are, of course, cross genre categories. Fantasy romance. Historical romance. Historical fantasy. But there isn’t a category for every single combination of genre characteristics. The thing about genre is that it is interesting primarily as a way to define reader interests for marketing purposes. Genre says to a reader, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you are going to like. And that generally means that there are certain things a genre book must have and certain things it must not have if readers of that genre are going to like it. Genre, then, is a response to appetite, and appetites don’t really correspond neatly to our current hodge-podge of genre definitions.
There are lots of books that are set between the Mississippi and the Sierra Nevada that Western fans are not going to like. There are many books in which a girl meets a boy that are not going to give the romance reader the fix they are looking for. Genre is as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion, about what I don’t want to read as what I do. It is probably not the fact that it is set in Abilene that is going to turn the romance reader off a blood-soaked cowboy story, even if the new schoolmarm is being courted by both the man in the white hat and the man in the black hat. It is the element of the story that they have no appetite for.
This doesn’t mean that there cannot be a romance novel with a gunfight in it (even if they are rare) and it certainly doesn’t mean that there can’t be a romance in a Western, because there often is. The way we would decide if the book should be shelved and sold as a romance or as a Western does not depend on the presence of these factors, but on how they are handled, on which of the reader’s appetites they satisfy.
But if so, how can we get at the appetites that drive readers to one genre or another. The full answer will be complex of course. Not every genre reader likes every book in that genre. But there is value in asking if there is one dominant appetite that defines the mainstream of a genre, even if the appetites that an individual book satisfies are much more complex.
So here’s a thought experiment (and no more than that) about an alternative approach to discerning and classifying genre, one that could plausibly correspond to appetite, and has at least the virtue that it is looking at the same characteristic in each case. That characteristic is the defining virtue of its characters. That is, the virtue which they possess or exercise in the superlative degree.
If genre is a book marketing attempt to segregate audiences by appetite, why should a reader’s appetite for a book be determined (strongly, if not entirely) by the defining virtue of its characters? This gets to the heart of the question of what fiction is for and why we like stories — questions too big for this essay — but we can note that in the hero’s journey the heart of the story is the descent into the abyss. Other story theories call this by different names. James Scott Bell calls it the mirror moment, when the hero or heroine looks in the mirror and asks what kind of person they are. It is the moment of trial and the moment of decision.
And what determines how we will face a moment of trial, how we will face and make, a grave decision? It is our defining virtue. There is a direct connection, therefore, between the defining virtue of a character, the challenge they will face in the story, and the way they will resolve it. It goes directly to the type of story we are telling, and therefore to the type of reader appetite we are appealing to. And that, it seems to me, makes it a pretty good indicator of genre. Does this hold up when we look at individual genres? Let’s look at several genres and their defining virtues.
The Western: Rugged Individualism
The defining virtue of the characters in a Western is pretty easy to discern. The hero will be ruggedly individual. They may drive the herd, but they won’t follow it. That rugged individualism may take different forms. Sometimes it is a sheriff protecting his town. Sometimes the rancher defending his land or family. Sometimes a drifter surviving alone. But rugged individualism will define them all.
The main difference between the hero and the villain, in many cases is not that the villain is not ruggedly individual — he is — but that the hero alloys his rugged individualism with a sense of obligation to his friends, family, and neighbors, and the villain does not.
Why would such stories be set particularly in the American West? Because it is a landscape that calls for the virtue of rugged individualism and concern for neighbor. There are other such landscapes, of course, but genres often arise as a response to a time and place, and the romanticization of the West by Eastern writers and promotors in the 19th century gave birth to a genre, and the traditions and expectations of that genre create an established outlet and market for tales of rugged individualism with a touch of community spirit. Yes, these stories can be set elsewhere (Quigley Down Under, for example), but even when they are, we tend to classify them as Westerns, because the defining virtue of rugged individualism marks out the Western, independent of location. Admiration for the virtue may be widespread, but the genre is a product of a specific time and place — a combination commonly found in the arts.
If we can accept, at least tentatively, that the defining virtue of the Western is rugged individualism, can we find similar defining virtues for other genres. Let’s try.
Science Fiction: Cleverness
With Science Fiction, I would suggest, the defining virtue is cleverness. Doctor Who is constantly telling people how clever he is, and he really is, solving intractable problems by pyrotechnic displays of cleverness. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy represent three main aspects of man: Action, Contemplation, and Compassion. But they are all, in their own domains, extremely clever. The Martian survives his isolation through cleverness. In Arrival, Louise Banks decodes the alien message through extreme cleverness. Science fiction, after all, is about the triumph of the mind over space and time and matter. The principle virtue required for that endeavor is cleverness.
Mystery produces many kinds of sleuth, but they all share one primary virtue: perceptiveness. The perceptiveness of a Sherlock Holmes may be very different from the perceptiveness of Chesterton’s Father Brown, but perceptiveness dominates their characters and their stories. Their sidekicks — Watson, Lestrade, Flambeau — all display a corresponding and characteristic lack of perceptiveness as a point of contrast to the great detective, and as an excuse to have the perceptiveness explained to the reader.
And just as the Western villain is also often a rugged individualist and the hero is distinguished by his sense of social obligation, so with mystery, the villain is often as perceptive as the hero, but without their conscience.
For Romance, I think, the defining virtue is beauty. Not always physical beauty, though a look at romance book covers would certainly suggest that it is firstly physical. But the physical beauty is often a metaphor or sign for some inner beauty that makes the characters worthy of the love they receive. Think of beauty, then, as a metaphor for the ability to love and be loved — which is not far off the biological function of physical beauty: to attract a mate.
This one could not be more obvious, but the defining virtue of the superhero is strength. Superheroes did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in American comics of the early 20th century. They are an ancient staple of literature and culture, with examples including Hercules, Beowulf, and Achilles. And just as in other genres, the supervillain also possesses strength, but without the compassion or dutifulness of the hero.
Historical Fiction: Independence
For historical fiction the defining virtue is not so obviously tied to the typical settings of the genre, but I would suggest that it is independence. In fact, I think there is a good chance that the word independence, or one of its synonyms, occurs more than any other on the back covers of historical novels. The historical fiction hero is typically throwing off constraints of social or familial expectation to pursue their own goals. (The very antithesis of a hero in most historical periods!)
Why should the writer of a book about independence be drawn to set their story in the past? Because, in the popular imagination at least, the past is characterized by oppression of various kinds. The truth of the matter is much more complex than this, but for dramatic purposes, you can find (or imagine) any kind of oppression or constraint or obligation you need for your heroine to assert her independence against.
For it is mostly heroines, because historical fiction today is dominated by female characters, female authors, and female readers. Even so, male-oriented historical fiction, which is largely about soldiers and sailors, is similarly dominated by stories of independence, with a rebellious hero chafing against the restrictions of the chain of command.
While the current definition of historical fiction is based on it being set a certain number of years in the past (often 50) we generally don’t regard 50+ year-old contemporary novels as historical fiction, even though they meet this criteria. Thus A Tale of Two Cities is considered historical fiction, since it is set more than 50 years before Dickens wrote it, but the rest of his work, set in his own time, is not, despite it being set more than 50 years ago for anyone reading it today. This suggests that there is some property that defines or informs historical fiction other than the time of its setting relative to today.
There is an obvious difference, of course, in that the author of historical fiction is choosing their period because they cannot, or do not want to, set their story in their own time. Presumably the desire for contrast to the present age is part of their motive, and so their motives for doing so vary from age to age. But in the present age, observation suggest that the motive is to frame the defining virtue of independence.
Fantasy: Acceptance of Fate
Fantasy presents a little bit of a problem to my schema — at least as far as I have been able to think it through so far — but I think the characteristic virtue in fantasy has nothing to do with magic or dragons. It is actually the acceptance of calling. The fantasy hero is, in many cases, sent upon their quest, not because they are by nature well equipped for it. Often they are seemingly the worst possible choice. But they must undertake the quest anyway because they have been, in some mysterious way, chosen.
Frodo is not seemingly the person best equipped to carry a ring to a volcano through the arrayed hoards of Mordor. But he is chosen (or rather heir to the original chosen one, Bilbo). Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “…the chosen one, one girl in all the world…” The chosen one often bears some mark of their election: Harry Potter has a lightening scar on his forehead. In simple fantasies, being the chosen one grants the hero special powers. In more sophisticated ones, the acceptance of their status as chosen one is the core moral struggle of the story.
Being “the chosen one” is not a virtue in itself, which is why I say that fantasy presents something of a challenge to my schema. But accepting and shouldering the burdens that God or fate or circumstances place in front of you in life is a virtue, and that perhaps is the characteristic virtue of fantasy.
Applying the Schema
This schema can, I think, explain some typical shelving decisions. For instance, take Craig Johnson’s Longmire books. Walt Longmire is unquestionably a rugged individualist. So why are the books classed as mystery rather than Western? Because Walt’s rugged individualism is ultimately secondary to his primary defining virtue, which is perceptiveness.
I think that this schema, because it is based on a consistent criteria — the protagonists defining virtue — is more useful in explaining reader’s attachment to particular genres, and why they might not like books that would appear to have all the characteristics of their genre — they lack the defining virtue they are after.
It might also explain why genres like science fiction and fantasy are more popular with younger people and romance and historical fiction with older people (not exclusively, of course). We place a very high value on cleverness for the young, constantly examining them on it, and displays of cleverness are often a way for a young person, lacking other resources, to establish superiority over others. Similarly, young people know that they have to make some very fundamental decisions of life-long consequence: choosing a career, getting married, starting a family. Committing to a destiny is a virtue that is relevant to their stage of life.
For older people, having accepted their destinies, life is mostly about meeting obligations and living with restrictions. Little wonder then that they should be interested in independence, which is the defining characteristic of historical fiction. And as we age our beauty fades, and our virtues can grow soft as well. New relationships become harder to form. Loneliness can become a trial later in life. Little wonder than that the virtue of beauty should be of great interest. Similarly it is little to be wondered at that the minivan dad should desire stories of rugged individualism.
I don’t mean to reduce literary interests to simple wish fulfillment. Literary interests are many and varied and often cross cultural and generational boundaries. But genre is fundamentally about marketing and marketing is fundamentally about identifying demographics more susceptible to buying particular products. In other words, genre, like all marketing, is about appetites: identifying them and satisfying them.
And I am certainly not suggesting that every story in every genre concerns itself with its defining virtue alone. Stories, novels in particular, are more complex than that. I think it might be fair to say, though, that the complexities and challenges of a story come from a conflict between its defining virtues and other competing virtues, vices, or weaknesses. The art, in other words, depends on weaving complexity and conflict around the defining virtue of the genre.
As I said, this is a proposal, a thought experiment. And it is clearly incomplete. There are other genres, not to mention a wealth of subgenres to be fitted into the schema. Yet I find it intuitively pleasing. Categorization is always a messy business. The world is more complicated than any categorization schema we seek to impose on it. But categorization is an essential part of thought, and having a clear and consistent schema for classification is useful for keeping thought consistent and making clear and useful distinctions.
So, my question to you is, does it work? Is there an obvious flaw in it? Does it match your own literary tastes? Perhaps the general schema works but I have got the defining virtue wrong for one or more genre. Let me know in the comments.
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Eh, I have some vaguely articulated issues with some of these definitions.
Fantasy can be as much about breaking the bonds of fate as it is about the acceptance of it, for one--this is a newer trend but definitely well-represented. I see fantasy as being more about the engagement with fate rather than the acceptance of it.
Romance is way off of the mark--from what I see of it, it's more of an affirmation that love is real rather than an emphasis on beauty, especially in this era when the indie component is stronger in the genre than tradpub. Love conquers all in the end, and while beauty might be a tool, it isn't the focus.
Cleverness does not resonate with science fiction for me at all. That label could be just as easily applied to mystery as well, and perceptiveness could equally be applied to science fiction. Both are problem-solving genres with the difference being that mystery focuses on solving a crime, where science fiction is about solving a problem. If you don't have a crime, you don't have a mystery. And science fiction revolves around problem-solving, whether that's scientific, social, or the impact of advanced technology on society.
These elements can also skew quite differently based on the originating culture of the work. Euro-centered storytelling modes can be very different from Asia-centered storytelling modes. It requires careful thought.
In my research, genre is a catch-all term for a variety of attributes including plot, setting, mood, audience, characters, reality factor, topics, style and more. It would seem classifying a story is a matter of assigning weights to each relevant attributes' importance. To satisfy marketers, librarians, retailers, and audiences who know a story, one can make permutations from the most relevant attributes and let them decide which single label or combo suits them.