Genre is Fake (But Very Useful)

"You're all just jealous of my jet pack"

Credit to Tom Gauld

Every text I’ve read that has anything to do with genre study dedicates at least a few paragraphs to the disclaimer that genre is slippery, arbitrary, and, while a useful tool for analysis, kind of a pain in the ass. This pain is only made worse if we take this system of categories to be Holy Doctrine rather than something we made up to make talking about stories easier. So, okay, maybe genre isn’t fake. When I say genre is “made up” I mean genre is “socially constructed”, rather than “not real”. Here, Brian Attebery says it better:

Both literary studies and folklore are built on the idea of genres, rather as biology is built on categories, from kingdom to species, reflecting morphological similarity and common descent. However, unlike, say, raptors and perching birds, different genres do not exist until someone imagines them.

Weird as it may sound in our current genre-based marketing world, genre is something we apply to a text for the purpose of categorising or examining it, rather than something hard-wired into the text itself. Phyllis M. Betz, for example, dots her history of sci-fi and fantasy with the caveat that there can be no complete guide to the history of these genres, since it involves applying these labels to works that existed long before the labels did, and doing a necessary wriggle-shove to fit them into a category. Some people, by certain criteria, point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first work of science fiction; some people use different criteria and point to earlier works. Some people point out that it’s a blend of both gothic and sci-fi conventions as we now recognise them, and suggest it’s some sort of category-avoidant hybrid… as are a lot of works of fiction, if you start to think too hard about it.

This attempt to make the concept of genre backwards compatible is even more of a headache in fields like folklore studies and mythology—do you sort the tales by the form they were usually presented in (folk song, oral memorate, written legend)? Do you sort them by subject matter (animal story, cautionary tale, heroic quest)? By length? By comparing them to similar-ish stories from other cultures? And even then, what aspects do you choose to compare? Trying to put these ancient—and sometimes still culturally active—tales into boxes seems to result in them spilling all over the library floor, leaving academics everywhere massaging their temples and this study of folklore dedicating 40-page-long chapters to the question “look, what do we even mean when we talk about ‘genre’?”

And what do we mean when we talk about genre? General consensus is that, as much as we might like to apply them retrospectively or to current works, genres are (to invoke the pirate code) more like guidelines than hard and fast rules. They are built out of reader expectations based on previous exposure rather than immovable brick and mortar. Tzvetan Todorov, perhaps one of the most influential scholars on genre there is, says genres “function as ‘horizons of expectation’ for readers and ‘models of writing’ for authors.” They’re frameworks built out of what we’ve seen work before in similar pieces of fiction, and we can use these frameworks to help us get our heads around them.

Genre—and its baby cousin, the trope—is a practical tool. For publishers and retailers, it’s a way of delegating what shelf a text gets put on, and how it’s marketed to ensure that the people who like that sort of thing find it. For readers (and viewers and players), it’s useful for both finding and avoiding stories of a certain type. For analysts and critics, it’s a way of making examination of a text that much easier: laying a text alongside works made of similar stuff gives you a frame of reference and a point of comparison. And, from a Monkey Brain perspective, I think people just love categorising things and making lists.

I know I do. I spent hours on TV Tropes in late high school, diligently and fascinatedly combing through the pages from the most deeply analytical ones to the most mundane, and, once I’d compiled this knowledge, happily ticking off a mental checklist when I recognised a trope in something I read or watched, even if it was as simple as a character’s haircut. Yes, Book X neatly fits into this box, Movie Y slides nicely into this pattern if I look at it right, and oh boy, let me dig into the characters and dot-point every little thing that applies to them…

It was very satisfying, just as fitting anything neatly into a shelf—mental or literal—is. But that in itself is not analysis, and if it’s analysis you’re going for, simply saying “Book X goes in this box” is only the tip of the arguably arbitrary iceberg. Remember what I said about genre studies professionals all constantly reminding their readers that genre is fake? Even Farah Mendlesohn, who wrote an entire hefty book dedicated to splitting fantasy into four distinct categories, opens the book by saying:


This book is not intended to create rules.
Its categories are not intended to fix anything in stone.
This book is merely a portal into fantasy, a tour around the skeletons and exoskeletons of genre.

She later elaborates that “Genre markers (whether tropes or patterns) are useful tools but they are constructions imposed on a literary landscape”, and these categories the book sorts fantasy fiction into are “meant to create more questions than they answer”. And I find this phrasing very interesting, because it brings me back to thoughts of the trope lists and mental checklists I used to love so much. Saying “hey, that’s Trope A!” is meant to be the start of a conversation, not a conversation in its entirety. Tropes, genres, and categories are starting points of clarification, useful shorthands (say “Bury Your Gays”, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, and readers will know what you mean without you having to go into a long preamble describing it), and frames of reference.

Simply pointing to use of a trope or a genre convention and saying “that’s Trope A” then moving on is not analysis or criticism—think of Cinema Sins and their ilk, for example, who have become more than a little notorious for pointing a stick towards narrative clichés without actually delving into what they mean or why they’re worthy of pointing out (if they even are). It’s labelling and categorising stuff without really considering what the purpose of those labels and categories are, or questioning them towards any meaningful conclusion or discussion.

Mendlesohn warned that treating genre and trope labels as set-in-stone rules is bad for your health. Seeing the headache that classifying texts has caused so many other writers and researchers, I think she might be onto something. I know from experience that one can get tangled up in the obsession with labels, with fitting things within frameworks, with pointing out and listing instances of A Recognisable Thing. But these categories—genres and tropes alike—are not, in and of themselves, “the interesting question” we should be giving all our attention to, but a mode with which to ask interesting questions. Let’s grab Brian Attebery again:

The question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things. […] Depending on the generic perspective one favours, certain details of plot and motivation will stand out, while others will recede into the background. The central questions will shift.

Genre is a tool, whether it is a box, a lens, or a backdrop. Much as it can appear as a set of stalwart rules and regulations, it’s elastic and meant to be played with, and in the end is made up in the first place. Based on expectations and recognition, genre is only as real as you want/need it to be as a reader or analyst. So (and this is a message to myself as much as to any other fans or critics) don’t get too hung up on boxes, definitions, and whether or not things fit into categories: get hung up on the discussions these tools give way to. You will have a much more meaningful and fun time.

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

5 responses to “Genre is Fake (But Very Useful)

  1. mythos

    Reblogged this on The Backloggers and commented:
    An absolutely important read. Please give it a look over on The Afictionado’s site.

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