Friday Five: 10 books that should win the Hugo Awards (but probably won't)
The Kitschies: Railsea and The Broken Isles

Why "Genre" is Poison

Red Dragon from Monster Manual (TSR)A few years ago, shortly after I had jacked in a low-flying job in magazine publishing to go freelance, a friend asked me what I planned to write. “I have an idea for a novel or two,” I replied.

“Oh, yes? What kind of thing?”

“Fantasy,” I replied, and he frowned.

He wondered why I’d wanted to write in that genre – not because he thought it was bad, simply because it was a genre that didn’t appeal to him. As a genre, fantasy never chimed with him.

Oh, did I mention this friend writes Doctor Who? (Not all of it, just a few choice episodes.) So it might seem odd that he doesn’t like fantasy, yes? Ah, but. What do you think of when I say “fantasy”?

My friend and I didn’t talk much more about that idea. (Although I did mention a second idea, which he liked a lot: a woman falling in love with a man half her age via the medium of an online fantasy roleplaying game.) But I got the sense from what he said that he didn’t like things like elves and dwarves and magic swords – which is certainly what many people probably do think when I say “fantasy”. And (and I say this with the utmost respect to my friend) when many people start to picture elves and dwarves and magic swords, the gates of their mind shut tight and that is that is that. My fantasy idea didn’t have any of those things. Doctor Who doesn’t have any of those things. Ironically, the online gaming story idea was full of elves and dwarves and magic swords – and yet my friend liked that one more because he could see it was about a woman falling for the wrong man.

Now, that’s probably a story we can all sympathise with to some degree. We’ve all read a terrific fantasy or science fiction book that we just know a friend will love – but she won’t go near it because of the spaceship/hooded-man-with-a-dagger on the cover. It will be news to precisely no one that the use of "genre" within the publishing and bookselling world has, over many years, helped readers find the kind of things they love and then rigidly stay within those lines. I’m sure there’s only a small minority of us left that shop for our books exclusively at brick-and-mortar bookshops, but splitting books into genres (and ugly subgenres such as "supernatural romance") only reinforces these narrow lines of taste and harms "discoverability". But we’ve heard all these arguments and fears of ghettoisation before.

And we know that it’s not as if people are generally averse to fantasy or science fiction: such stories are a reliable source of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, and wizards and vampires didn’t put anyone off Harry Potter or Twilight.

This isn’t even an issue of science fiction or fantasy being qualitatively ‘worse’ than other forms of literature. My friend didn’t question the relative quality of my two story ideas, he simply stated his belief in which was more appealing to himself – and by extension, I think, to all potential readers. “Don’t scare the horses.”

As a writer, these thoughts stick in your head. Maybe it’s just me – though I doubt it is – but when I’m playing with a new story idea, I’m not thinking only about the story. No piece of writing exists in a vacuum: you hope it’s going to be read by people and for that to happen, it has to be bought by someone first. And no writer today is blind to the concept of genre or the hope that their work, one day, could be taken out of a delivery box in the bookshop and plonked with authority on the "right" shelf.

And then, the question of genre starts to become an obsession. (Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in this.) A story I have written for an upcoming Pandemonium anthology is “about” the fact that you can run as far as you like, but you can never escape yourself. That it includes cloning, space hotels and interstellar travel is irrelevant – and yet…

Whichever way you slice it, it’s a science fiction story. And, in writing it, I had to confront the question of whether SF readers would like it, whether it would be to their taste, whether it is a ‘good’ example of ‘science fiction’, whether it "felt" like a "proper" science fiction story… Dear God.

Always second-guessing what I’m writing because of genre, genre, genre. Wondering what readership it will attract and whether it will please them, on the terms laid out by said genre. Yes, genre a useful shortcut to find potential readers; yes, it springs from an understanding of the common ground on which such stories are built – but why must we meet on that common ground? Couldn’t you, dear reader, walk a few more steps over here, to this lovely place I’ve built specially? Can I just get on with telling the story?

I am only speaking for me – but I am certain I am not alone in this frustration.

So is my upcoming story science fiction? I don’t know. Probably. Does it matter? I didn’t – and don’t – care. It’s the story I wanted to tell, in the setting and with the trappings I wanted to use.

I like space as a setting for the same reason people were awed by the sea in centuries past: it’s vast and unknowable, and if you throw a person into it, you’re quickly going to find out who they are. I like fantasy worlds because they make the impossible possible – and again, it’s the characters’ reaction to the impossible that is far more interesting than their everyday lives.

Giant Toad

To my mind, the kind of stories I like are able to tell richer, more full-blooded tales. These kind of stories should appeal to many people – and the very best of them do. But genrefication says “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!” as much as – if not more than – it tells a reader where to find something she might like. While, for the writer, it’s a creative shackle that only the bravest, or foolhardiest, are willing to try to break.

And I worry (about a lot of things, you can tell)… I worry that the worst thing of all is that the publishing industry is selling itself short by clinging to the concept of genre. It’s easy to walk into a big branch of a chain bookstore and make a beeline for the science fiction and fantasy department and find your favourite type of book – but how often do we do our book buying in brick-and-mortar stores nowadays? And, when you’re on Amazon, how commonly do you click the two or three menu choices it takes to find their science fiction and fantasy "department". (I use the word loosely. You would be hard-pressed to find a less curated collection of science fiction and fantasy books. Try it now and ask yourself if you like what you see.) In a world where narrowcasting has replaced broadcasting, and niche publishing is becoming the mainstream, the idea of rifling through a ramshackle collection of tenuously connected novels in the hope of finding something you’ll like is becoming ridiculous. And meanwhile, the flow of more specific recommendations is endless: Amazon sees things it thinks you might like, based on your previous purchases and those of similar shoppers, and serves them up on a plate; that blogger you keep reading, whose tastes are so similar to yours, will keep telling you what she’s enjoying and what you might too; and increasingly, it’s the tiny, independent brick-and-mortar stores, and their quirky recommendations, that the book-loving luddites are turning to for their old skool shopping needs. (And let’s face it – most of those shops are too small to have a dedicated science fiction and fantasy section, so what’s the use in expecting them to curate a good selection of books from the genre?)

RoperThe slavish adherence to "genre" as a means of marketing a book is starting to look like an increasingly fruitless pursuit. And God knows, it was always folly to use it as any part of the creative decision-making process – but that’s on me, and those other sad, confused writers like me.

More than ever, when we’re not discovering books by looking at the shelves in a shop, it feels like genre is failing us all: readers, writers and publishers. More than simply becoming meaningless (and let’s face it, thanks to "literary" authors such as Jeanette Winterson raiding our barn, it’s getting hard to argue that genre divides have any meaning left), the determination to stick to genre in the writing, marketing and buying of books is selling everyone short.

Because who doesn’t love a story about a woman falling for the wrong man, right? That’s a tale we’ve read and enjoyed over and over again, wearing many different clothes, be they doublets and hose, school uniforms and leather jackets, designer suits and bondage gear… So why not with the trappings of "fantasy"? Maybe I should have told my friend that my first idea – the fantasy one of which he’d been so dismissive – was about an ill-advised love affair, too. But once he’d heard the word "fantasy", the gates had closed.

I’m sure these are arguments we’ve all heard a hundred times before. I’m sure they’re the kind of things editors and publishers have been umming and ahhing about for years. But it just feels like now, more than ever, is the time to maybe do something about it. For the sake of everyone – reader, writer, publisher – isn’t it time we lived in a post-genre world?


David Bryher is the author and editor of numerous books, magazine articles and a video game or two. He has also contributed to several Pandemonium volumes, including "The Architect of Hell" (Stories of the Apocalypse), "The Devil's Age" (Lost Souls) and the upcoming The Lowest Heaven.

"Red Dragon", "Giant Toad" and "Roper" images from Monster Manual (TSR: 1977)