When I started reading I had no notion of different “genres” among the stories I read. For many years my readings were limited by a) the books I had available at home and b) the books teachers required me to read.
Even back then, though, I knew that there were stories I enjoyed more than others. Those that I described as “entertaining” were usually adventures, mysteries or otherwise “imaginative” works. It may have been because of the conditions I was raised in—living on a small shack with my parents and two sisters—but I always felt more attracted to the stories about distant places and people overcoming fantastic obstacles.
Still, my readings were—and still are, in a way—very eclectic. I remember reading again and again stories as different as C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Marcela Paz’s Papelucho novels, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and Alexandre Dumas Père’s The Three Musketeers, just to name a few.
All of this changed, however, when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. After that, I knew exactly what kind of stories I wanted to read. And from that moment on, I got interested in how to differentiate as quickly as possible between the stories I felt attracted and the ones I didn’t.
That was how I first got interested in literary (sub) genres.
Its (Wrong) Use in Criticism
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a genre is “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Although one could argue with that definition, it’s pretty close to what I was taught at university.
In those classrooms—and in the articles, books, and websites written by literary critics I had to read—genre was often used as way of categorizing a work and as a framework to discuss it. For example: a story maybe wasn’t entertaining or inventive but, when considered in the larger context of its genre and the time at which it was written on, it became somehow more valuable.
I don’t think I have to point out here how absurd this notion was (and still is). In my opinion a well written—i.e. “good”—story has little to do with its genre or the historic period it was written on. I don’t care if that was the first time someone wrote about vampires; if I read it now and its prose is boring, its plot predictable or its characters are nothing more than stereotypes/pieces of cardboard, then I’m simply not interested. Along the same lines, a story can be the most trite and cliché in its genre but, if it develops in a compelling manner, with characters that feel alive and a prose that’s a delight to read, then I’m interested in it.
In this sense, the last thing I’ll say about this is: using literary (sub) genres as way to justify taste seems pathetic to me. I think it’s better to be sincere and say: I like this story—even though many don’t like it— because of a, b, and c that trying to argue that the work in question is somehow more valuable because of non-literary reasons. After all, the classics didn’t become classics because they were innovators in their respective genres. They became classics because they were—and still are—well told stories.
What’s a Literary Genre?
Beyond the dictionary definition, our idea of what a literary genre is comes from Aristotle’s Poetics. In there the author establishes basically three genres:
- Narrative (short stories and novels). In the Poetics he mentions “the epic” here, but that has been replaced by prose narrative.
- Lyric (poetry), and
- Drama (theater)
In this day and age, however, these categories are no longer as useful as they once were, mainly because the differences between the three are rather obvious. Besides some exceptional cases—such as prose poems, for example—I don’t think that anybody has major issues in determining whether a work is a narrative, a poem or a play.
Considering this, an almost infinite number of literary subgenres have appeared to help us comprehend better the difference between one work and another. Thus, for example, in narrative fiction we have subgenres such as:
- Contemporary (works set in the same time period their author lives/lived in)
- Detective (works about crimes and criminals, and those who try to catch them)
- Speculative (works about imaginary stories, characters or situations)
- Historical (fiction works rooted in historical facts or characters)
- Romantic (works that deal primarily with human relationships)
…And this is just to name a few.
The thing is that, if one keeps on peeling each subgenre one encounters sub-subgenres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror, which are usually grouped under the label of speculative fiction. In turn, fantasy can be subdivided into various subtypes, like epic fantasy, portal fantasy, sword and sorcery, etc.
Bookshops and Publishers
In a story worthy of the chicken and the egg, I don’t know who was first, whether the bookshops or the publishers, but the truth is that in both places literary (sub) genres are nothing more than labels to sell/promote a product.
I don’t know how the situation in other places is but, at least where I live, the way bookshops and publishers use literary (sub) genres leaves much to be desired. Not only because they employ them wrongly—in more than one occasion I’ve encountered fantasy books in the children’s section and vice versa—but because the greatest value they seem to find in these labels is about generating tedious (and terribly unfair) comparison just to try to sell more. I refer to the blurbs mentioning that every new fantasy books is “the new Lord of the Rings” or that every young horror author is “more terrifying than Stephen King.” This does not only harm the possibility of new works having the chance to fend for themselves but, what’s worse in my opinion, they pigeonhole (sub) genres in only one true way of writing them.
This behavior is what provokes, I think, the avalanche of imitators in the short term that every best-selling book generates, each trying to squeeze as much out of the boom as soon as possible, before it dies down and the next one comes along. In a cycle not unlike the (apparently) endless sequels and Hollywood remakes, bookshops and publishers prioritize the copy of a copy of a copy of something more or less “successful”—i.e. that sells—instead of fostering creativity and the expansion of the spectrum of what each literary (sub) genre has to offer.
So, are they of any use?
As writers, I think that literary (sub) genres are very useful for us. First of all, they provide us with guidance when it comes to know what has been done before in our field, so to speak.
Even if one doesn’t consider oneself a writer who writes on a specific genre, the reality is that (trying) to put a blindfold over our eyes and write without the influence of other authors and their works seem like something impossible to me. What is worse, it can lead us to repeat clichés or patterns already seen without questioning whether it is possible to turn them on their heads by offering our own perspective on them.
In this sense, I think the biggest benefit of having a “literary (sub) genre consciousness”, so to speak, is in reading what has already been written/published with a critical eye. This implies confronting the “weak spots” of a particular literary (sub) genre.
Epic fantasy, for example, in general has had protagonists that are white, heterosexual cis men. This implies that, if I’m going to write epic fantasy, maybe I should question whether I want to add another story with the same kind of protagonist. Even the fact of just being conscious about this trend, I think, it’s something positive, and allows us to make decisions knowing what we’re doing.
Finally, and in a more practical sense, every time that we want to apply for a literary contest, magazine or we want to submit a work to an agent or publisher, a common practice is to discriminate works according to a literary (sub) genre.
For example, it may be that the contest or magazine only accepts science fiction short stories. In general those in charge of those instances explain in detail what they understand as science fiction, but there are certain situations in which they simply declare that they accept any science fiction work “in its broadest spectrum” or something of the like. This implies that our understanding of the literary (sub) genre in specific may mean the difference between getting selected or not.
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