Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Genre is in the Eye of the Reader
This week the Peas are taking a look at genre. As I write this article I have the first of Ridley Scott's Alien movies playing in the background. I know we're writers and I should really focus on genre as it applies to books but I think Alien is a good example of my chosen topic.
With regards to Alien, a debate has raged since its first theatrical appearance in 1979: Is it science fiction or is it horror? Strong arguments are made for both genres. Obviously it's science fiction since it features a futuristic setting full of murderous aliens running amok on space ships. However, an often cited tag line associated with the film is "In space no one can hear you scream." That is a straight-up promise of horror. When you truly analyze the film you realize it's a haunted house in space. The hapless humans are trapped with a greater-than-human foe in an inescapable location and with limited resources at their disposal to combat the threat. Alien is an almost perfect blend of sci-fi and horror. And yet, the debate continues as to its genre despite the evidence pointing to its hybrid nature. So why does the debate continue? The simplest reason is also the topic of my post: Genre is in the eye of the viewer/reader. We see what we want to see in books and film.
What is the point of genres if we're just going to argue a work's placement in a particular category? There is no easy answer to this question. Genre, at its heart, is a subjective label. Books often cross the boundaries of genre. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander is a prime example. It's a time traveling fantasy as well as a historical romance. In my wanderings through countless bookstores, I've seen Outlander shelved in general fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. Why? Because it appeals to readers of those genres. Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series are often shelved much like Gabaldon's and appear in general fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and mystery sections. The same is true for authors like Kim Harrison, Laurell K. Hamilton, Anne Rice, and Stephen King.
Genre is a useful tool for booksellers, publishers, and authors. It provides a common ground between "us" and readers. It's a contract between "us" and the reader that basically states you can expect a certain type of story. If you, the reader, picks up a book in the romance section, you expect two people to fall in love. Yes, they will face challenges but ultimately true love triumphs. If you pick up a book from the fantasy section, you expect to find epic landscapes, fantastical creatures and/or magic, and a hero's journey. A mystery involves a crime that must be solved. But if this contract is breached, then the reader will feel cheated. If a book is labeled a romance but the couple doesn't live happily ever after at the end, then no amount of challenges and triumphs will make up for the frustration felt by the reader. However, another reader may pick up the same book and read it as a thriller or suspense novel and love it for that reason. The romance is secondary to them. This is when genre becomes the slippery subjective label that is both the life's blood and bane of the publishing (and film) industry.
Be sure to some back next week when M tackles the murky world of emerging genres in the rapidly growing young adult market. Until then...