Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.
Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.
For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.
I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.
But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?
Recently, I helped judge an award. A lot of the stories were put into the wrong categories. No matter how great a story is, it can’t win if it doesn’t fit into the genre of its nominated category. So some good stories might have missed out on recognition (or would have, it they hadn’t been nudged into the right genre categories). But I couldn’t help wondering if the authors were confused about what genre is.
There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This essay is just a starting point, to get you thinking.
Category Archives: Genre
Why do I mainly write in the genres of Steampunk and Fairy Tales? One is a Science Fiction subgenre, the other is a genre all of its own. I have both a rational and emotive nature, and these two genres manage to hit all the buttons for me.
Steampunk has it roots in alternative history, but without its strong links to scientific advancements and innovations, it wouldn’t exist. I love Science for its own sake; I blame Isaac Asimov and his robot stories I read when I was eight. Science fiction has so much potential.
Fairy Tales tap into the archetypes that underlie all storytelling. They are metaphors, told with beautiful prose. They are a completely different style from Steampunk. Richer in symbology.
I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t write both.
Wouldn’t it be nice to visit with Buffy now that she is middle aged?
Being a middle-aged woman who has been a fangirl most of her life, I find there is a dearth of middle-aged women characters in popular culture (unless you count all the evil stepmothers in fairy tales). And yet, with middle-aged women being one of the largest consumers and creators of pop culture and anything in the fantasy/science fiction genre, you would expect plenty of representation. I can only think of one or two really memorable middle-aged character; most female protagonists are usually very young or very old females.
My favourite is the menopausal witch, Jenny Waynest, in the Winterlands novels by Barbara Hambly.
A quick search of the usual fan art sites on the internet comes up with just a few images of Jenny – with only one showing Jenny as a human. Most show her in her dragon form. If I turned up dressed as (the human) Jenny to a cosplay event, I doubt anyone would get my character right. Most would think I was Nanny Ogg or Professor McGonagall, who are considered elderly rather than middle aged (though McGonagall was only middle-aged in the books).
Even Terry Pratchett has only a few middle-aged female characters, like Lady Sybil Vimes and Lady Margolotta (though, as a vampire, does Margolotta Amaya Katerina Assumpta Crassina Von Uberwald really count?). They are only secondary characters, though Sibyl does manage to play a major role in several Discworld novels. Middle-aged women are nearly invisible in Discworld, think Doreen Winkings (vampire by marriage), Mrs Evadne Cake, and the series of humorous landladies that pop up in the books. It must be noted that in all the Tiffany Aching books, we never learn what her mother’s Christian name might be, though we know her father’s name is Joe and her grandmother was Sarah.
(By the way Disney, you couldn’t do better than to convert Tiffany’s books into animated movies. The story for ‘Wintersmith’ will make everyone forget Frozen.)
Thanks to Doctor Who being such a long running show, we have had the opportunity to see characters age, including everyone’s favourite companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane managed to remain feisty, opinionated,and strong willed to the very end; it is a damned shame Elisabeth Sladen died so young and will never get to see an elderly old lady with grit and wisdom. And River Song has to be considered middle aged, even though she isn’t exactly human, as she is played by Alex Kingston who is 53 (same age as me).
Of course, genre has a major impact on the ages of your main characters. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonists are going to be teens or a little older (or at least look like teenagers, even if they are hundreds of years old – I’m looking at you Twilight). Older women might play secondary roles, but they are never going to be the protagonists. However, why does nearly every other television show, movie or dystopian novel assume only young people can be protagonists? Where are the middle-aged female superheroes suffering from menopause and finding it difficult to fit into the same clothes they were wearing in their twenties? Do the genre markers for our various narratives actually encourage ageism?
Genre fiction is supposed to be able to take risks and envision strange, new worlds. So why are middle-aged women so under-represented? If you can think of a middle-aged lady protagonist in any Steampunk narratives (not a secondary character or antagonist) that will rock the world like Buffy, please feel free to let me know!
What really defines the genre of science writing isn’t so much its structure, which uses all the same devices as fiction, but its intent.
Lynne Lumsden Green
Like any the genre, fictional or non-fictional, the genre of scientific writing is characterised by several markers:
- It is objective, and so by inference, unbiased. However, simply by picking a topic, a scientist is showing a bias. The impression of objectivity is an artificial construction.
Any research should be repeatable by anyone with the same equipment and methodology. However, the choice of methodology will affect the results, as will the method used for interpreting the data.
- It is factual, with no assumptions or guesswork. However, the very choice of the facts can create a bias.
- The language is formal, and incorporates scientific terms and jargon. This is a style constraint, and both fiction and non-fiction genres have their own styles that vary from genre to genre.
- Scientific articles are usually written by people with scientific qualifications. However, it must be pointed out that scientists are just people and are capable of getting things wrong just as easily as getting things right.
- Research should be based upon proving or disproving a hypothesis.
Now…speaking of the concept of what a hypotheses is: a hypothesis is not a law, it is just a theory, a story that explains the known facts in the best way. If another scientist comes up with a theory that explains the facts better, is won’t take long for that to become the accepted theory.
Often, a hypothesis is constructed in metaphorical language, like the Big Bang Theory, Schrödinger’s Cat, and Survival of the Fittest. And that goes against the concept that only poets use metaphors.
In the genre of science writing, the aim is to be an authoritative way of explaining reality. However, what is real for one person isn’t necessarily real for another. And pseudo-scientists are quite capable of using all these genre markers to good effect.
What really defines the genre of science writing isn’t so much its structure, which uses all the same devices as fiction, but its intent.
Grimdark: a subgenre of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and how it relates to Steampunk and Gothic genres.
Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.
From the Wikipedia article on Grimdark
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: even though Grimdark and Gothic share some common genre markers, they are not the same genre. The best way to define Grimdark might be to first look at the Gothic Literary Genre, and highlight the contrasts.
Gothic Genre Markers:
Symbolism – The Gothic style depends heavily on symbolism to create resonance within its setting, characters, and plots. A good example of this is the use of weather in Gothic novels; it is always thunderous and gloomy when the author is trying to create suspense. Indeed, flashes of lightening accompany a revelation or epiphany; thunder and downpours will foreshadow the appearance of a villainous character or the beginning of a significant – and usually tragic – event. Nature is seen as great and mysterious force.
Romance – I don’t mean kissy, kissy romance (though there may be some of that too), but Epic Romance, with weird fates, inescapable destinies, strange journeys and the unending battle between good and evil, the stuff of ballads and poetry. Stylistically, a Gothic novel had its roots in epic poetry. In fact, the Romantic literary movement had a strong influence on the development of the Gothic novel; the Romantics favoured natural, emotional and personal artistic themes.
Ambiguity – Ambiguity dominates the characters, their motivations and lives. Anti-heroes abound. This was the genre that provided literature with the Byronic hero; brooding, damaged, and damn sexy.
The Macabre and the Supernatural – The Supernatural is the obvious flipside to the normal and natural. Vampires, ghosts, monsters, they have all had starring roles in Gothic novels. Often, science is seen as both a force for good and for evil (more ambiguity), creating both problem and cure. The darkness of humanity often meddles with the unknown, with dire consequences.
Morality and Consequences – Because of this darkness, there has to be consequences. Someone commits a crime, whether purposefully or accidentally, and there are repercussions: revenge, hauntings, and such like. The villains are punished, the protagonist receives some sort of reward if not an anti-hero. Not every Gothic story ends happily. Justice will be done, as the power of social stability is stronger than any transgression; this was particularly important in Victorian Gothic literature.
The Outsider as a character – This could be the protagonist. This could the the antagonist. This could be the monster, as in Frankenstein,or, The Modern Prometheus, the most famous literary outsider of all time.By being ‘outside’ society, whether physically, intellectually, emotionally, or culturally, the Outsider works against society’s constraints. The Gothic novel can’t function without this vital character.
Secrets – Gothic novels abound in secrets: secret marriages, secret children, secret tragedies. It is often the hiding and final revelation of these secrets that underpin the entire plot. (Who is that woman you’ve got hidden in your attic, Mister Rochester?)
Some well known Gothic novels are Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Woman in White, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Turn of the Screw. You can see how these genre markers are common to all these narratives. Even modern Gothic novels, like An Interview with a Vampire, confirm to these genre markers.
The most perfect modern example of the Grimdark genre would be George R R Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Grimdark novel might have secrets, symbology (Ice and Fire, for starters) and a horde of Outsider characters, like a Gothic novel, but there is a strong streak of cynicism and violence in this series that is completely opposed to the Romantic themes in Gothic literature. It is a dark and dystopic vision of human nature, in a fantasy setting with dragons and white walkers, and it is absolutely brilliant. Justice or morality have been thrown out the window.
Grimdark Steampunk isn’t my writing style, but I enjoy reading it. Many of the recent Steampunk novels I’ve read lean towards being Grimdark rather than Gothic, such as Jay Kristoff’s The Lotus War series and Stephen Hunt in his Jackelian series.
I like the definition by writer Jared Shurin, that Grimdark genre has three key markers:
- a grim and dark tone;
- a sense of realism (his example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and;
- the agency of the protagonists. Whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, Grimdark is “fantasy protestantism”; characters have to choose between good and evil, and are “just as lost as we are.”
You can immediately see that relates back to the genre markers for the Gothic Literary Genre. I have heard of the term ‘Steampunk Gothica’ used for Steampunk novels that borrow heavily from the Gothic Literary Genre, but the modern Steampunk genre has evolved from the Gothic genre so I consider it a redundant term. Grimdark is something else again. Something gritty. And when grit gets into the mantle of an oyster, it turns into a pearl.
Edisonade – definition gleaned from Wikipedia
‘Edisonade’ is a modern term, coined in 1993 by John Clute in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, for stories based around a brilliant young inventor and his inventions, many of which would now be classified as Science Fiction. This sub-genre started in the Victorian & Edwardian eras and had its apex of popularity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like something I would write about the Steampunk genre. In fact, you could almost classify my current Work-in-Progress as sitting in the Edisonade genre. Almost … except my protagonist is a female inventor, and I am writing in the 21st century. Does this mean I write in the Neo-Edisonade genre?
At this point, let’s take a deep breath. Genre is all about labels, and labels are nothing more than a way of organising. And I know I said I was looking for a better term for Steampunk, but Edisonade isn’t the label I am looking for! Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism is still out in front.
The perfect example of the Edisonage genre hero would be Frank Reade (and Frank Reade Junior). The four Frank Reade stories concerned adventures with the character’s inventions – robot-like mechanisms powered by steam. The first book, Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, is frankly a rip-off of The Steam Man of the Prairies, even to the illustrations (see the examples above). Frank Reade Junior was a cog that didn’t fall far from the engine. This teenaged inventor built airships, submersibles, steam-powered and electrical vehicles for getting about on land, and steam-powered robots (proving that he was just as able a plagiarist as his father). He has been the protagonist in many a story and novel, even to this day, by an assortment of authors.
Tom Swift is a slightly more modern example of the boy inventor genre. These books were also written by more than one author. They made famous the ‘Tom Swifty’, in which a ‘spoken’ sentence is linked by pun-ish adverb. For example:
“I find the interior of this submarine very roomy,” said Tom, spaciously.
“The lava is hot,” said Tom magnanimously.
“We have to move, right now!” exclaimed Tom, swiftly.
(Gosh, I can hear you all groaning. I’ll stop.)
What I find sad is the lack of girl inventor fiction. Thank goodness for ‘Girl Genius’ webcomic and Michael Pryor’s ‘The Extraordinaires’!!
Joking aside, the term Edisonade was only ‘recently’ been coined in 1993, well after the term Steampunk was coined in 1985. Because of this, I would argue the Edisonade could/should be considered a subgenre of Steampunk. As well, Steampunk is a much broader genre.
I am currently rereading Bill Bryson’s Down Under, as I am in the midst of writing travel blurbs and I needed some inspiration. Generally, when I read for pleasure, I switch off my internal editor. As I am reading for business, my editor remained on. And what I noticed was Bill’s lavish use of purple prose, as part of his toolbox for making his writing humorous.
Purple prose is overwriting and generally considered not a good thing. But purple prose was a very popular style in the Victorian era … even Dickens liked to dip his pen into the purple ink quite frequently.So don’t be too frightened to use words lavishly. Worse comes to worse, you can always edit them out.