Genre and the Simultaneous-Razing-and-Appreciating of Categories

Great Chain of Being

(Originally posted on Blogger site.)

I’ve got such a complicated and conflicted relationship to genre. I always have. The notion never sits quietly in my head.

There are obvious benefits to having a clear and delineated architecture that works to parse out the differences between literary categories. And some strange back room of my librarial brain gets a perverse enjoyment from seeing things like this neat and orderly map of genre on Wikipedia. I like to look at lists of “Best Books for X Genre” and whatnot. So, in an informal sense, I see a usefulness. However, once I start to spend time considering the idea, I usually feel that genre categories do more harm than good if you adhere to them too strictly.

And I do understand that classifying has, in the past, helped some make their creative works more findable by allowing them to be grouped with other works that might be “of the same ilk.”

However, I feel that this mode of organization is quickly becoming outdated and less useful, especially as searching is increasingly done online in a non-linear environment. Broad classifications are going to be less useful, while the particular nuances of character that a work has will still be pretty relevant, because…well, that’s really the basic level of descriptive trait that a work has, in the end.

I’ve found genre categories provide me with additional troubles whenever I try to place my own writing into one of its facets. It never sits as neatly in the facet as I had expected it to.

In short: qualities; not categories.

A good analogy for this is the use of descriptors as they are applied to people. No one likes to have generalizations applied to them, especially if they’re broad generalizations. They seldom work and are painfully reductive. Similarly, I feel it’s best to treat creative works with the same kind of respect. Rather than cordoning-off books/music/etc. into camps, considering them for their individual qualities and the character traits that they possess is probably a better route to getting at an understanding of their natures.

Additionally, this will save an enormous amount of energy and time that is currently thrown into the debate over genre, whether or not a certain work falls into that genre, and what exactly constitutes a perfect work within that generic category.

It’s for this reason that I really like what has recently been done by one anthology: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, by Ann Vandermeer and Jeff Vandermeer.

What I like particularly about the collection is that, in spite of the entire anthology itself being structured around a titular classification (i.e., weird fiction), it does more to break down the conventions and expectations of that genre than I’ve seen in many anthologies lately. It takes steps to include a broad swathe of authors — from those who would be considered fundamental to any examination of the genre, to those who might normally escape its notice. It succeeds precisely because it takes the route of being more inclusive in its scope than exclusive.

It’s a difficult predicament. On one hand, eliminating ideas like genre can make categorization harder than it already is. But relying on them without consideration causes problems that, in the long run, are probably best avoided, as I see it.

So. What do you think? Laud me with praises! Or, alternately, thrash me with vile criticism! Have at it.

Image: By Didacus Valades (Diego Valades) (Rhetorica Christiana) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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