On Genre

Today in class we discussed the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and one that was new to me: science fantasy.  We spent a fair portion of the class on it, but I felt like I could have kept going for ages.  I have some issues with the idea of genre as it’s commonly used today. I feel like genre is helpful as a tool when it is used to pull together works that hold similar elements, or to lead someone to new works that they might find interesting.  On the other hand, I heard a lot today about people who say that they won’t like something because it is fantasy, or science fiction.  I don’t think  that it’s just SF and fantasy, I think that that is true for autobiography and what have you. In this sense it limits the works available to a person instead of bringing them new possibilities.  And I don’t mean to say that I don’t do it too – I totally beeline for the SF/fantasy/graphic novel sections of bookstores.

In another class this morning we discussed a Japanese “genre” called joryuu bungaku, or “female-stream literature” that is more extreme than sci-fi or fantasy Joryuu bungaku. It consists of literature written by women. That’s just about its only requirement: written by women. And it has its own small section of bookstores. The problem is, if a woman writes science fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes an I novel it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes historical fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku – and these aren’t big sections compared to the (men’s) SF, I novel and historical fiction sections, so fewer women’s books are offered for sale. I heard this morning that some bookstores are changing this style of presentation, but critics still review books in these terms.

Joryuu bungaku is different from SF and fantasy in that it isn’t a division by content so much as by author, but that’s really my point: it doesn’t matter how you limit what you’re looking at, it matters whether you’re limiting it.

To insert a bit of theory here, I feel like genre is used by many to impose structures (yes, of the structuralist/post-structuralist variety) onto post-modernist works.  In other words, many works – most of the best, in my opinion – are not simply fantasy or romance or whatever.  They can be classified into many and varied genres.  For example, the Lord of the Rings books came up in class today as an early classic of fantasy.  But they also form a story of friendship (or fellowship, in the books’ terms), a war story, an epic, a story of good triumphing over evil… they even throw in something for linguists!  I could use these books for a number of purposes, even teaching diversity.

Another classic fantasy series that came up was the Chronicles of Narnia.  But the Chronicles are as much a Christian story as a fantasy.  Offhand I can’t think of a single book that I have enjoyed that couldn’t be categorized into more than one genre – and that’s not even counting things like when it was published, where it was written and who wrote it.  I wonder if, in the future, we might see a more cloud-like organization of books.  “Cloud” in the sense of tag clouds on websites, as in the Fellowship of the Ring gets tagged with fantasy, yes, but also war story, epic, good versus evil, conlang, elves, dwarves, horses, absolute monarchy, fiction, serious, twentieth century, American, et cetera.  The web could help with this: imagine walking into a store looking for a new book and stopping at a terminal instead of making straight for a genre section.  You could type in or click on a few tags – “funny”, “American”, “romance”, “young adult” – and be given a list of books available in the store along with their locations.  Then you take a look at them, and choose whatever suits your fancy that day.  More options, less restriction.  Perhaps then we wouldn’t have such strong stereotypes about just who watches Battlestar Galactica.


One comment on “On Genre

  1. Here’s something interesting about women writers and joryū bungaku, actually. Joryū bungaku is not necessarily *anything* written by women so much as it is “pure literature” written by women. Therefore, the work of Tanizaki Jun’ichirō is classified as “pure literature,” but the work of Enchi Fumiko, who wrote just as many books, dealt with the same themes, and produced her own translation of the Genji to compete with Tanizaki’s, is marginalized as “women’s literature.” Even though most bookstores no longer have a section for joryū bungaku, women writers of “pure literature” aren’t represented well in the “literature” section of bookstores.

    On the other hand, the work of women writers of genre fiction like fantasy and murder mystery is classified within that specific genre. As a result, a woman (like Miyabe Miyuki) has a greater chance at a wider readership if she writes taishū bungaku as opposed to jun bungaku.

    I would say this isn’t fair, but, as a result of this, the most popular and prolific Japanese writers of the past fifteen years have been female authors of popular fiction. I think this represents an interesting shift of paradigm, maybe?

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