What’s in a Genre?
Recently, I was inspired to wade into the debate about whether science fiction and fantasy should be classified as one genre or two. After a quick survey of opinions posted on various websites, blogs, and discussion forums, I noticed something interesting: not a single source I found so much as touched upon the topic of genre, and perhaps for the very simple reason that the concept seems so simple and intuitive — obvious even — that it is assumed to be understood. However, it turns out that the definition of “genre” in general (and of any one genre in particular) is as slippery and amorphous as many a horror film beastie.
In this light, it seems foolhardy to debate how many genres we have on our hands until we’ve actually thought about what a genre is and what justifies clumping certain stories together while excluding others from the fold, so this is where I will start. Note that I do not hesitate to discuss genres as they appear in any and all media (books, poems, movies, plays, etc.) as I am only looking to classify genres by the content of the stories. There may be other factors to account for when considering visual media.
The Imperative to Categorize
The human mind, with all its marvellous functions, looks for easy ways to sift through the mountains of information that the world throws at it every day, and creating categories of things that share certain features is an amazing way to shorten this process. Still, you can always ask why we choose to categorize things in certain ways. Perhaps it’s a matter of survival (poisonous snakes and non-poisonous snakes), or maybe it’s a matter of value (what will make you happy versus what will make you rich); it may even be a simple matter of preferences (chocolate-flavoured desserts rather than strawberry-flavoured desserts).
With respect to genre, we may make distinctions based in part on the author’s purpose for telling the story and on whether the story’s content is meant to be informative, philosophical, entertaining, etc. Biographies and autobiographies discuss the historical details of a real person’s life; horror novels are meant to scare the daylights out of us; manuals and “how-to” books can teach us new skills. Identifying genres, however vaguely defined they may be, can help direct us to books, movies, and television shows that will likely be of interest to us. This saves us a lot of time that might otherwise be spent perusing an endlessly growing list of uncategorized items to find one or two that we might like.
Purpose isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic of any particular genre, however. Any number of genres can inform or educate (news/documentary, biography, history, guidebook); entertain in some fashion (romance, comedy, biography, horror); or provoke thoughtful discourse (virtually any genre, depending on the author’s intentions). Nonetheless, most genres will often lean more towards one purpose than another much of the time.
Obviously, science fiction and fantasy can be greatly entertaining, but both can be highly philosophical as well. Most science fiction brings up social or political issues because it so often focuses on the effects, intended or otherwise, that some new technology unleashes on society. Fantasy, on the other hand, could just as easily fall under the category of “escapist” literature (and much of it surely does), but it has exactly the same capacity to raise valid philosophical issues that reflect concerns in the real world. The Lord of the Rings series, for example, raises issues about politics, war, and environmental stewardship; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon retells the Arthurian legend in a way that highlights the kinds of divisive politics that often surround religious difference as well as feminist concerns about women’s roles in society.
It looks like purpose alone isn’t going to settle the issue. We’re going to have to focus a little more narrowly on the distinctive features that members of a genre share and see what comes of that.