Speculative Fiction and Genres

31 Jul

In keeping with my Sub-genre of the Week feature every Saturday, I thought I’d write a little about the theory of genres.  First, some definitions:

There are two perspectives from which we can approach the concept of a genre:

1. A genre is a collection of tropes and conventions shared by a group of similar stories in conversation with each other.

2, A genre is a collection of stories that all appeal to the same set of readers.

The first is a literary genre, and a theoretical definition.  The second is a marketing genre and a pragmatic definition.  A lot of the confusion about genre comes from people not specifying which definition/perspective they are using when they use the word genre.  You can also approach it from a user perspective.  The first definition is most useful for readers, literary critics, and authors wishing to write in a specific genre.  The second is most useful to writers, agents, and publishers looking to market the book to readers.  Publishers are willing to bend genre or play to crossover if it might get them more sales.  In that way, the second definition leads to a much more fluid conception of genre.  It’s very important when discussing genre to keep in mind that both definitions are legitimate and have their uses in the right context.  I occasionally see people throwing trash talk at someone coming from a perspective different than the one they want to use, and that doesn’t do anything useful for the discussion.

However, the definition in question can cause some serious disagreement between the two perspectives about what a specific genre even refers to.  Case in point: Urban Fantasy.  From the theoretical perspective, Urban Fantasy is an Earth-based fantasy novel set in the modern era with fantasy elements where the city the story is set in plays a large role in the story and can even function as a character, and the story contains themes stemming from societal issues arising in an urban environment.  But under the pragmatic perspective, “UF” generally refers to a set of books where a damaged yet kick-ass protagonist functions as a sort of crime-solver in a modern city involving creatures from mythology and folklore.  And even then we have novels like Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where we apply Young Adult tropes of a child discovering the truth about their origins/past.  Does that fall under Urban Fantasy?  Sometimes.  Certainly Clare’s novel appeals to many of the same readers as more traditional Urban Fantasy.  So under the pragmatic definition, City of Bones is UF, even if it doesn’t meet all the marks of theoretical UF.

Another major point: A genre is a collection of tropes and conventions that covers all the possible tropes in the genre.  But a book doesn’t have to have all of those tropes to be of that genre.  Whatever genre a book’s tropes overlap with the most, is generally considered its default genre.

Since this is a Speculative Linguistics Blog, let me make a linguistic analogy.  Each of the major genres–Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Western–functions as a mid-level language family such as the Romance Languages, Germanic, or Slavic.  A sub-genre is like a dialect–it incorporates a smaller, more specific set of attributes common in the larger language family.  We call these attributes tropes and conventions in literary analysis.  A specific book is analogous to an idiolect–the personal set of linguistic markers describing the language of a single individual.  Just like genres, books are a collection of tropes and conventions that come together to make up a story.

But just like a human being can include markers not present in their own native language or dialect, or even language family, a book can include tropes and conventions not common to its perceived genre.  Because most writers don’t consciously write to a formula.  They use the language they learned as a kid, or in the case of books, the tropes and conventions they encountered in their reading.  And this is what makes labeling a book by a specific genre complicated.

Because of what I described above, a book can have over-lapping genres.  Much like a partial fingerprint, it will have a collection of tropes and conventions that matches part of one genre, but its collection of features can also partially match another genre.  And certain genres are more prone to have overlap with certain other genres.  High and Epic fantasy, for example, commonly have a quite large overlap.  And as I said before, a book doesn’t have to have every trope in a genre to qualify.

There are a few distinctive tropes present in most genre that by their presence alone can qualify it as one genre over another.  Black-and-white morality/inherent good vs. evil almost always signals high fantasy over epic or heroic fantasy.  But what happens when a book lacks distinguishing features from any genre and its collections overlaps multiple genre proto-types?  Then we have a mess.

The pragmatic definition can get around this by just labeling it whatever genre they think will pull in the most readers.  Epic fantasy is hot right now, so a marketing department might eschew high fantasy as an option and market an indeterminate books as epic to follow the trend.  But the theoretical definition can’t do that.  And so we have a situation where genre becomes ever more narrowly defined trying to make it possible to pigeon-hole every single book into an indisputable primary genre.

And here we come across another trait of books:  They can have primary and secondary genre.  A Science Fiction Romance is a book with science fiction elements whose primary genre is Romance.  Such books are often treated as having the sub-genre “science fiction” under the Romance super-genre, under the principle that it will appeal to Romance readers but not Science Fiction readers.  Under the pragmatic definition of genre, this is true.  Under the theoretical definition it’s true in a different way.

An example of this phenomenon occurs in the sub-genre scope.  Much like Romance is always the primary genre in a book with two genres, steampunk is always the primary sub-genre in a book with two sub-genres.  A book might qualify as Epic Fantasy under most of the requirements, but if it has steampunk elements, it will always be steampunk and not science fiction.

This primary-genre phenomenon highlights another confusing aspect of genre.  Even though genre is merely a collection of tropes, you can apply some or all of those tropes to a story, and not have it be truly in that genre.  The term “trappings” is often thrown about in genre discussions, referring to using the tropes of a genre in a story that is not really of that genre.  The final discriminator in whether something is truly of a genre or not is good faith.  If a book has the mechanical tropes of a genre but has not used them in good faith, but merely as window-dressing for a story that really belongs to another genre, such as often happens with Romance, then that story is not the genre of those “trappings”.

The way that you can tell if a genre is just intended as window-dressing is if the story tropes do not match up with the thematic tropes.  Each genre includes among its tropes a sub-set of tropes related to the themes of the genre.  Romance story-lines are not a thematic trope of science fiction, and so a book with a romance story-line cannot be science fiction.


These are a sub-set of the underpinnings of the genre classification system.  It is not exhaustive, but I do think it addresses most of the major issues surrounding genre classification.  That said, if I missed anything, I would love to hear about it.

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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in genre


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