Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Labeling Genre Books

  Yesterday Eric Rosenfield wrote a terrific (and long) article for scifi/fantasy/spec-fic website io9.com called "Are book genres being replaced by tags?"  He touched on quite a number of points that I'd like to comment on...

  Indeed, the literary fiction writers who are ensconced in academic careers are the ones who refer to genre fiction—that fiction that supposedly  does not have mainstream acceptance-as "popular writing". So why are we so concerned, so obsessed, about what they think?

  In the past I've gotten rather upset about the way literary authors have looked down on genre authors, but recently I've moved past this and simply ignore them and their elitist attitudes. First and foremost I'm a geek, a fanboy, and dare I say it - nerd. I read predominatly fantasy these days but mix in more notable new sci-fi like John Scalzi or Peter Hamilton. Second, as a writer I write what I like without regard for what anyone really thinks. I suppose I'm like almost any writer, I want people to read and like my work. But I also realize that I am a genre writer and that means 'niche' so I'm looking at a potential market that is much smaller than say Dan Brown. That's fine by me.

One of Eric's most important points is the use of labels in publishing...

  I no longer believe we should stop using terms like science fiction and fantasy and so on; those terms can be useful in describing certain things, certain ways of reading. But their status as hard-and-fast slots into which we plug in all of our books is already starting to fade, as the once nebulous megacategory of science fiction and fantasy splinters into steampunk, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and so on, subcategories that once upon a time might have been merely commented on but which because of the 'Net have blossomed into subcultures all their own, distinct and often non-communicating with the groups reading the space opera or sword and sorcery that since Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings have dominated science fiction and fantasy respectively.

  I completely agree with his point. Books will increasingly be tagged with more than one label to try and appear on as many virutal bookshelves as possible. I plan to do this with my first series, it will be tagged #fantasy #military and probably one or two more. He goes on to lament how readers and writers "stay in genre"... 

  Which is the point: if we stay ensconced in our little bubbles we're going to miss out on amazing things going on outside of them. Because there's obviously nothing inherent about the tropes of the various genres that turns people off in general. Any set of tropes, from time travel to vampires to locked-door mystery to a star-crossed romance can be made palatable to just about anyone if presented in the right way.

  As a writer I intentionally read out my genre so I can learn "how other guys do it".  Recently my reading list included Matthew Reilly's Jack West series (7 Ancient Wonders, 6 Sacred Stones & 5 Greatest Warriors, all thrillers), Bernerd Cornwell's awesome Agincourt (historical fiction), and Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child's Pendergast series (supernatural thrillers).  One could argue that these are "crossover" or logically tied into scifi/fantasy and they'd be right, but the Pendergast and Jack West series are clearly marketed as thrillers and are never placed near the scifi/fantasy section. They also have never shown up on my Amazon recommendations. I think any writer who wants to improve their writing should do this. I hear this advice frequently from established authors such as Michael Stackpole and Brandon Sanderson.

Finally Eric ponders a new book culture...

  We need a new kind of book culture. We need to create a world in which genre labels are descriptors rather than lock-boxes and books can be valued and evaluated in ways that are meaningful to us as readers. Because the danger right now is that we'll get so fragmented and isolated that every category will descend into ever more incestuous, self-obsessed and oblivious quagmires. There's no easy fix, and no guarantee that the industry and the media, desperate to maintain the status quo, won't find a way to hijack the new technologies and continue to, on the one hand, relentlessly market to us as fragmented demographics and not as people, or on the other continue to maintain an outdated and classist value system concerning what's worth reading and reviewing.

  Certainly it will be intersting watching the publishing industry in the next few years grapple with the problems of virtual bookshelves and I think most of the bigger ones will understand it, eventually.  I'm rather conflicted on this point because I see the benefits of tagging and agree with his "descriptor based new world". But I find myself inveitably fall into the recommednation engine trap and/or I simply stay in genre for "fun reading" becuase I know it's safe. And maybe this is the entire point... readers will read what is "safe" because they know their basic need for satisfaction will come from their 139th fantasy novel.

  As my wonderful editor and friend Roscoe Mathieu pointed out "Technology changes first, practice comes second, ideology comes third."  But in this case maybe recommendation technology is standing in the way of practicing our "descriptor based new world"?

No comments:

Post a Comment