Genre friction: why we should learn to get over genre snobbery

There’s a lot of snobbery surrounding genre in books, television and movies. Here, Andrew explains why we shouldn’t judge a story on genre alone…

Many years ago, when I was undergoing higher education in exchange for a modest sum and a waste of the taxpayer’s money, I was in a pub. The people in the pub with me were talking about music. I forget which band. It might have been Scouting For Girls– I can’t remember. The important thing was that it was a band generally treated with scorn.

One of our friends then said that our getting annoyed about such a band was pointless, with the immortal line, “It’s just music, you either like it or you don’t”. She was greeted with a mixture of celebratory laughter and gazes of tundra-like hostility.

Essentially, though, contentious though the use of ‘just’ might be in that sentence, she was entirely correct. The two important categories of everything are The Things You Like, and The Things You Don’t.

Despite this, genre arguments remain one of the most popular ways to completely waste your time on the Internet. The Booker Prize for Literary Fiction is an excellent example of this, as the BBC was called to account for its incredibly snobbish attitude towards genre fiction in its World Book Night coverage. Sci-fi and fantasy got away lightly, in some respects, in that they weren’t mentioned, and so no one could be snobby about them, even though some of the books covered were clearly influenced by those genres. Non-fiction wasn’t even referenced. Go World Book Night.

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People will quite often dismiss a book because it belongs to a certain genre, even though these are largely created for ease of reference. Essentially, genres exist for marketing, and so that libraries and bookshops don’t simply consist of a giant run of books shelved from A – Z by authors’ surnames. Quite often, a book will leave genre fiction shelving if it becomes popular enough, as if it is getting promoted to the Proper Book section (hello, Justin Cronin).

Sometimes, a book such as Lev Grossman’s The Magician will be marketed as a Dan Brown-style page-turner, even though it has more in common with the fantasy genre, and indeed, might actually sell better there.

The same is true of any medium, with comic book movies managing to smuggle in a variety of genres into mainstream cinema, and Doctor Who doing whatever it damn well feels like in any particular week.

Doctor Who overcomes genre prejudice by moving so freely between nearly every genre imaginable that there’s bound to be at least a couple of stories that someone will like, even if they hate the majority of it. However, I find that the recent Neil Gaiman-penned episode is an excellent example of the stupidity of dismissing something based on genre.

The fantasy/sci-fi argument is one I get at work quite a lot, because I run that section at a bookshop. I read both. I favour fantasy, but both are good. And it seemed to me that The Doctor’s Wife was more sci-fi than fantasy, but people would have thought it to be the latter, simply because of the visual stylings of the episode. It was very Gaiman, with the mish-mash creatures, the junkyard setting and Suranne Jones dressed like a character from Sandman – all pale skin and dark hair, and grimy old fashioned clothing.

But that’s just good use of tropes. The tone of the episode was fantastical, but the actual concepts were all sci-fi. A planet that’s alive is more of a typical sci-fi staple than fantasy. There’s overlap, yes, but as the setting is a bottle universe, and involves time machines, it’s ticking more sci-fi boxes than fantasy ones. Just because the creatures look a bit gothic doesn’t make the explanation of their harvesting organs, body parts and tattooed Time Lords any less science-fiction-y.

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The ‘y’ is important there. It seems more science-fiction-y. The key difference between sci-fi and fantasy is the style of their conventions, but they both make use of made-up concepts to get away with unusual storylines and ideas. I read a book called Absorption by John Meaney a few month ago, which contained much that was scientifically implausible.

Glass and metal buildings and clothing moves based on the whims of the user, energy apparently created from matter to create more matter. There is no explanation of how this works, it’s just there so that the story is more science-fiction-y, with moving walkways and the like. It’s no more ridiculous than a magic spell.

You’re more likely to get medieval-style societies, quests, wizards and weird creatures in fantasy obviously. I mean, Star Wars is definitely sci-fi, and that’s got sod all of those things in it, right? Genre is often mistakenly attributed based on presentation than content.

There are weird associations people have based on genre, short hands and stereotypes that are propagated by a cyclical set of behaviours of authors and audience. If something is genre but popular, it gets assimilated as being representative. Hence all dark romance is brooding supernatural beings ploughing pale young whinos, and all fantasy is witches and wizards going on bloody long walks.

Whereas you could quite easily say that The Time Traveller’s Wife sits comfortably in dark fantasy. Definitions are more fluid than the genre sections allow them to be. Of course, there are simply books you like and books you don’t. But that’s more difficult to operate as a shelving system.

Essentially, people who have prejudices based on genres need to get over themselves. It’s not a staggeringly deep concept, but assuming you haven’t got an ever-expanding reading list that you’re adding to faster than you’re subtracting from, then perhaps try something from a genre you dislike. Do some research – ask people who know what you like.

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And for God’s sake, read some comics. They cover basically every genre imaginable in just as much depth. Descriptive prose and background illustrations both fulfil the same function, and both require considerable skill to achieve.

Genres conventions are there to be played with, but there is absolutely no point is basing your opinion on whether something is good or not on where it is shelved in WH Smiths. People will say they don’t like sci-fi, and they might mean space opera.

They’ll still love 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. They might hate Outcasts, but love Life On Mars. Using genre and subgenre for ease of reference has sadly lent itself to silly and petty divisions, leading people to deprive themselves of entertainment they’d really enjoy, just because it strays to the wrong side of Clarke’s Third Law.

Having said all that, I still think Scouting For Girls are terrible.