Why "Genre" Is Poison

This post, by David Bryher, originally appeared on Pornokitsch.

A few years ago, shortly after I had jacked in a low-flying job in magazine publishing to go freelance, a friend asked me what I planned to write. “I have an idea for a novel or two,” I replied.

“Oh, yes? What kind of thing?”

“Fantasy,” I replied, and he frowned.

He wondered why I’d wanted to write in that genre – not because he thought it was bad, simply because it was a genre that didn’t appeal to him. As a genre, fantasy never chimed with him.

Oh, did I mention this friend writes Doctor Who? (Not all of it, just a few choice episodes.) So it might seem odd that he doesn’t like fantasy, yes? Ah, but. What do you think of when I say “fantasy”?

My friend and I didn’t talk much more about that idea. (Although I did mention a second idea, which he liked a lot: a woman falling in love with a man half her age via the medium of an online fantasy roleplaying game.) But I got the sense from what he said that he didn’t like things like elves and dwarves and magic swords – which is certainly what many people probably do think when I say “fantasy”. And (and I say this with the utmost respect to my friend) when many people start to picture elves and dwarves and magic swords, the gates of their mind shut tight and that is that is that. My fantasy idea didn’t have any of those things. Doctor Who doesn’t have any of those things. Ironically, the online gaming story idea was full of elves and dwarves and magic swords – and yet my friend liked that one more because he could see it was about a woman falling for the wrong man.

Now, that’s probably a story we can all sympathise with to some degree. We’ve all read a terrific fantasy or science fiction book that we just know a friend will love – but she won’t go near it because of the spaceship/hooded-man-with-a-dagger on the cover. It will be news to precisely no one that the use of “genre” within the publishing and bookselling world has, over many years, helped readers find the kind of things they love and then rigidly stay within those lines. I’m sure there’s only a small minority of us left that shop for our books exclusively at brick-and-mortar bookshops, but splitting books into genres (and ugly subgenres such as “supernatural romance”) only reinforces these narrow lines of taste and harms “discoverability”. But we’ve heard all these arguments and fears of ghettoisation before.

And we know that it’s not as if people are generally averse to fantasy or science fiction: such stories are a reliable source of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, and wizards and vampires didn’t put anyone off Harry Potter or Twilight.

This isn’t even an issue of science fiction or fantasy being qualitatively ‘worse’ than other forms of literature. My friend didn’t question the relative quality of my two story ideas, he simply stated his belief in which was more appealing to himself – and by extension, I think, to all potential readers. “Don’t scare the horses.”

Read the rest of the post on Pornokitsch.

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