An earlier version of this question was about the definition of science fiction / fantasy / speculative fiction, but then Falling Letters beat me to it with this well-expressed post. And then from The Worm Hole came the question of whether translated fiction should be considered a genre. This got me thinking about genre classifications in broader terms: what are they, and do we really need them? Do they help us in finding books that we connect to, or do they become reading prisons that we close ourselves off in?
We all know that “genre fiction” is a put-down for some highbrow types. To them, anything that doesn’t belong to the club of adult realistic fiction (or magical realism, which gets an honorary membership) is not worthy of notice. Science fiction is somewhat respectable because it has science in it, and speculative fiction sounds kind of cool as well. But fantasy, romance, or (ugh) YA? Forget it. For some, even historical fiction is a no-no, because it plays around with facts and is often associated with the dreaded “romance.” On the other hand, there are those who seem to crave books that fall into a formula, and read exclusively from the mystery or horror or sci-fi shelves without considering that there might be other books with elements they would enjoy.
How did these labels arise, anyway? Did Homer consider the Odyssey a fantasy, or the Iliad historical fiction? Did his audience need to pigeonhole them in order to understand what they were getting, and reject it if they didn’t want it? It seems that somewhere along the way our simple enjoyment of stories became self-conscious, becoming attached to values and attitudes not necessarily present in the stories themselves. And, of course, when money and marketing come into play, there’s a high priority placed on getting books to the right readers, or rather consumers. But does our system work?
I started out thinking about fantasy and science fiction, because this is an area where I feel one label is unfairly given more respect than the other. Just because a story includes rockets and space travel doesn’t mean it’s plausible; a lot of science fiction is really fantasy in disguise. And just because a story includes magic doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If you’ve had a very powerful or transformative experience, how do you describe it? Don’t you often have to say “It was like I was on fire” or “It was as though my heart turned to stone”? That’s metaphor, and it’s what fantasy is made of. It can be used well or badly, artistically or commercially, but that’s not the fault of the “genre.” If you’ve read a fantasy book you hated, and swore off fantasy forever, was it the genre or the book you disliked? There’s such a huge range within the genre, and it overlaps into so many other areas, that I fear those who swear off that section of the library or bookstore are cutting themselves off from some books they might actually love.
But that’s just one example, and perhaps not the best one; the same could be said of any genre, and sometimes the lines are even more unclear and arbitrary. (Age limits or ranges on books are particularly irritating to me.) Yet there is a huge sea of fiction to navigate if we lack any method of differentiation. Do you have any ideas about how else to do it? Or do my questions seem unnecessary to you, because you like the genre labels we have just fine?