On the importance of genre —

Which I know has been DONE TO DEATH as a topic, but

a) I like this post on genre over at Omnivoracious, and

b) As it happens, I was recently, for no reason in particular, trying to sort out all the different SFF subgenres that exist. (What? Pointless hobbies can be fun, too!)

I particularly liked this bit from the Omnivoracious post:

Genre Helps Discoverability

This hankering for a certain kind of thing, which afflicts books as well as food, makes discoverability key. And that? Is where genre is a Viking. I mean, could you imagine if all food looked exactly the same on the outside? Every piece a spherical white blob with absolutely no identifying marks? And the only thing you know is that some taste like kimchi and others like bananas foster—but there are no ways to know which are which? Yeah. That would give a whole new meaning to the profession of “food tasters.”

Hah! That is such a fun analogy! It’s a bit like the Harry Potter any-flavor beans, only for all food — scary thought!

And the take-home message from the Omnivoracious post, also nicely put:

Genre was never intended to be used as how-to guidelines, or enforced as stringent limitations (sorry, can’t publish your story: needs more elves!). It’s really just to help readers identify books they might like. But, as harsh as that sounds, this is really awesome news. It means that you have a ton of available space to explore with innovative characters, your own unique writing style, and whatever crazy plots you dreamed up but haven’t seen yet.

So — if you were going to try to describe what genre your newly completed manuscript falls into, what would you say? I mean, you could say: It’s like Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH meets THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO, and that would certainly give us a startling but fairly precise idea of what your book is like, or what you hope it’s like. And the idea it would give us is: a thriller with at least one uber-competent main character and with SF and mystery elements.

Which is to say, we would be pegging your manuscript by genre.

So: subgenres. Here are the ones I came up with. I think I got them ALL. Maybe.

Epic fantasy (old style: Tolkien; modern: GRR Martin)

Heroic fantasy / sword-and-sorcery (Fritz Leiber)

High fantasy (The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon)

Lyrical fantasy (Patricia McKillip, for example; and MAN are people overusing the term “lyrical” these days; PANTOMIME by Laura Lam got described as “lyrical” and it is not.)

Contemporary fantasy (Wide Open by Deb Coates)

Urban fantasy (everything, these days)

Paranormal (everything else these days)

Magical Realism (The Girl Who Chased The Moon by Sarah Addison Allen)

Fairytale (The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell)

Supernatural fantasy (I have Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series in mind here, not sure if it’s a good example, though.)

Gothic fantasy (which to me means castles and haunted forests and dead wives in walled-up rooms and, you know, Gothic.)

Historical fantasy (Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr)

Alternate history (SM Stirling)

Gaslamp fantasy (Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio)

Steampunk (Airborn by Kenneth Oppel)

Dark fantasy (The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick)

Lovecraftian (not my thing, but does it need an example? I mean, Lovecraft.)


Slipstream (where fantasy meets literary; I’ve heard The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold described as Slipstream, but I don’t know that I agree. I think maybe Slipstream might be a term used by people who like the literary genre to describe fantasy they actually like, because they don’t want to admit it’s fantasy? That’s just a guess.)

Science fantasy (The Warlock in Spite of Himself by Christopher Stasheff)

Hard science fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson)

Space Opera (Lois McMaster Bujold)

Military science fiction (The Valor series by Tonya Huff)

Cyberpunk (Snow Crash by Neal Stevenson)

Psychological science fiction (The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon)

Sociological science fiction (The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh)

First contact science fiction (The Demu trilogy by FM Busby)

Alien invasion (And All The Stars by Andrea Host)

Post-apocalyptic (Alas Babylon by Pat Frank)

Dystopia (everything other than paranormal and urban fantasy, it seems like)

Time Travel (my favorite recently is Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card)

How about it? Anything I obviously missed?

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17 thoughts on “On the importance of genre —”

  1. Is gritty fantasy separate from dark fantasy?
    Most of my quibbles would be asking where some of your categories divide, e.g. epic v. high fantasy.

    Humorous fantasy is probably its own category, thanks to Terry Pratchett and maybe Piers Anthony.

    Pastoral science fiction? It’s a bit out of fashion these days, admittedly. So is the “planetary romance” (much of Andre Norton), which overlaps heavily with what you call “science fantasy.”

    Utopian fiction is a *way* out of fashion subgenre, but it has a more distinguished pedigree than almost any other.

    Technothrillers are kind of borderline SF.

  2. Yes; as far as I’m concerned, modern gritty fantasy kind of blurs the lines between epic and dark. Like Joe Abercrombe; I don’t know that I’d exactly call that dark, but definitely too gritty for me.

    I’m not sure I’d say that Terry Pratchett’s later books fell into “Humorous fantasy” — though that’s a category I forgot. So is Pratchett’s — which looks to me like social satire disguised as humor.

    Oh, sure, Pastoral science fiction! Like Zenna Henderson. And how about Zilpha Keatley Snyder? To me, BELOW THE ROOT has something of the same tone as the People stories, even though it’s quite different.

    Planatary romance? Like what? I can think of several Andre Norton books I really enjoyed as a kid, but none of them had any romantic component that I can remember.

    How about thriller SF — like Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH trilogy? Which if you’ve never read those, you should!

    Utopian — name three? I’m drawing a blank. All I can think of is serious dystopias like 1984.

  3. The term “planetary romance” is a throwback to an earlier literary definition of romance. It’s adventure set on an exotic alien world, and may or may not have a romantic (meaning love) component. The ur-example is probably John Carter’s Barsoom, and the type ranges over to, say, some of Jack Vance’s less cynical work — the Tschai books are considered planetary romances.

    UTOPIA (More, 1516), LOOKING BACKWARD (Bellamy, 1887), THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (Wells, 1933). H.G. Wells wrote several utopias, actually, but nobody reads them any more.

    Wikipedia cites the somewhat more recent Ecotopia (1975) by Callenbach; Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy (which apparently has both a utopia and a dystopia); The Probability Broach (1980), by L. Neil Smith. I’ve heard of the first two and read the last one — a libertarian utopia; it is just awful. The New Age movement also emits the occasional utopia, I believe.

  4. Kingdom fantasy, like CJC’s FORTRESS, or much McKillip, where the stakes are a kingdom (or maybe two) not the world.

    Deb Coates’ could also be rural fantasy. (modern style, as opposed to Simak.)

    i don’t know where to put Cordwainer Smith. Far Future Sf, I guess.

    Supernatural fantasy, how about Ray Feist’s FAIRYTALE? I haven’t read it in a very long time (and don’t particularly recommend it now), but that’s what comes to mind when I hear the phrase. If I define it as the supernatural faery influence/critters breaking into the modern world – but not in cities – that could hold Coates, Dietz(?), and others.

    I’ve heard Mervyn Peake’s work called Gothic fantasy. Since I’ve always bounced off it, I can’t say for sure. I know Gothic novels are always about a girl and a house. Peake’s got the house, for sure. Jo Walton’s LIFELOAD is another.

    Arthurian Fantasy – there’s enough to be a solo category. Unfortunately most of it is not very good.

    Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirsten, … hard science? She shows intelligent people figuring things out about their world. it’s a colony novel but starts out looking like fantasy.

    Norton didn’t do love romance, much, although her Witch World books had some; I think planetary romance is more a High Adventure on Distant Planets story, than a love story.

    Nonhistorical world fantasy, like GG Kay or, CJC’s PALADIN, or Friedman’s HARALD. It isn’t alternate history exactly, as there’s no jumping off point, it’s just cultures clearly based on something that exists/did exist in our history.

    Pastoral… Snyder? Maybe. I read it lo these MANY years ago ( I think I was a teen) and mostly what I remember is a sense of the author grinding axes throughout the story, especially at the end. Which given what an apolitical kid I was is saying something.

    Political sf/f…. not so much stories that tackle common modern issues undisguised, but where the politics is a lot of the story. Bujold and CJC – see CYTEEN, frex – do a lot with that. Bujold wrote somewhere that she thought people preferred the third SHARING KNIFE because it was so much more political than the predecessor. I thought I liked it because they’re out doing more stuff, seeing more things, etc., but that seems to have been her take based on feedback from readers.

    I know LeGuin wrote a utopian novel, i just can’t remember the title.

    Lots of overlapping possibilities, of course. I like the metaphor of mountain and valleys – you go up a mountain peak to get the pure stuff (Tolkien, Lovecraft, McKilip), and down in the valleys around it to get the other categories in various blends.

  5. Why, thanks! And yes, you made me laugh, thinking of kimchi vs bananas foster — and again with the No way, needs more elves!

  6. Oh! Like the “romance” vs “novel” categories; I wasn’t expecting that usage. Barsoom looks to ME like sword-and-sorcery. NOT my thing.

    Are the Wells books ones that you would recommend? Though I’m not sure I’m very interested in utopias. And in dystopias, only if I can expect the repressive government to topple at the end; ie, YA dystopias, not 1984.

  7. Oh, I REALLY like the mountain/valley metaphor. That’s perfect!

    I liked the 3rd and 4th Sharing Knife stories because of just what you said, the travel aspects, and also because of how the characters interact and learn and grow. Plus, hey, giant bats! Political, eh, it’s hard for me to even think what she’s referring to. Now, CJ Cherryh’s FORTRESS books, some of those are VERY political. Yeah, CJ is where I’d go for complicated politics, she has that all over the place. But I’m not sure I’d say that was a seperate subgenre. More a high fantasy with lots of politics, or sociological science fiction with lots of politics.

    This nonhistorical-but-really-kind-of-historical category is hard to name, isn’t it, because “nonhistorical” makes it sound like the world’s history isn’t important, or something. But that’s definitely a subgenre, and one I really like. I’m definitely looking forward to Kay’s sequel to UNDER HEAVEN.

    I used to say that introducing King Arthur into your fantasy meant you’d jumped the shark, but I’ve had to eat those words once or twice, so now I’m more cautious. But yeah, definitely not where I go to look for great books. And also, I agree that Arthurian rightfully deserves its own subgenre.

    Cordwainer Smith may honestly deserve a subgenre all to himself. Craig, is there ANYTHING you know of that as the same feel as Smith?

  8. Hmmm. My first reaction is Yes! But my second is . . . Maybe?

    Could that be a whole separate subgenre? Would you put Barry Hughart and, say, UNDER HEAVEN in the same subgenre? And ACROSS THE NIGHTINGGALE FLOOR? Not sure. That last one is pretty grim to share space with an utterly charming book like BRIDGE OF BIRDS.

    How much younger? I think I will have to at least go add one of Manley’s books to my wishlist so I don’t forget her name. Similar in tone to Hughard is quite a recommendation!

    Update: WOW Ruth Manley’s books are expensive on Amazon! I might pick up the first one, but the second and third are WAY out of reach, so maybe not. I sure hope someone eventually puts those out as ebooks, but since Manley is evidently deceased, not sure we can hope for that.

    In the meantime, I sure wish I had a dozen good used bookstores around to check out.

  9. The HUghart books ARE grim, they’re just written in such an innocent, wide-eyed-wondering way that you don’t notice it. Neat trick when the writer can pull it off.

    There are other Asian-set fantasies, but I’m not at all sure lumping them together into a genre is helpful for people looking for ‘more like that’. It’s like lumping all medievaloid fantasy into on genre, which gives you everything from Tolkien to Arthurian, to some McKillip.

    Just off the top of my head: PALADIN, Sean Russell’s INITIATE BROTHER (duo), Alma Alexander’s SECRETS OF JIN SHEI and EMBERS OF HEAVEN, Salmanson’s TOMOE GOEZEN (which I will never forgive for being boring, when it was the only book I had…) somebody’s KAI LUNG. And a bunch in YA.

  10. You know, that’s true, the Hughart books have quite a lot of grim stuff happening. I might better have said, they’re not gritty. Also, they do have happy endings, whereas I spent the whole last book of the Lian Hearne trilogy wincing from the slow-motion crash-and-burn of everything the main character had ever built up. Ugh.

  11. Wells’ utopias are pretty bad: there’s a reason we remember his *other* books and not those. I don’t recommend the genre — the 19th /early 20th-century ones tend to be socialist, and pretty disturbing through later eyes. I’m pretty sure ECOTOPIA won’t age any better.

    The only things I can think of offhand that are at all like Cordwainer Smith are a couple of obscure novels by Michael Coney — do you remember THE CELESTIAL STEAM LOCOMOTIVE? I’m pretty sure Coney was deliberately trying to do the same thing and doing it less well (specialists = underpeople). But as for what that thing is, I’m having trouble putting it into words.

  12. Oh, and LeGuin’s THE DISPOSSESSED is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”… which I happen to know although I never read it.

  13. That’s it! That’s the title by LeGuin I couldn’t remember. It’s another of the books that made me a skipper around in books, as wasn’t holding my interest. I might have been too young for it.

    Lian Hearne wrote a fourth Otori novel, but I haven’t read it; title was something about a heron. [google] HARSH CRY OF THE HERON (I remember some of the stuff in the synopsis – like Takeo’s death – so I guess I did read it) and there’s a fifth, a prequel as well: HEAVEN’S NET IS WIDE. They were downers, rather. And I didn’t care for the love interest. She was probably a plausible result of the culture, and the author handled her well, I just didn’t like her.

    I read the Coney. But it didn’t hit the ‘reread this’ button, so I don’t remember it at all well.

    I haven’t run across the Manley, and it looks like no libraries I have access to have her work, so I’ll drop her in my ABEbooks search list, and see if anything affordable comes up.

  14. I wasn’t thinking of including books like UNDER HEAVEN in the same category as Hughart’s work. UNDER HEAVEN is set in an alternate China, but doesn’t contain many overt fantasy elements. I think what makes Hughart’s work distinctive is that it’s tapping into an idealised Western image of a fantastical China (“an Ancient China that never was”). Manley’s books are the closest in tone to Hughart’s work that I have found. Her novels don’t contain the erotic elements of Hughart’s work but are just as charming. I admit that work by two authors would make this an exceedingly small sub-genre!

    I am happy to check secondhand bookshops in Australia for copies of Manley’s books if anyone is seriously interested. Her books are much easier to find (and cheaper!) over here.

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