For more of his thoughts on this, and other topics, I recommend his blog.
Euclid defined geometry with five postulates. The fifth of these is the “parallel postulate” which states that for every line “L” and every point “A” there is one and only one line that intersects point “A” without intersecting line “L”, that is to say, one line that is parallel to “A”.
And it’s true—as long as you’re drawing your lines and points on a flat plane. Unfortunately for Euclid, some folks like to draw on spheres, and on a sphere the whole concept of parallel changes. Instead of have only one line that is parallel to a given line through a given point, you have an infinite number of them.
People who draw on spheres aren’t doing geometry wrong, they are doing a different kind of geometry. Non-euclidean geometry, they call it, and doing geometry that way has led to some rather significant advances in mathematics. Even more important, some folks decided that the kind of surface that they drew on could be any shape at all, stretched or folded or tied up in knots, and it wouldn’t matter to them—we call those people topologists.
While I will admit that this is a drastic oversimplification, I think it can be used as a good analogy for the formation of genres in fiction.
Today the Hardboiled Detective Story is a standard trope, even a cliché. When Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep in 1939, however, mainstream fictional detectives were cerebral and urbane, gentlemen who did their detecting from a comfortable armchair in the drawing room. Chandler took one of the unwritten laws of mystery fiction—“Heroes don’t get their hands dirty”—and turned it on its head. Phillip Marlowe didn’t just get his hands dirty, he got his head knocked in upon occasion. In Chandler’s hands the art of murder became a very messy business.
The reading public loved it, and the rest is history.
In the 1970’s, Horror fiction was about good guys who were human and monsters who were not. Anne Rice decided to see what happened if she turned that around and published Interview With The Vampire. I shouldn’t need to tell anybody how that turned out.
At the end of the 1980’s, Mystery novels ended with the murderer being discovered, with the trial and sentencing being an epilogue, if that. A young lawyer named John Grisham decided to start A Time To Kill with the identity of the murderer and make the trial itself the story—and now every bookstore in the country has a Courtroom Drama section.
It’s true that none of the examples I’ve given were the first to tell a particular story. Chandler wrote for pulps that already had an audience with a taste for the unsavory. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror writers have been experimenting with stories told from non-human viewpoints since forever. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960.
You can get into knock-down drag-out fights over who actually invented non-euclidean geometry, too. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m inclined to give it to the Persians.)
Often the important thing is not who wrote first in a new genre, but who wrote in a new genre at the right time. Was Frankenstein a Science Fiction novel? Probably, but it existed in a vacuum. It took Verne and Wells to give the infant genre enough of a shape that other writers felt comfortable exploring it on their own.
Some genres never really take off. Despite some very excellent and disturbing work from some very talented authors, Junkie Fiction isn’t a shelf you’re likely to see at your local bookstore. Historical Romances are everywhere, but even though Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose was a (deservedly) huge success, Historical Mysteries tend to be viewed as individual oddities, not as part of a literary tradition. Thirty years after his death, people still don’t know quite what to make of the body of Phillip Dick’s work.
So is genre a concept that authors should concern themselves with? Yes and no, but mostly no. Yes, it is helpful to be able to tell potential readers what kind of book you have written in a single shorthand phrase. Distributors and booksellers, even on-line, still tend to think in terms of “what shelf do I stock this on?”
I do believe, however, that genre is descriptive, not proscriptive. It should be a way of describing a work after it has been written, not a set of rules to follow when writing. My decision to list Catskinner’s Book as Science Fiction was a purely marketing decision—I could make a case for listing it as Horror, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, or GLBT Fiction. Amazon told me to pick one genre, I picked the one that looked like it was going to show up in the most searches.
The conventional wisdom is that a novel has to fit neatly into a single category. Fifty years ago that was true, because in order to sell a novel you needed to interest an agent, who in turn needed to interest a publisher, who was going to have to sell the novel to bookstores, who needed to be able to put the book in a particular section.
Today books are sold on-line, and more importantly they are discussed on-line. Books find new readers overwhelming by word of mouth. People read about new books on social network platforms and book blogs and through retailer recommendations on websites. The Internet allows books to be placed on an infinite number of virtual shelves, and those shelves intersect at an infinite number of points.
Is genre as a concept going to disappear? I doubt it, people love labels. I do believe that the concept is in transition right now, going from a top-down publisher determined pigeonhole to something more organic, defined by readers and authors.
This makes it a very exciting time to be an author of fiction. Self-publishing allows us to escape the traditional categories and write the story that needs to be told, and not just what a publisher thinks is going to be easy to sell. Genre is becoming a mix and match wardrobe, not a single off-the-rack suit.
We can draw our lines wherever we want.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, a science fiction/urban fantasy novel available from All On The Same Page (trade paperback) and Amazon US/UK (e-book), and the General Editor of The Fauxpocalypse Project.
Catskinner’s Book is available for free on Amazon from 20th to 24th April 2013.