August 21, 2014

The Genre Fountain

All right, so this is something that’s been on my mind for a while.

Actually, that’s not true. This is something that’s been on my mind basically from the start of my career. I couldn’t not have this be on my mind from the start of my career, since the market has made it completely impossible for me not to think about this about once a day or so.

Let’s start here. Here are the things that I have heard CITY OF STAIRS called:

  • fantasy
  • epic fantasy
  • urban fantasy
  • steampunk
  • science fiction
  • mystery
  • spy novel
  • thriller

And there are probably some more that I’m missing.

About 50% of all the reviews I’ve been reading have, somewhere in their first third, a whole paragraph debating what the book is, essentially a discussion on how to label it, and they all have lines essentially saying, “Gosh, it’s hard to say what this is.” This is, apparently, of key importance. Finding an apt label for a story is a first priority, actively reviewing the work itself is secondary.

This is bad. And it’s been a real problem for me for most of my career.

From my first book, people didn’t have a word for what I was writing. I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t using the right, recognizable recipe: I didn’t have the right tropes, I didn’t use the right pacing, my narrative structure wasn’t the usual one, and so on and so forth. It just wasn’t a recognizable combination. (I like to think that choosing whether or not to use a familiar recipe has nothing to do with the story’s quality – but then, of course I do.)

And what basically happened was that, if you think of the genre market as having a big fucking barcode reader scanning everything that comes in, the bright red lights flashed over my stuff and it didn’t find the right SKU. They just kept scanning and scanning it and all the machine kept saying was “?????”.

And because people didn’t know how to label it, it was hard to sell it. Because in a lot of ways, this is what the market looks like nowadays:

Pepsi Fountain2_0

So, in essence, when someone walks up to the genre-fountain and sticks their cup under the nozzle, they want to know exactly what’s coming out of it. They’re going to want to know the tropes, the pacing, the narrative structure, all that shit. They’re going to want to know what they’re buying before they buy it, or at least have a really general idea.

No one likes to buy an unknown product. And they really, really dislike it when what comes out of the nozzle isn’t what they expected.

Like, imagine getting a Pepsi at a Taco Bell and finding it tastes a little different. You ask about it, and the cashier says, delighted, “Oh, we decided to try something a little different with Pepsi today. Just trying out some new experiments. Let us know what you think!”

You’d be pissed, right? Of course you would be. You wanted a Pepsi. They gave you an experiment. Pretty selfish of them, really, to put their own curiosity ahead of what you wanted to drink with your burrito.

This is a great way of doing business.

It is a shit-ass-godawful way of doing art, or doing anything interesting.

Now, let me be clear here. There lots of ways to label things. You can label a story by its setting: say, if it’s set in a city, or in a setting inspired by medieval Europe. You can label a story by its plot structure: say, it’s a mystery, a whodunit, or it could be a thriller. You can label a story by its tropes: a Chosen One story. Or, you can label a story by how it tells the story: an epistolary novel, for example.

This is all okay. The problem is that, with some genres, the label sets the parameters for every single one of these aspects. 

Take epic fantasy. Epic fantasy these days implies:

  • Medieval Europe setting
  • Political struggle plot structure
  • Multiple points of view with lots of characters
  • And there’s a lot of tropes that are assumed to be in the game, too, of course: morally despicable men, giant armies fighting, courtly skullduggery, etc.

But the real issue is that merely by mentioning the genre, something is declared about multiple aspects of the story, maybe even all of the aspects of the story.

That’s not good. It’s not good to have the mold so firmly set. Some people say that City of Stairs is epic fantasy, because it’s a second-world story with grim, political underpinnings. BUT, its plot structure is that of a murder mystery, and it’s not a European setting, nor is it medieval. Because it’s not checking every one of those boxes, some people are refusing it as epic fantasy, while others are content to let it pass through.

We’ve all got our own weirdo barcode scanners, I suppose, and they’ve all got their own standards.

But let’s be clear, here: this is an old argument. Cavemen painted images of artists struggling with the genre classification system back in the paleo days.

But what’s strange is that, when I was writing CITY OF STAIRS, I kept thinking, “Well, at least I won’t have to hear all the bitching about classifications with this one. It’s got gods and magic. This is straight up fantasy. Nothing to think twice about here.” And yet, here we are again.

You guys! You guys, I thought this was a slow, soft pitch across home plate! I thought this was gonna be, like, the one obedient kid of mine who goes off to school and gets their degree! Are we gonna do this every time?

But more to the point, is this even worth doing? Is it bad to say “yes” to the list of all the things CITY OF STAIRS might be? Is it weird that a book can be all kinds of things? Is it even possible to write a book that’s just one thing?

And yet, if we sit down and discuss this system, we do two things:

1. We all immediately agree it’s pretty much useless.

2. We then spend one hour cataloging, qualifying, and debating the taxonomy for the label system.

It’s like this is heroin or smoking, or something. We know it’s bad for us, but we just can’t stop.

So now, I don’t know what the hell. I guess it’s a victory that the list of things people are wondering CITY OF STAIRS might be is smaller than what happened with my previous books. People couldn’t even decide if AMERICAN ELSEWHERE was horror or fantasy or science fiction, at least with CITY OF STAIRS they’re debating among different types of fantasy.

But here’s the real point: we’ve been talking a hell of a lot about trying to make genre stories talk about new things, primarily human diversity. For a long time genre has been male, pale, and stale, and there’s a slow revolution of people trying to change that.

This is good. I like this.

But it’s not going to mean a damn thing if the genre itself remains aesthetically stale. A predictable, derivative, uninteresting story featuring a non-white or LGBTQ cast is still, first and foremost, a predictable, derivative, uninteresting story. If your book reads like a fucking Dungeons and Dragons rulebook, it’s not going to be doing any favors for the wide cross-section of humanity you’re hoping to explore.

In essence, if your narratives and aesthetics aren’t diverse and dynamic, then you won’t be able to communicate anything worth telling anyone. Storytelling is like an immune system, it needs to be exposed to lots of things for it to respond ably. If it’s only experienced one or two things over its entire existence, it’s going to shrivel up and die when it comes into contact with reality.

We like to think we have a broad palette in our genre stable. We have vigorous debates over whether this story or that story is urban fantasy or epic fantasy.

But, within the broader realm of literature, we need to be aware that this is the very definition of hair splitting. Honestly, these discussions probably make no fucking sense to anyone outside the genre, even if they are a dedicated reader. And while this makes sense from a short-term market perspective – “I need to classify this so I know what I’m buying next time!” – it’s bad news from a long-term genre perspective.

In a lot of ways, we are in a very tiny corner of literature, arguing at the tops of our lungs about different shades of black. If we keep doing this, soon we won’t be able to say anything at all.