Paul Cornell – a novelist, comics and TV writer, notably for Doctor Who and Action Comics – was the guest speaker at the ‘Bad Writing’ Symposium, held at King’s College London last month. He spoke about the concept of genre, its history and how we define it. It was a great talk, humorous, energetic and engaging. Cornell really knows his stuff.
I must apologise for making you wait for this post. Some of you may have noticed that my site was hacked recently, and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying to sort it out. With the security all up to date now, the probably is hopefully solved! So without further ado, here are my notes on the talk, with my own thoughts included.
The purpose of genre
- To let people buy more of the things they like. Genre builds on a set of expectations so people don’t start reading the ‘wrong way’. For example, readers expect a more immediate sense of story with genre fiction, and no fancy writing for the sake of literary experimentation. Or, for example, if you start reading a novel expecting it to be romance, and suddenly there is an alien invasion half way through, the reader becomes annoyed because their initial expectations of genre are disrupted. People want to read more of the things they know they like. Genre allows them to do this.
- Writers are able to compare and compete with one another. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to encourage people to strive for greatness. Or a bigger ego. But there’s no use comparing Jane Eyre to Ender’s Game so classification is helpful when drawing comparisons between texts.
- Genre creates a pecking order. Now, this isn’t exactly a benefit, but it is definitely a naturally occurring bi-product of classification. Literary fiction likes to sit at the top of this pecking order as something ‘arty’ and difficult to obtain. The different genres seem to trickle down in various combinations, depending the perceptions of a changing society. Fan fiction, chick lit, and paranormal romance seem to be fairly low on the pecking order at the moment. Despite their popularity, they are seen as ‘lesser’ forms of fiction, perhaps because of their extremely formulaic structures, or general lack of depth. Science fiction is fairly high at the moment, as long as it isn’t ‘hard’ science fiction but especially if it is dystopian science fiction, and fantasy sits comfortably beside or below this, with things like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones making it mainstream.
Overall, genre provides a certain limitation that gives you something to react against or build upon.
Types of genre
Genre can usually be broken down into four main categories:
- Science fiction
- Literature (literary or general)
Speculative fiction – Today, most science fiction is re-branded as ‘speculative fiction’, taking out the failed ‘science’ part. It is a wider category that can have cross-over into all the other genres, making it more accessible and giving it the potential to be placed fairly highly on the pecking order.
Hard science fiction – Or, as Cornell puts it: novels without character! They are usually about big, enormous concepts, usually set in space (‘space opera’). It’s not the most popular sub-genre anymore.
Cyberpunk – Its heyday was during the 80s with the rise of the computer, but with such a technology-focused society, it still has resonance and interest today. It deals with the concept of hackers, cyborgs, artificial intelligence and mega-corporations. Think William Gibson, or The Matrix.
Military science fiction – As you can guess, military science fiction deals with armies, conflict and war, usually consisting of the humans as the good guys fighting aliens as the bad guys, e.g. Starship Troopers. It is mostly set in space, or on a planet other than other. Sometimes it involves only human conflict that has been created due to some otherworldly concept, e.g. the war for the control of spice in Dune. Cornell suggests that there are two main branches of military science-fiction, and a sort of progression: it has moved from conservatism (usually found in US fiction) to left wing (usually found in UK fiction). Largely, this depends on the events of the time. When countries are at war, it taps into the psyche of dehumanisation to think of war as ‘us versus them – the creatures’. Other times, fiction can be used to explore the horror or war, through the exaggeration of the differences of species to suggest the differences in culture, or simply to focus on human experience and emotion in extreme ‘alien’ situations.
Steampunk – Yes, Cornell mentioned steampunk! The very genre I’m writing in at the moment. He described it as a genre that is ‘against the future, instead running to an imaged better past where we still know how everything works.’ I’m not sure about the idea of steampunk being ‘against the future’ in a sense that it runs away from it, as I think the concepts it picks up upon are often fundamentally relevant to today’s society and the potential future to which these will lead. But I think he is correct about the appeal of steampunk as immersing ourselves in a world in which we have more understanding and control. Steampunk is almost the antithesis of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk imagines a future in which technology has become out of control, whereas steampunk brings us back into a world in which machines are dangerous and industrial labour is draining, but the technology itself is easily understood and can be built and de-constructed with a basic understanding and a strong pair of hands. More strongly than that, though, I think is the appeal of these aesthetics. Great hunkering mechanical monsters, as opposed to invisible electronic pulses or tiny micro-chips.
The history of science fiction in a nutshell: It began as a way of telling people how to understand science, and slowly turned science into something everyone can understand (even if it is as simple as steam power).
According to Cornell, horror collapsed and vanished to the point that it was just Stephen King. This was partly because of splatter punk, which was so gory that it put a lot of people off horror, as they were unable to distinguish gory horror from any other type.
Cornell also hypothesised that with the rise of terrorism, the real world became a lot more scary, so people didn’t want their moments of escapism to be just as terrifying. A member of the audience challenged him on this, saying that the world has always been a scary place. Personally, I think people might shy away from horror fiction because there is enough violence and horror available through television and film these days, so that there isn’t a taboo around censorship or availability any more. Perhaps people prefer this medium for their doses of horror.
Cornell says that most horror writers decided to migrate into dark fantasy, which is not as associated with gore, and also provides more of the escapism that people want.
Apparently, the last world horror convention had only 100 people at it!
Cornell explains the differences between the development of horror sub-genres in minimalistic terms:
- Horror - the protagonist will die.
- Dark fantasy - the protagonist won’t die.
- Urban fantasy - the protagonist is an empowered woman.
- Paranormal romance - the empowered woman gets a shag!
The ghost story is and has always been a popular form of horror. More often than not, though, it is actually more considered literary fiction. Think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved for example.
Like science-fiction and horror, fantasy also has an array of subgenres, and has adapted to popularity.
Magical realism is fantasy that likes to be literature, Cornell says. The ‘realism’ grounds it, distinguishing it from the idea of pure fantasy, where anything can go because it’s magical.
High fantasy contains ‘epic posing’, as Cornell puts it; it is usually set in a completely fictional world, and the writing it full of purple prose. Tolkien is the father of high (or epic) fantasy, and the genre hasn’t moved ever since, says Cornell. ‘If you use an elf in your fantasy, you should re-invent elves!’ he says.
Urban fantasy evolved to get away from high fantasy. It is usually set in a contemporary city, bringing fantasy up-to-date and more accessible to the masses. Think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Gail Carriger’s Soulless.
Grittier fantasy mostly avoids magic altogether, and this seems to be more popular at the moment – Game of Thrones for example.
When is a genre not a genre?
When it is in an age-range, says Cornell. Young adult (YA) fiction is becoming more and more popular. It’s becoming almost a genre of its own, rather than simply an age group. Interestingly, a lot of adults read YA fiction. YA fiction does include swearing, sex and violence – its not as sheltered as some people might think. Often, they are adventurous, exciting, short and easily digestible. They feature young protagonists, but this doesn’t seem to alienate an adult readership at all. Think Harry Potter, or Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. According to Cornell, YA fiction is where most of the apocalyptic and horror novels are now found – really interesting subgenres that are often not marketed for an adult readership anymore.
There are also those authors and novels that teeter on the edge of genre. Cornell says you can decide to write science fiction or fantasy and not be associated with the genre. A lot of people sometimes don’t know what is scientifically real and what is fiction (for example, the technology used in crime programs is often way beyond current possibilities.) Authors can exist outside of genre in fiction if they are aware of the genre they are borrowing from – Margaret Atwood is often used as the best example of this. She is very knowledgeable about science-fiction as a genre, but her works are predominantly considered literary fiction, not genre fiction, because of the way she deals with concepts (and because of the marketing of her books).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cornell says, is like the litmus test for genre fiction. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in a near future, but it’s not considered science fiction because the cause of the apocalypse is never explained. On the surface, it looks like genre fiction. But by strict definition, it’s most likely to be literary fiction. A lot of writers aim for this careful blend – exploring genre while sitting at the ‘top’ of the pecking order. Even Stephen King, Cornell says, the King of Genre, attempted to write literary fiction (and failed, if judged by critical reception and sales figures). Despite genre writers snubbing this idea of a literary pecking order, most genre writers would admit that they want to be considered critically worthy. (A controversial topic, perhaps for another post.)
It doesn’t help that genre is often used as an insult. The people who usually do this are not well versed in genre fiction, and usually make judgements based on generalisation and assumption, in my opinion. (I admit that I do this too. Pfft, paranormal romance! What a load of rubbish. Gah! Chick lit! Awful stuff. But there is a line between knowing the type of writing you like and think is good, and making damning generalisations. Of course not all paranormal romance is ‘bad’ and not all chick lit is ‘bad’ – there are a lot of people that would angrily fight the opposite.)
Genre is something that is always developing. New genre comes from hybrids. Steampunk, for example, wasn’t a term coined until the 80s, which then neatly encompassed some of the strange fiction that was straggling around in the 60s and 70s. It blended the term ‘cyberpunk’ with the main historical aesthetic of the machinery it dealt with, and a new genre was born within the further subgenre of ‘alternative history’. Genre is something that is continually complex, expanding and entwining, as a way of classifying fiction. Writers like Atwood and McCarthy could be considered helping the development of a new genre: literary genre fiction. The ultimate combination?