Pirates In An Adventure With Genre Boundaries

Posted: March 4, 2014 in cultural commentary, reading, watching
Tags: , , , , ,

Why do we care so much about what’s in a genre? It’s been bothering me recently as I look at discussions about what is and isn’t steampunk or YA or science fiction. People get into heated debates on this, debates which, while academically interesting, seem to involve a lot of stupid stances. So, to put it in the most sophisticated way possible, what’s that all about?

The YA Debate

YA (young adult) is a hot fiction category at the moment, so of course it’s the focus of arguments. I recently watched a debate on the popularity of YA descend into groundless assertions about what was and wasn’t YA, together with unevidenced definitions and dismissing or embracing whole categories of fiction. It eventually evolved back into something productive and civilised, but for a moment I saw the thin end of the internet stupidity wedge.

Like any debate about genre this had potential to be interesting. There are a bunch of questions to be explored. Is YA really a genre? Why has it become so popular? Does its use as a marketing tool undermine its value for readers? How do different people define it, and why? What does this say about youth consumer power and its impact on culture?

Instead it became people trying to label books as YA or not, or to make value judgements about the whole of YA, in a manner as productive as Margaret Atwood’s assertion that, all evidence to the contrary, she doesn’t write science fiction.

Children, pirates and mixed genres

Also this week I watched Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists, a film which says as much about genre as any of these debates.

Pirates is a delightful film aimed at children and adults willing to embrace innocent delight and wacky goings antics. In a wildly roaming adventure story it crosses over into elements of fantasy – sentient animals, sea monsters – and steampunk – vast steamships, pneumatic underdresses, science both mad and sane.

Despite all these features no-one argues about the film’s genre. That’s probably because it’s aimed at children, who don’t care half as much about genre, its structures or its limitations. They’ll take whatever you throw on the screen, disjointed as it might seem to an adult, and call it fun.

So what happened to us grownups that makes us fight our genre corner?

The psychology of genre

I’m going to go out on a limb here and put forward my own hypothesis. I think that it’s all about identity.

Identity is very important to human beings. If you don’t believe me just look at the national and regional feelings currently stirring in the Crimea, or the way that in fluid times Britains still value their sense of class. Identity is about our sense of self, and if we feel that our identity is under attack then we will leap to defend it.

The problem is that defensiveness often comes across as aggression. If you view yourself as the sort of sophisticated reader who doesn’t touch YA then you may not be happy to hear a favourite book labelled YA, and may leap to attack the associated definition of YA as a way of protecting your sense of self. Similarly, if you consider yourself the sort of open-minded reader who has time for any book, you may take umbrage at people dismissing YA and trying to pare it down just to its shallowest, most commercial stuff.

Attack begats defence begats attack. And again, on a much less significant level, we see the psychology of the Crimea.

Loosening up on genre

After all that, you won’t be surprised to read that I have an opinion on how to approach genre.

I think that genres are useful. They help people to sell books, and other people to find the books they want. They shape the stories we read in interesting ways. But we shouldn’t get too attached to them.

Accept other people’s definitions of genres. They may see a genre differently from you, but that doesn’t make their view wrong, just different.

Don’t defend your interpretation of a genre, but explain it. Explanations give people ideas to think about. Defences give them something to fight.

Accept the grey areas. Lots of stuff falls between genre stools or crosses multiple genres. That’s a sign of creativity, not a threat to the genre you love. If you try to pin down black and white boundaries you’ll just go mad.

But how about the rest of you? Any views on genre boundaries? Any interesting debates you’ve seen on the issue, or points to raise? Then leave something in the comments.

Wait, are comments a genre?

  1. glenatron says:

    The whole thing kicking off with the Hugo awards is a good example of how fandoms tend to be insular, parochial and afraid of losing their notional “purity”, which I think is a big distinction between genre fandoms ( small, vocal, narrow-minded ) and readerships ( large, quiet, open minded ) and something that people working around genres are going to have to think about more going on. The power of the internet as a self-reinforcing echo-chamber means that people feel a greater need to enforce their own idea of self-identity and try to exclude ideas which contradict that.

    I actually think that a young adult can probably read anything that an adult can – it’s not like reading age is particularly a problem and in terms of content I probably only really read horror in my teens. I think a lot of the time the tag is pure marketing but may also be a useful indicator that a novel is probably not boring. I do remember being surprised to see that The Belgariad was being sold as YA fantasy, because although it fits the model perfectly and that is the age at which I read it, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. That made me pause for a moment and think “wait, those labels can change???”

    I’d say if a label like that puts your novel in the same category as His Dark Materials then I don’t think there is much you could complain about.

    • glenatron says:

      What? Yes I am supposed to be working. How can you tell?

    • His Dark Materials is also my argument against anyone who dismisses YA. Whether the label is marketing or meaningful, that’s still an amazing series, so why fight it?

      That distinction between genre fandoms and readership is an important one, and one I often forget as I’m reading. I often get the feeling that people within fandom don’t realise how off-putting that echo chamber can be, and the risk of putting people off the things they love by defending them too hard.

      What was the fuss with the Hugos this time? That one’s managed to pass me by.

      • glenatron says:

        Jonathan Ross confirmed he was going to host the Hugos. Twitter storm of SFF people saying “blah blah blah” – I don’t remember what exactly the issue was, but you know – Ross stepped down saying he didn’t want to ruin anyone’s evening.

        I think a lot of the complaints were along the lines of “he’s not very sci fi”, which would be a more credible complaint if he wasn’t married to a Hugo winner and well reputed host of the Eisners etcetera &co. It made it to the Daily Mail, so I guess that’s the kind of publicity they wanted?

        • It’s a shame, could have brought some positive attention. I’ve heard a couple of things on it today, and people don’t even seem to agree on what the problem was – bof, c’est l’internet.

  2. Carl Barker says:

    For me, genre always ends up being an aside to the story, like the box the delivery pizza comes in. It can be all sorts of different colours or sizes or brands, which will give at an indication of the content and whether you’re likely to enjoy it or not, but ultimately its the pizza that counts.
    When I start a piece, whether I know what genre it will end up being best categorized as depends on how I came up with the story and whether its fully formed before I start it. I’ve had a couple of times where I started a piece thinking it would be one genre and discovering it turned into something else along the way. That’s half the fun of writing.

    • Nice metaphor. I expect I’ll be whipping that one out in debates in future, like some kind of delivery guy with a pizza topped with wisdom.

      It’s interesting how genre means different things even to writers. My writing is usually built around the questions of what genre I’m writing this time – fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk,etc. It gives me a framework to start thinking. I admire anyone who can start with a pure story and find its genre later, but I’m too much of a planner for that.

  3. I wouldn’t say that YA is a genre — at least not where I work, which is a public library. For us, YA means books pitched at an audience of mid to late teens, with protagonists in that age category as well (though I have seen YA books with protags in their early twenties). I read somewhere — and sorry, I can’t remember where — that kids and teens gravitate toward material with protagonists 2-3 years older than them, as if looking for a preview to what life will be like when they’re ‘older’, which is why teen gossip magazines are really popular with preteens and young teens. Therefore the pitch for a YA-categorized novel of any genre would seem to be toward the 11-18 year-old customer, with protagonists from 14 to 21.

    At the library, we subdivide books by age groups: picturebooks and easy reading for the little kids, chapter books for the read-by-themselves set (5-10?), YA for the able-to-comprehend-complex-topics-but-supposedly-not-ready-for-adult-material set (11-18?) and adult. Within all of those subsets except the picturebooks and easy reading, we have genre divisions. Chapter books are divided into Adventure, Mystery, Fantasy, Scifi, Humor, Animals, Historical, etc — sometimes with more than one, but we don’t subdivide them on the shelves because children’s material crosses genre much more fluidly than adult-level material.

    Likewise, it seems so for YA, which has a healthy dose of dystopian steampunk pirate romances and other mashups like that. It seems less bound by genre conventions, which might be why people try to label it a genre of its own — and material often classified as YA tends to have a few pervasive traits like high-school level romantic interactions, etc, that might lend justification to this. But none of those tropes alone qualify an item for the YA label, at least not in our library system. To us, it’s like I said above: it has teenage (or slightly older) protagonists, and is pitched toward teens.

    There have been a lot of ‘adult’ authors recently writing versions of their adult-successful books for teen audiences. Kathy Reichs (who writes the Temperance Brennan books) has a YA series with Tempe’s niece, but it’s not forensic science — it’s more of a scifi conspiracy thing. A mashup. James Patterson also has a few YA series, the main one being about genetically engineered teens with wings fighting a shadowy government somethingorother. Mashup! Perhaps mainstream fiction authors look at the younger age-sets and decide that they can be more fantastical there — that they can branch out from their hard-realism books into something they don’t feel confident in presenting to adults, but which teens might enjoy.

    Anyway, just thought I’d give my perspective. YA is a hot topic right now because it was a previously underserved age-group; a reader would more or less have to jump from chapter books to adult novels. I remember doing that myself. There are some writers who have always bridged the distance (like Tamora Pierce, whose books we can’t seem to nail down to any age level), but almost all of the books in our YA area are from 2000 or later. Nobody was serving that market. And now that they’ve started, and they realize that teens can be as voracious of readers as any genre-obsessive adult — plus they’re at the point in their lives when they are likely to have the most disposable income and the fewest necessities to spend on…

    Well. Supply and demand.

    • Thanks for the insight H., it’s always interesting to read your professional perspective – brings a view on things that I just don’t have.

      I’d noticed that several authors were shifting towards YA from an adult genre niche – even Joe Abercrombie’s doing it. Some commentators have pointed at it as being about the money, and I’m sure that’s a factor, but I also like your point about the appeal of writing in a more free-wheeling genre (or not genre, depending on how you define these things) – that’s got to be an awful lot of fun.

  4. Dylan Hearn says:

    Coming from a marketing background, I can understand the need to categorise books into genres in order to have the best chance of matching the right book to the right reader. That said, as a writer I had a lot of trouble deciding the genre of my book. It is set in the near(ish) future and involves science and technology so it must be Science Fiction. However in many of the reviews people have said they would have been put off by its Science Fiction label but found it a great psychological thriller. Others have been put off because there is too much Science Fiction. At some point somebody will be upset because it doesn’t involve spaceships (I’m not knocking space based science fiction, of which I’m a great fan).
    I’m not someone that sees the need to defend a genre (though I will defend specific books with my last breath – at least in a debate) because I read from a variety of genres. I do understand it, though, because for many it is a badge of identity / a badge of difference. I know of very few people of my own age who haven’t been laughed at by somebody during their lifetime for the type of books they like to read (or for liking to read, but that’s another story).
    I ended up classifying my book as Science Fiction (Dystopian / Genetic Engineering) and Thriller (Technological) because I believe the people looking for that type of material will enjoy my book. Me personally? I like to think of it as a damned good story. It’s definitely not YA, however.

    • Good point about why genre readers feel a need to defend their genre. Pretty sure my reading habits got mocked at some point, and I can see how that puts people on the defensive, leading to the kind of attitudes that build the echo chamber Glenatron mentioned.

      As you say though, the main use of genre is channelling readers to the right books, and if as an author you feel secure enough to give your book the right label for the right readers, regardless of interpretations of genre, then that’s a powerful tool and one to make the most of.

  5. Another very intriguing post πŸ™‚ As I try to get my vision to become novel-shaped I have been asking myself some of those practical (though a little bit icky) questions about marketing and how I would pitch my story to others, and the definition of YA is something that I have wondered about. I tend towards the notion that if you are going to be “correct”, you had better be technically correct, so I started by dissecting the phrase itself.

    In my mind, the question is what makes us label it as ‘young’? What elements of youth sets younger readers somehow apart in our minds? Is it all about the reading level, both for vocabulary and pacing? The amount of sex we deem appropriate? Does good always win at the end of children’s stories (so by extension, YA stories) because childhood is supposed to be a happy time?

    And going back to your comment about the pirate video and how children don’t care about genre, they just care if it is fun, is that part and parcel of the “young” we are talking about? Are YA readers more likely to accept fantastical scenarios and dive into the worlds authors create for them? Hell yeah! Adults tend to be jaded and boring in their reading choices unless they get bitten by that fantasy bug at a young age. At least, that has been my experience with the baby boomers in my life.

    Also, I believe Twitter has already made commenting its own genre. It has its own rules and grammar and everything πŸ™‚


    • Thanks for the compliment – I do my best to intrigue from time to time!

      You’ve clearly put more thought into YA than I have, and you raise some interesting questions about what defines it. I suspect that, as with any genre, it would be hard to pick anything that’s completely consistently present. It’s more like there’s a bunch of features and as long as you have most of them you can get away with the YA label.

      Though I dare say that some marketers also try to get away with that label on the basis of far less!

  6. […] love Defoe’s Pirates books. I love the film based on the first one. I love their wacky antics. I love how little relation they bear to real […]

  7. skudssister says:

    I believe the new category is now ‘New Adult’ – it is meant to reflect young people who are new to more adult themes and experiences. I have had colleagues who think it is a bit odd for adults to read YA or teen fiction – but then they never read or enjoyed anything in that genre themselves. I would never (I hope) look down on anything that anyone chose to read. Daily Mail excepted….

    • The Mail is an exception in so many ways, none of them good.

      ‘New Adult’ is a new one on me, but I can see how someone thought that was the next logical leap after YA and mid-grade. You’ll be running out shelves in the shop for all these different genre categories soon.

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