Posts Tagged ‘genre’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.


Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.



I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.

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?

There’s a saying that the definition of science fiction is the thing that we point at when we say science fiction. It’s an approach that has also been applied to fantasy, and could probably be applied to any genre. Up until now it has just seemed like an interesting and abstract debate to me, but today I actually came a cropper on the boundaries of genre.

This morning I received feedback on a story that was being rejected by a magazine. I’d got through to the final round of consideration and it was a lot of very useful feedback, with positives as well as things to work on. But one thing that quickly became clear was that several of the editors reading the story had thought that it was meant to be science fiction and that it would have worked better as fantasy. Which was weird because I had intended the story as fantasy.

Clearly something in the story, or the way I presented it, had led them down an unexpected path in the way that they read it. It wasn’t what kept it from publication, but it clearly coloured their reading in a negative way. It was also interesting that a piece I’d intended to be reminiscent of colonial India came across more as American deep south, though I suspect that came from a combination of British author and American readers communicating across a mere thousand words.

I have no problem with the blurry lines around sci-fi and fantasy or with people reading my stories in ways I hadn’t intended, even in genres I hadn’t intended. But what’s interesting is that that kind of interpretation could actually cause me problems.

Anyway, I’ve edited the story based on their other feedback and now it’s back in the world again, waiting for its next rejection or that golden, shining day when it might get accepted. And in the meantime I should get back to work, setting words on the page no matter their genre.