Stories are a commodity. If you’re good at creative lying you can put together a story that other people might want to buy. And there are middle-men who will perform the whole distribution process for you.
Of course not everybody likes the same type of story. While some like romance, others may prefer science fiction. So the middle-men have classified stories as a marketing tool. They have decided what those classifications are and your story must fit, otherwise it cannot be sold.
But there’s a problem. The people who created the genre system had a bias. If it was a story they liked and understood, they created neat sub-divisions Murder Mystery, Detective, Thriller, or Suspense. But if it was something silly that had spaceships or any science that doesn’t actually exist then all of that is in one category: Science Fiction.
What then of Isaac Asimov’s Dr Urth short stories? He’s a science fiction Nero Wolf.
Or Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton books? A science fiction police detective.
Or Randall Garrett’s Lord D’Arcy? Another detective but this time in an alternate world of magic.
Or Joss Whedon’s Serenity/Firefly: a science fiction Western.
I could go on but the point is this: The concept of genre is completely broken because the one we have was never valid in the first place.
Books do need to be classified, because not everybody likes the same sort of thing, but the system needs to be brought into the real world. So here’s a starter for you:
· All stories take place in a SETTING: A fantasy world, an alternate history world, the real world. And they can be modified by period: Is it contemporary? Or at some point in the past? Maybe in the future.
· Then there is the TYPE of story: romance, thriller, detective, action/adventure and so on.
· A story can have a TONE, for example, is it comedy? Children’s?
There are other ways to classify but we’ll leave it at those three.
The classification does not need to be limited to only one item in each section because you can have merged settings, types and tones. It no longer becomes a question of black and white: it’s now an infinite shading of greys.
An author can define their story as being 40% romance and 60% action/adventure. And a reader could say they want action/adventure stories with no more than 50% romance—and they’ll get a much wider and more accurate selection.
Will we ever escape the arbitrary limits of the worn out genre system? Well, I can’t say if we will, but we certainly should.
About Steve Turnbull
Steve Turnbull was a magazine journalist and editor for 20 years. He has turned his hand to screenplays and prose fiction. Currently he’s writing several linked series of novellas in the same alternate history (steampunk) setting. The main “Maliha Anderson” series, set in India, is typically composed of 20% action/adventure, 30% romance and 50% murder mystery, with adult content. The fourth Maliha Anderson book, a full novel, will be released in January 2015, with the fifth and sixth (and zeroeth) later in the year.
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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