Friday, February 8, 2013

Fiction Genres: Useful Constructs or Meaningless Pigeonholes?

Humans have an instinctive need to categorize things into readily identifiable groups, probably owing to our inborn instinct for pattern recognition.  The ability to identify patterns is one of the pivotal adaptations in human evolution that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom; it is what allows us to predict future outcomes based on past events - in other words, it allows us to learn quickly and adapt to change.

Because this instinct is so deeply ingrained, we have the unfortunate habit of looking for patterns where none exist, leading us to frequently jump to unsubstantiated conclusions by mistaking cause and effect.  Scientists are taught early in their careers that correlation does not imply causation, but the instinct to quickly draw conclusions based on coincidences is a strong one, and it requires discipline to resist doing so.  The rest of us are usually not so rigorous, and journalists are especially guilty of leaping before they look for the sake of exciting or controversial headlines.

We've all seen news reports claiming that a new study has linked something absurd, like eating cheese or masturbating to internet porn, to cancer.  In most cases the study in question makes no such claim; it merely presented the data showing that, among the participants of the study, those who ate the most cheese, or looked at the most porn, also had a slightly elevated incidence of cancer.  But we look at this data and, particularly if we're looking for an attention-grabbing news story, jump to the unsupportable conclusion that one thing causes the other.

Likewise we have an insatiable need to categorize things into easily recognizable groups even if those categories are largely superficial and don't truly reflect reality.  Taxonomy, the science of classifying living things, attempts to organize nature in a manner that facilitates discussion.  We identify diagnostic morphological features that form the basis for a species, then group similar species into genera, similar genera in to families, and so on.  These taxonomic groups don't always accurately reflect nature, but the taxonomic hierarchy is a useful construct, nonetheless.

Fiction genres are also a useful construct; largely as a means for bookstore owners to organize books on their shelves and help customers find what they are looking for.  But to the author, genres and the implicit expectations associated with them can often be a frustrating constraint that artificially pigeonholes their work into a readily identifiable market.

Two very broad categories of fiction: 'literary' fiction (e.g. literature, realism, and postmodernism), and 'commercial' fiction (e.g. fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, romance) are loaded with implication from the outset: the former assumes the mantle of higher artistic and intellectual merit, while the latter is consigned to the role of light entertainment for the masses.  In truth the lines between genres are so blurred that the distinction is often difficult to make.  Even the dividing line between literary and commercial fiction can become obscured when authors use literary techniques to tell traditionally commercial stories.  Thus we can find literary fantasy adventures, for example, that defy any meaningful categorization.

In the next couple of posts I will examine the concept of horror as a genre, and how I choose to define and distinguish fantasy and science fiction.  I realize that I am treading upon a subject that has already been well-covered by more qualified writers; it isn't my intent to objectively define these categories, nor even to necessarily add anything new to the discussion.  What I hope to do is to explain my understanding of speculative fiction as it pertains to and influences the stories that I write and how I tell them.  And maybe, just maybe impose some order on the chaos of my mind.

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