Sunday, November 27, 2011

Genre, Category, and "Formula"

Martin McPhillips, author of the extraordinary thriller Corpse In Armor, is an unusual fellow in several respects: a scholar, a firm political conservative, a devout Catholic, a New Paltz resident, and an extremely affable and sociable guy. He'll gladly share any of his opinions on any subject under the Sun with anyone who engages him...including his views about fiction:

...I don’t really even believe in the idea of genre (and I mean believe in it the way a kennel club believes that individual dogs must conform to the standards of their breed to attain recognition, and certainly must produce the papers of pedigree to even be considered). So genre, I speak for myself, ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.

Genre isn't a new idea, of course. Upon entering their neighborhood bookstores, shoppers habitually head toward the sections that feature "their" genres, so most of us, whether rightly or not, do draw some meaning from the term. All the same, Martin has a point, especially in these days of rampant -- one might even say promiscuous -- cross-breeding among the "recognized" genres.

Genre is most important to publishers and marketers. To be able to say, "this book belongs in genre X" is to allocate it a place among "others of its kind." If the classification is accurate, it helps a publisher to decide whether or not to buy a manuscript, helps the marketing department in deciding how to promote it, helps the retailer in placing it on the store's shelves, and helps the reader to find it and relate it to what he prefers to read.

Book marketers also use another term, category, to create special divisions within a broadly recognized genre. For example, your local Barnes & Noble probably divides the Science Fiction / Fantasy shelves into two segments, one of which is marked "Series." The Series category within SF / fantasy is used to classify novels that follow a specific instigating event, character, or item. For example, the many novels derivative of the "Star Wars" oeuvre are members of the Series category, as are novels that proceed from the conditions and assumptions of a television show, video game, or a for-grabs character. (A "for-grabs character" is one who's serially licensed to writers who want to write about him. A good example is the long series of Rogue Angel novels about Annja Creed, a modern-day inheritor of Joan of Arc, to which many writers have contributed one or more volumes.)

Clearly, a category will have more confining requirements for its elements than works outside that category but within its enveloping genre. Some writers who are willing to ghostwrite when not engaged in their own adventures -- the bills have to be paid, y'know -- disdain category work as too stifling. Others do quite a lot of it, and reap substantial financial rewards over the years even if their names never appear upon a spine.

Still more confining is formula fiction. A writer who undertakes a formula novel starts from a plot line written by someone else -- a plot line that pertains to every book written in that niche. The characters may change; the settings may change; the timelines may change. What doesn't change is the fundamental plot. Such a book is often produced for a very brief marketing period; it might not spend more than a single month on bookstores' shelves. Much paperback romance is considered formula fiction.

For discussion, Gentle Readers:

  • What's your opinion of the prevailing system of genres under which books are sold in the English-speaking world?

  • Would you add any genres that you feel are real but not yet properly recognized?

  • Do you ever read category novels? If so, have you found any of which you'd think the writer, whether you know his real name or not, can be justly proud?

  • If you're a writer, would you ever consider accepting a contract to produce category or formula fiction? What inducements would you require?


Friday, October 7, 2011

"Tough Chick Lit"

Any number of writers -- mostly women, of course -- have established themselves among readers as purveyors of "chick lit:" romantically toned stories, with or without a sexual gloss, intended to appeal to the softer side of the fairer sex. The underlying theme -- in the writer's mind, not the reader's -- is that more women are interested in stories of love and romance than in adventures, speculations, mysteries, or other sorts. Though there are exceptions -- I'm married to a murder-mystery addict who disdains "pink and purple books" -- enough romance writers have prospered to lend some credence to the notion.

(Florence King, in her wonderful compendium STET, Damnit!, tells briefly of her foray into chick lit: her novel The Barbarian Princess, which apparently made her quite a lot of money but left her with several lifelong "tics" and an unshakable resolve never, ever, to do that again. It's well worth your time -- her tale of the novel's creation, not the novel itself.)

But in recent decades, we've seen an explosion of stories about a different sort of heroine: the "tough chick," capable of going mano a mano with any man and willing to do so for what she (at least) thinks a good cause. Indeed, "tough chicks" seem to dominate adventure and speculative writing today. Though "tough chick" adventures are more likely to issue from female than male writers, they're more popular with male than female readers -- and quite profitably popular at that, if the displays at Barnes & Noble are any indication. The temptation to dip a toe into those waters can overcome even the manliest man, as I should know.

The "tough chick" heroine needn't be un-feminine. When she's not duking it out with the forces of evil, she can display as much interest in traditionally feminine interests (e.g., clothing, shoes, makeup, romance, Real Housewives of New Jersey reruns) as any other gal. Her distinguishing characteristic is physical prowess; she doesn't retreat from the action while the menfolk handle it. Indeed, it's rather more likely that the menfolk will hide behind her.

But "tough chick lit" requires a lot of willing suspension of disbelief from the reader. It's not that there are no women like that in real life, but that they're very rare. Yes, we have female sports figures who approximate such characters when on the playing field, but transplanting them into tales of intrigue, combat, and bloodshed, and giving them the starring role, is a trial of the imagination. There aren't a lot of Xena types in our normal experience.

All of this compels us to confront several questions:

  • Does a "tough chick" heroine properly belong only in the speculative genres, or can she "work" in more mainstream settings?

  • Can such a heroine be adequately humanized to appeal to readers of both sexes?

  • Does "tough chick lit" have a future as a genre of its own, or will it ultimately prove to be a fad, such as the current, never-ending fad for fiction about vampires?



    Mark Philip Alger

    I am betting the farm that tough chicks -- or, as I prefer to type them, Kickass American Chicks (even the ones that come with Eastern European accents baked in are fundamentally American) -- will hang on at least for me to make my Pile O'Dough™.

    I do hope, in fact, that the type will eventually lose some of its stereo nature and mix down to just another, valuable for the shorthand it lets the writer use, but not to be leaned on like a crutch, lest one's prose become ... hackneyed.

    In writing Dolly -- and the relationship between Dolly and Drummond -- I have to keep several rules in mind:

    1) Dolly is the "hero." As such, she MUST be seen to be Drummond's superior in at least one way in every story. He may beat her a chess, but she's got to shoot better than he.

    2) Drummond must be a strong, red-blooded American male. He must be the kind of man Dolly can love.

    3) Dolly has to solve her own problem. Drummond can ride to her rescue, but he has to get there and find her standing (fetchingly naked, if you like) in the tattered remains of her bonds, her captors dead in windrows around her.

    4) Their relationship has to be such that she matters more to him than he to her. She does truly love and respect him, but, if she lost him, it would not break her nearly so badly as in the opposite case.