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?