Sunday, 17 May 2020

Why Fantasy Genres Are Broken And The Obstacles To Fixing Them

For my take on Shelfie Sunday, I wanted to have a wee rant about how we shelf fantasy books in genres*. Every now and again I think about trying to write some posts talking about sub-genres and what constitutes what but I keep getting sidetracked by the problems with working that all out, to the point I'm going to go with a different angle. Namely, that I look at the fantasy genre and see the worst set of definitions compared to understanding of anything I've ever been a fan of, and being a metalhead means being part of a genre where sub-genres such as "southern goat metal" and "northern hyperblast" barely merits a rise of the eyebrows.

Let me go through a few of my objections. Is dark fantasy a term for horror-tinged fantasy, or grimdark? Is low fantasy about the level of fantastic conceit, or the morals and activities of the protagonists? What's the difference between Swords & Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy that everyone agrees on? Does anyone agree on the definition of High Fantasy and whether it's separate to Epic Fantasy? I have strong opinions on all these subjects and more but my opinions don't equal definitions. Genre definitions are formed when there's an agreement on what they are. Right now, I don't think there's agreement. What's the use of sub-genre tags when people have to agree what they mean before talking about them?

Personally, I think we should redo the whole thing, but that's borderline impossible as faulty or not, the definitions are very much stuck in people's minds. Nevertheless, should this ever happen, or at least a part of explaining what the current sub-genres mean, the following should be considered.

1. Who Are Genres For?

To me, this is a key one. Are genres meant to be something a fan new to the genre immediately grasps? There's a lot to be said for this, but if genres are kept simple enough for a new fan to quickly understand, how much granularity is lost? A big part of genre is so that fans inside the genre that communicate a concept quickly to each other and for that, a certain degree of granularity is needed. How do you balance needs?

2. What's In The Book vs How's The Book Told

This one's a big one for me. Most sub-genres are roughly speaking about the content - big world-altering stories, small and personal, cast of thousands vs small, etc.etc. There are, at least in some definitions, hints of mood and tone in some definitions i.e. High Fantasy is chivalric, Low Fantasy is amoral, but it's arguably not the majority important thing. That however disappears when we get to Grimdark, the subgenre defined entirely by tone and style. To me, that doesn't make sense.

3. Hybrid Theory

One of the big things about fantasy to me is that in a lot of ways, fantasy isn't a genre to begin with. There is, despite the stubborn insistence of many, no one guiding conceit about what will happen in a fantasy book. Crime novels will contain a crime, romance will focus on a romantic relationship, thrillers are about violent investigations... fantasy? Fantasy, and the rest of its kin, describe a common shared conceit about a story's relationship to reality. But beyond that, it could be anything. It could be romance, crime, thriller, adventure-action, historical epic... anything. Should this be reflected in fantasy's subgenres? I think so. To a certain extent, it is. And covering everything leads to a surfeit of genres.

To me, these are the big things beyond simply getting people to agree to the same set of definitions and having clear definitions.

If I had my druthers though, I'd suggest a sort of multi-tagging system. Pretty much any potential current sub-genre is fair game, just people pick the two or three that describe the conceit best in order to give people the best understanding. Lord of the Rings might be High Epic Fantasy. The First Law is Grimdark Epic Fantasy. Priest of Bones is Grimdark Crime Fantasy. The Dresden Files are Epic Urban Fantasy. Harry Potter is Portal School Fantasy. Are people going to agree what tags should be where? No. But at least the why of it would be obvious and more information would be given.

That's very unlikely though. Agreed upon definitions for the labels already there is the only way. I salute those insane enough to try it but until they succeed, I'll regard fantasy' sub-genres as more of an obstacle than a guide.

1 comment:

  1. Lots of good food for thought here. I have certainly been thinking a lot more about genres and what they signify while participating in Wyrd & Wonder this month.