Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Death of the Genre Wars

I've been wondering about genres for a while now. Sure they are mostly made up to sell product, but they have obvious uses. But what should divide them, aesthetics or something more? I'm not convinced audiences care as much about superficial things like chrome plating or wood framing nearly as much as the 1% of the 1% or publishers looking for a fad do. I'd like to believe history is on my side, but I would do better with an example.

Let us begin at the real dividing line. When Edgar Rice Burroughs first penned A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter novel, what genre was he writing in?

If you answered: He was writing scientific adventure based on known science at the time because he wanted to explore what life on Mars would be really like... then you can hand in your reader card. His body of work simply doesn't bear that motive out. Not to mention the way John Carter gets to Mars would make the hard SF fans froth.

If you answered: He was writing the most imaginative and evocative setting he could... then you get it. He was writing an adventure tale.

The early days of the pulps were marked by attempts to catch the audience with very specific approaches. Their magazine titles were evocative: Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding. Their novel tiles were striking: Gangdom's Doom, Warlords of Mars, Golden Blood. Their covers would be focused on intense action or gargantuan sights that would never be possible in our normal day to day existence. Before Weird Menace magazines came along to throw an abundance of sex and blood on the covers, and give pulp an image it has never shaken, the pulps were more interested in attracting audiences via wonder and excitement. The content matches this advertising approach, and gives a clear idea of what genre this was.

There were no advertisements discussing the finer points of the feudal system and how it benefits the monarchy and how the audience needs to know this, or propaganda about how amazing science is in exchange for any entertainment. In other words, these stories were not advertised as Fantasy or Science Fiction. The mainstream audience didn't care that much about them. These were advertised as breathtaking adventures meant to wow the reader and make them pick the issue up based on the incredible sights before them. They used wonder for this selling point of accessing the reader's imagination and not the nuts and bolts aesthetics that only the 1% of the 1% care about. The genres back then were not as we know them now.

I should clarify this because I will get strung up by the hard science fiction and epic fantasy fans who each have their own rules that they must abide by.

Let's go back to basics.

Why do audiences consume fiction? That's easy, it is because it's fiction. It's not real. It's escapism. What better way to advertise escapism then by presenting an astonishing and fascinating place beyond the human imagination? At this point the only dividing line is what sort of escapism the customer is looking for. This is where the original genre lines came from.

Do you want to see lands and worlds beyond those you know? That's Adventure. Do you want to see intense battles of good and evil to keep you on the edge of your seat? That's Action. Do you want to dive into a seemingly impossible situation with no obvious answer? That's Mystery. Do you want to see love blossom between two people? That's Romance.

You can see where this is going. Genres are based on the type of story the reader wants to engage in. They choose based on only that criteria and no other. Especially since that's what sales show.

2015 Genre Sales
Modern categories dilute this simplistic and straightforward approach to audiences. Publishers have too many gourmet cooks in their tiny apartment kitchen. All this could easily be avoided if they pared it down to the necessary amount needed.

This needless convolution of genres hinders both authors and readers. Back in the pulp era, things were more straightforward. This means if your story contained a poltergeist haunting an immaculately terraformed Mars with a magical scepter from a long forgotten civilization it had a very clear genre. It was Action Adventure. Why? Because aesthetics didn't matter. It's fiction, use your imagination. Readers and authors both had no problem with this relationship. And this was the way it worked for a long time.

Things changed because those left in charge decided to seize control of labels and tweak them to benefit political agendas and their own personal fetishes instead of mainstream tastes. The result of that? Romance sells as well as ever, while Action and Adventure has been all but destroyed in the fiction market. All the precious sub-genres made up over the last 80 years? All they have done is harm stories they were supposed to be glorifying. It has split the audience into smaller and smaller slivers until said audience became fed up and left for other mediums like comic books, anime and manga, and video games to get their fix. Because of this, the fiction market has only been damaged by changing what worked in the first place.

This is my long way of saying that the genre wars are over. You lost.

It doesn't matter what subgenre you were propping up as the be all end all as the real face of your made up umbrella because it's deader than disco. And at least people still listen to Ring My Bell on the radio. No one outside of a small crowd even knows who Robert Heinlein is, and yet another portion of that sliver are even in the process of scrubbing him out of history. These wars are pointless. In an age where superheroes, space operas, and gun totting ex-hit man are the biggest things on screen and illustrated pages, book sales are flatlining. You're worse than dead. You're a zombie.

No one outside your irrelevant clique cares about aesthetics, and if the audience doesn't care, then the focus must be changed accordingly. The priority should be removing the straight-jacket imposed on writers due to workshops, self-proclaimed experts, and categories that hold no value to customers. While those in the Action Adventure arena have suffered, those that stayed the course like Romance are still doing as well as ever. Why? They didn't bottleneck themselves over fetishes. They allowed their intent to remain the same and the audience stayed even after decades of staying the course.

It's time to go back to basics. If we don't we risk falling even further into irrelevance and eventually into nothing as less and less people feel compelled to pick up a book. If you're not growing, you're shrinking, and we have ample evidence that growth stopped long, long ago.

Time to bring it back again. Action Adventure needs to return to the forefront, and all of us can do it. The Pulp Revolution is a good step forward, but it's only a step. It's time to keep walking.

My own work is in the Action Adventure genre. My most recent novel is a pulp length tale about an ex-punk who he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world. I'm doing my part to bring it back to basics again. How about you?


  1. I dont believe romance is anymore divorced from the genre wars than mystery or action adventure. There exists almost as many sub genres in either of the first 2 as action adventure. Didn't Vox's notoriety arise from his disdain for space romance in the action adventure scifi genre? The mad genius club used to talk about the various sub genres of romance and mystery. I stunt think its ever been actually about the genres but about acceptability. Its consumerist bullshit, where i one up you on my hobbies.

    1. Good point. There are subgenres based on fetishes and the like, as well as typical romances gussied up and disguised as something other than what they are. A lot of this is focused on tricking readers.

      Pretty devious stuff.