From Wayne: We all have our favorite genres in our choice of entertainment. I like superheroes and science fiction and some kinds of Horror. I’ve recently discovered an affection for Thrillers. I used to think I didn’t like Crime stories, but that has changed. I don’t read a lot of Romance books, generally speaking. When I go into a bookstore I browse these sections and tend to skip over the sections for Sports or Business. In record stores (remember those?), I really never check out the sections for Jazz or Classical or Opera. These choices aren’t really meant as indictments, just reflections of my tastes and interests.
But what is genre, really? Is it primarily a marketing term so that people can narrow down their searches? I’ve been told by publishers and agents that they really need to be able to pinpoint a specific genre so that they can effectively market a product. What are the limits of genre? We know a superhero story when we see one, don’t we? Maybe not. What are the limits of the tropes we associate with each of these genres and how do these limitations also limit the content of what we enjoy?
Many of the things we most enjoy in the “Geek community” transcend the specific definitions of genre. It’s usually a good thing for content, not so good for marketing. Firefly was a Western, except when it was being a Science Fiction show. Many years later there is still an avid fanbase for a show that was cancelled because it confused a lot of the audience and the network execs.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a great example of this. It’s a superhero universe, yes, but it’s a lot of other things as well. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller. Ant-Man is a heist movie. Thor is an epic fantasy. Guardians of the Galaxy is a scifi comedy. But they all comfortably exist in the same continuity.
So we’re going to talk about this. One of my favorite long running comics, Love & Rockets, is a mashup of many genres. Riverdale (yeah… we’re gonna talk about Riverdale again), is a mashup of many genres. We’re going to try and figure out just what genre is and if it’s an outmoded concept in a postmodern world. I’m going to leave you with this quote from Alan Moore.
“My experience of life is that it is not divided up into genres; it’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”
From Mav: To me the idea of genre is fascinating. For one thing, there was a time, not too long ago, where genre was “a bad word.” When I was getting my Creative Writing degree, one of the rules was “no genre” because my teachers wanted us to learn how to write good characters first, without using genre conventions as a crutch. We still see this today. The Oscar for Best Picture usually goes to a film that is dramatic and serious and artsy. Films about human interest and struggle — “High Art!” While we traditionally think of “genre fiction” as garbage fed to the unwashed masses. Of course, it’s now 2018 and superhero movies make billions of dollars. And other films that lean heavily on genre makes hundreds of millions. So this is changing. I’m not sure this was ever true anyway. I think even your high art stories were often in some genre or another. It just might not have been as obvious. But, like Wayne said, that begs the question, just what is genre anyway?
At its base, it just implies a kind of bucket of the kinds of story conventions and tropes that the creator and consumer can take for granted that each other are aware of. I don’t have to explain why it’s ok for people to just be able to fly in my superhero story, I don’t question the fact that people can just shoot each other at high noon with little consequence in my western, and I understand that in my romantic comedies people can run through the airport screaming each others names and then embrace and start making out without TSA tackling them to the ground and arresting them. Genre sets the rules for the world the characters inhabit.
Of course, this means that interesting things happen when the author can break the accepted rules of the genre and disrupt the reader’s expectations. This is what happens with the film (and comic) Kick-Ass, for instance where characters behave as though their world follows superhero genre conventions, but the comedy and plot derive from the fact that it doesn’t. We have similar situations arise when we mix genres together as Wayne was saying above. Firefly can’t just happen as an Earth western, and it wouldn’t be the same if it were just a standard issue Star Trek space fantasy either. It requires the elements of the disparate genres to mix.
So why does genre work? Why are we attracted to it? Why do we like playing with it, mixing it and breaking it? Why do some disparage it and others celebrate it? In the post MCU/blockbuster world does it even make sense to think of genres as a convention anymore at all? What are your thoughts? What should we explore here?