3 min read

How I think about fiction genre

(Complaining. This is not a complete thought. I expect to change my mind on this later.)

I think about fiction genre in a few different ways:

  1. A palette of tools.
  2. A set of audience expectations.
  3. A conversation between different authors commenting on, extending, and competing with each other's work. (This one is hard for me to try on, because I have seen so few actual examples, but I hear it's a thing that happens sometimes.)
  4. A sales pitch. "You liked Harry Potter? You'll like this. It's fantasy."
  5. The worst form of fiction, except all the others that have been tried.

The last time I read something that wasn't (I think) genre fiction, it was in a big book of short stories I was reading for my own education. I liked several of them. I read a lot more than several.

I find the alternatives to genre fiction frustrating. I don't think of myself as enjoying them. I often don't. I'm not sure I'm supposed to enjoy them. I think if I were supposed to, they would be genre fiction.

Surprisingly, I don't like feeling frustrated. I don't like reading a story and feeling like, "Okay, so what did I get out of all that? Why did I read to the end?" and having no real answer, beyond wanting to feel like I get it, like I'm not some clueless clod, and wanting something different from what I normally read.

I felt frustrated with a lot of the short stories I read from The Art of the Story. There were a few gems in there. I liked Haruki Murakami's entry and Kazuo Ishiguro's, the Beauty and the Beast entry and the deranged tricycle story and the one with the pilot in training. But most stories, I read and felt bored or confused or frustrated. What was I even reading? If I hadn't been reading with a group online, I probably would have given up. I read probably forty or fifty stories in total, and I could name just five off the top of my head that I enjoyed. That's not a great success rate.

I find genre fiction frustrating in its sameness. I think of two examples here: Cop shows, and anime.

I have seen way too many cop shows. The issue with cop shows is that they tend to blend together after a while. After literal hundreds of episodes of CSI and its two spinoffs, NCIS, Law and Order, Law and Order: SVU, and NYPD Blue, it gets hard to tell them apart. (Except NYPD Blue. That one's distinctive, probably by virtue of being far older than all the rest.) You see the same kinds of stories and struggles and characters and situations coming up again and again. It get worse the more of a series I watch. At the start it may be pretty distinctive, but after five seasons, it tends to regress to the mean of platonic ideal cop show.

Anime's no better. If I open up Netflix or Hulu, Funimation or Crunchyroll and flip through the list, I'm going to see a lot of shows whose cover image evokes a familiar genre: It looks like a shonen anime, a harem anime, a fanservice-heavy anime, or a sci-fi anime, or whatever. I'm not going to name the subgenres because I am not actually that familiar. But I get a strong sense from looking at many of these images and descriptions: Oh, this is trying to be like that other popular thing. I don't get a strong sense of what makes this show different—or often that there is any such thing.

I suspect I could find many more examples if I tried. I doubt this is unique to television or movies—written fantasy is notorious for spawning so many Lord of the Rings clones. That's not to mention the stories that, if not literally based on games, are at least inspired by the lore and aesthetic (such as it is) of Dungeons and Dragons.

The point is, a sameness sets in. That poisons my attitude of the genre as a whole. I start to think: Damn, why am I watching this again?

But then again, what's the alternative?