(What follows is a rather unfocused jumble of ideas about genre and genre conventions. I may revise this later to make an actual point, but for now it exists as follows.)

All genres have conventions. Some are stricter than others (romances and mysteries come to mind), but they all follow certain rules. I think that is fact, but let me know if you disagree. Anyway, the point is, assuming that that is fact, a really useful way to look at books is to look at the genre as a whole & the conventions of the genre and then compare that to the book. People have not uncommonly rolled their eyes when I say I read romance, science fiction, fantasy, YA… To which I generally roll my eyes and move on. But if I had the opportunity to actually have a conversation with one of these people, it would be a conversation that probably started with conventions.

To understand a genre, you must understand its conventions. Romance is one of the easiest: there must be two people, the main story must be about the two of them falling in love, and it must have a happy ending. There are a lot of other conventions that may or may not have an resemblance to the real world, but those three are the heart of the genre. There are certainly romantic novels where there is not a happy ending, and those can be powerful, but they aren’t part of the genre. (Similarly, there are plenty of stories where people die, but they aren’t mysteries until there is, well, a mystery, and they aren’t a cop procedural unless the plot focus on the cops instead of the murderer or victims.) People who complain that romance is formulaic because there is always a happy ending are just kind of missing the point. Knowing what the story is about and knowing what the end will be opens up levels of depth for how they get there. Romances have, hands down, the best relationships, the deepest and most real, that are out there in literature. The average romance is going to have more compelling relationships (usually romantic, but often the platonic relationships are great, too) than the average… other fiction novel. Again, there are plenty of other books that do this well and many that do it better than the average romance, but this is what romances are about. So they consistently do it well.

Knowing the conventions of romance helps the reader to appreciate better what makes a good romance from a crappy one. That goes for any genre and I could repeat the previous paragraph, substituting in mysteries or SF&F, etc. But genre conventions, if it were possible to know them from outside the genre, also most likely tell you why you don’t like the genre. You don’t dislike romances because they’re “bad” (though, as in any genre, many are), you dislike them because you aren’t interest in the kinds of relationships they explore. Either that, or you are burdened by the stigma of the “genre ghetto”, which SF&F is second-to-last and romance is last, where stereotypes of the genre protrude into mass media and make all genre fiction (which is different from the genres I was talking about above), but especially those little seething with filth corners of SF&F and romance, a joke. But, of course, that’s not really the same thing as disliking a genre, it’s actually just being embarrassing to like a genre. Which is a great tragedy indeed, because it can stop a person from reading something to begin with, and then to look at that something with biased eyes.

Conventions, to restate, define a genre with certain rules. Those rules may define plot, character, tropes, themes, setting, etc. The primary purpose of those conventions is to create a place where certain other things can be explored at greater depth and subtlety than may be possible without those rules. (I can hear the arguments now: but there are books of great depth that aren’t genre, that don’t follow conventions! To which I say: well, first of all, those are exceptions, and second of all, hold your horses, I’ll address that in a next minute.)

So, throw those exceptions on me. Those books that are exceptionally deep, exceptionally thorough, written by an exceptional author, that defy genre conventions, fictional conventions, societal & cultural conventions… I’m sure you get my point, but these are exceptions. Not all writers or readers want to break conventions. So why do we deify authors who do and feel good about ourselves when we like those authors? Why does this dichotomy exist? Why is convention-defying fiction “high art” and genre fiction “low art”? These questions have been explored before and this essay is in part an argument that we should have this polar binary, so I’m not sure I feel the need to answer them.

Plus I’m super tired. I might edit this later, but for now, it will be good night, and good luck.


5 thoughts on “genres

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  3. Not only do conventions let you explore your subject matter in greater depth, they offer you the option of breaking them to make a particular point–if you don’t overuse that option. I think at least a part of what makes a good writer is an honest, in-depth understanding of conventions, and a certain amount of respect for them, no matter what the writer chooses to do with those conventions.

    And, since this might amuse you, the first time I read this I translated it into math terms: You have an equation (the story) with a given set of terms and constants (the conventions). But then you have a bunch of variables, which can completely change the result of the equation. The interest lies in what you get when you put different variables into the given framework. Sometimes the variables can even make a drastic change to the form of the equation, if they end up making some terms cancel each other out or bringing some terms to zero.

    I’d definitely be interested if you revised this post, or revisited these ideas sometime.

    • Definitely. It’s a case of knowing the rules before you break them. Not because they can’t be broken before you know them, but that the very fact of knowing them makes your transgression all the more meaningful.

      And I love your analogy! =D

  4. Pingback: Death of genres? « Nisaba Be Praised

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