Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Genre is Marketing!

Let me get all ranty on something. This happened a little while back, but I've been busy.

Here is an article that has been making the rounds. Go read it (or not), and the come back.

So what do we have here?

Well, the summary is that the BBC is running a show where a fan of literary fiction (supposedly the high-brow, top of the shelf stuff) reads genre and best-sellers (what the rest of us apparently read - the literary version of junk food, empty calories for the mind). And an SF writer (one Stephen Hunt) is upset that when they talk about genre on this program (sorry, programme), they talk about adventure, romance, and thriller genres, and give the short shrift to SF, fantasy, and horror.

There is so much wrong here on both sides that I don't even know where to start.

Author Stephen Hunt, just to even things up.
First off, the article talks about an author with a problem about a BBC show, and then runs a picture of the star of that show. What, no author photos available? The article does this without running any quote or comment from the host of the show in this matter. So it is pretty much free advertising for the show and host, where the base complaint is that the show and host don't provide free advertising for some forms of genre. Irony abounds.

Then let's look at Sue Perkins, the host who is supposedly dissing SF, shown in said photo, looking hot and intellectual and all with her glasses and battered copy of a Penguins Classic. The first time she's mentioned in the article she is listed as a comic who prefers literary fiction. OK. A comic. Nothing wrong with that. I don't think that Ms. Perkins insights should be invalidated by her profession, but her main job is to entertain, make people laugh, and maybe think (but that's an option - they aren't all George Carlin, you know). I could get a quote from Gilbert Gottfried about nuclear safety, and while it may be entertaining, it is hardly the final word on the subject.

And what is the problem here? Literary fiction, which is the snotty girl with rich parents (that would be the genre, not the host), deigns to invite some of the lower-class kids to her party (where the girl with wealthy forebears will compare her life with theirs and make fun of their clothes). And this author is steamed that HE DIDN'T GET INVITED.

Harrumph, I say. Harrumph!

And what grinds my gears is that this tiff is all about genre, and genre is a product of marketing. Heck, let me be direct. Genre IS marketing. It is more about where you go into the bookstore than value of the work. Separate animals.

Genre is the ultimate form of "If you liked THAT then you'll like THIS!" It is the ultimate form because it references beyond the mere borders of author and publisher, which can be used for these references, but are more finite. The author only produces so many works. The publisher only publishes and keeps in print so many titles.

Genre casts its net wide. Genre gets a section in the bookstore. Genre has wide skirts that a horde of titles can hide under. Genre greases the wheels, eases the load, and makes for an easier sale from the author to the publisher, from the publisher to retailer, and from the retailer to you.

And genre evolves over time. Let me go back to Kaufmann's department store, which I visited in this post mortem for Borders. It is 1969 or so, and I am standing in front of the science fiction section, which consists of a low bookcase of four or five shelves. Here were find Asimov's Foundation series, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and Clarke's 2001, new in paperback, along with some Ace doubles and the Perry Rhodan ghetto and some James Blish Star Trek novelizations. Tolkien is here, and a couple books "In the tradition of Lord of the Rings". Fantasy doesn't really exist yet on the retail level. Conan is here, but he isn't defined as fantasy. Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser won't show up for a couple years yet in paperback,nor will Steve King. Here's some of Del Rey's Lovecraft collections. And there is Tarzan, which doesn't feel too SFie, but is next to John Carter of Mars and the Pellucidar books so it makes sense.

In short, it is a grab-bag of popular fiction. Hardly an official literary work in the lot (there were and are arguments about Tolkien's literary merit over the years). These are children of the lesser god, forged in a different foundry for mere payment, as opposed to more lofty literature. Horror was not strong enough to stand on its own at this time, nor was Fantasy (which in those days was still searching for its definition). Yet out of this literary Burgess Shale came, twenty some years later, a couple aisles of books, including RPGs, shared world fiction, art books, comics and manga. SF never gave way entirely to Fantasy, though Horror jumped over to its division in the bookstores, and kept SF/Fantasy/Horror from being a Cerberus, a three-headed beast of "If you liked anything on this bookshelf, you'd like SOMETHING ELSE on this bookshelf.

Genre is marketing. This is not an accusation, but a fact. When I go into a bookstore, I don't go to the Horror or Thriller or Romance or Literary Genres - I seek out my comfort food in the SF/Fantasy section. And because of ALL the books available are here, I may find something I wasn't looking for, without the narrow focus "recommendations" of the Web sites. Example: from the Borders (still open) at SeaTac airport, I found a copy of Nightshade Book's collection of the short stories of Paul Bacigalupi of Windup Girl fame. No website would get me to this book, since I wasn't looking for anything dark, dystopian, and well-written at the moment. I didn't even know it existed. I found it because the store is defined by genre.

If you like THAT, you'll like THIS.

But even that was not enough to get my bee in a bonnet. Nope, it was a comment form Mr. Hunt (who sounds like an otherwise rational human being who has made his mark in Genre: SF, Subgenre: Steampunk, Personal Genre: "Flintlock Fantasy"). Here is the quote that sent me screaming to the keyboard:
The vast majority of novels that are read in this country fall far outside of the contemporary fiction genre – they very much include the three genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, which has produced everything from classics by HG Wells, Bram Stoker, Roald Dahl, Mary Shelley, George Orwell and JRR Tolkien, to modern best sellers by such authors as Iain M Banks, Sir Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling – these three genres being totally excluded from the BBC’s World Book Night coverage.
HG Wells never wrote SF - there wasn't SF when he wrote. Ditto George Orwell. Bram and Mary defined modern horror, and Tolkien defined what we call traditional fantasy today. Dahl was always over in the children's section (Thank you Gene Wilder) and Rowling first appeared over in YA areas, and moved into SF when it got bigger, heavier, and more popular.  Genre has the ability to determine its own ancestors as well, installed like famous people retconned into your family tree. Ian Banks and Terry Prachett are definitely in the SF Genre, their works written with the intention of reaching their main audience by this SF genre vector, and so the circle is complete with them.

But genre did not produce most of these authors or their works. Genre is the mechanism by which these works are later presented. It showed up late on the seventh day creation, when Adam walked through the back stacks and declared some work to be literary and some to be genre, and never would the two meet.

There is genre work that has literary merit. There is literary work that would be separated from the rest of the herd and condemned to the purgatorial domain of genre. In general, "literary genre" pretty much boils down to "tough to read, but I like it" for a lot of cognoscenti - books that are supposed to be a challenge to get through, to be conquered. In short, books that encourage people to do other things than to read books. And yes, you can make the case that "literary" is a genre with just as many limitations and opportunities as any other.

Now I'd interested is seeing this BBC programme (which probably is not going to happen), and I'd be interested in reading some of Mr. Hunt's works (which is much more likely). But I cannot join in being offended that the former has chosen to snub the latter. I can endure such grousing, but you have buy me a beer first. 

OK, rant over. More later,