Saturday, January 13, 2007

That's Me...Mr. Patriarch (or subcategories of fiction)

Someone recently accused me of representing the patriarchal establishment. I think they were trying to imply that I was acting out the will of institutional sexism. As a leftwing pinko, I took umbrage. But not enough to keep from having fun with it. Still, it got me thinking about labels, which got me thinking about writing and literature. What doesn't get me thinking about writing and literature?

Have you noticed the obsession we have with trying to classify forms of fiction? It's not enough to call something science fiction or fantasy, we have to break it down into one of a hundred absurd little subsets that somehow makes the fan of a particular author feel special. Let me take a genre I know something about: Horror.

Gather a group of horror fans together and they will immediately start jockeying for position, trying to shove different writers into different cubbyholes. You'll hear the discussion go on about psychological horror, sociological horror, allegorical horror. They'll sing and dance about erotic horror, splatterpunk, and Gothic horror. Then, as the evening revs up, they'll raise their voices as they argue over Lovecraftian horror, supernatural horror, and visceral horror. There's apocalyptic horror, zombie horror, vampirical horror, lycanthropic horror.

And all the while they discuss and argue, using these terms with a deadly seriousness, they actually keep a straight face.

In one recent call for submission, an editor actually said she was looking to create a new subgenre which she was dubbing: "pirate horror". Arrgh.

Don't feel superior out there. Allow me to once again don my patriarchal mantle. Let's talk "CHICK-LIT" (what an obnoxious term) a genre that some have absurdly deemed "post-feminist literature". What??? Others have dismissed it as a subcategory of romance.

Yet, this sub-genre has exploded.

I recently asked a woman to define chick-lit and she shrugged and said: "You know, 'Desperate Housewifes", "Sex in the City". One source tried to describe Chick Lit this way:

"Chick-Lit is hip, stylish, confident and sharp - it's also honest and very brave. It battles and conquers the term Chick. It's about coming of age."


How about this. Why don't we stop this nonsense. I think there are only so many levels of pretentiousness we can climb before we topple. I'll accept that there are types of literature. I'll accept the divisions of mystery, horror, science fiction, western, fantasy, romance, thriller, etc. But let's stop the subgenres. Let's stop trying to find legitimacy by labelling. And that's what it really is, isn't? All this labelling is nothing more than trying to legitimize something which may or may not be able to stand up on its own merit. You can use all the terms you want to classify something, but if a story lacks the rudiment of plot, character, setting, theme....then there is only really one label that can truly apply:


Anonymous said...

I think literature is merely following the marketing model of differentiation. Look at coffee, for instance. A hundred million kinds of coffee. The only reason I like to know what terms are being used is that I want to get published. If a publisher says they want slipstream, it may be affectation, but I want to know what they mean. As an author, I am still beholden to the gatekeepers. Good post.

SQT said...

Labeling is tough on me. I have some authors I like to read and their books can only be found in the romance section.


I don't like romances as a rule, but a few authors that write supernatural fiction, with a romantic element or two, get thrown in the romances. I wouldn't even know these authors exist if friends hadn't recommended them to me.

And that's a shame. I don't go down the romance aisle, but there might actually be a few talented writers that get shoved into that category that don't really belong there.

Christina Rundle said...

Haahaa, it's true. There is Paranormal Romance now, which I enjoy reading, but I'm with SQT, I don't really care for romance novels either, but there are a few really good writers who get thrown into that catagory because of the romance in their novels.

As far as the other genres, wow, options, options.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

I think it's human nature to sub-categorize everything down to the smallest detail.

I was at my friend Jim's house the other day trying to help out with something on his computer and his 12 year old daughter shows me this list she made of the people in her class (she's trying to figure out which ones to invite to her birthday party). She had all these groups that she divided people into: friends, sort of friends, nice, weird, annoying, scary, etc.

Anyway, I think it's just the way our brains work.

cs harris said...

I blame the marketing departments. They've discovered it's much easier to sell a book or author they can "brand." A few years ago, I wrote a book about a dead trophy wife that about half a dozen editors loved but ultimately turned down because in the dread Committee, the marketing department said they didn't know how to sell it.

SQT said...

CS Harris

I wonder if you could try to sell the book now with better results? There are so many sub-categories these days I can't imagine that it wouldn't fit in somewhere.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't know if it's entirely the marketing people, gem. I think there is a need by people to draw lines for themselve, to find some identity that they can't find in society. We live in a world that is becoming more and more homogeneous. It used to be you could drive from one side of the country to another and travel through several distinctly different regions, apart from geographical features. Today? The same chain stores, the same products, the same television, the same everything. Maybe this is a way for people to try and find some uniqueness in self expression

SQT, CHRISTINA, I think romance has a valid niche. I don't understand the genre, but I am sure the romance fans walk down the horror or the thriller aisles with the same look of bafflement on their faces. Maybe. Of course I could say the same thing for people in Westerns and those who seek out strictly formulaic whodunit mysteries.

CHUCK, I agree. Human nature, which takes me to the first comment I directed toward gem.
Also CS Harris and SQT, the marketing department is doing the niche thing either because the market is bad and they are having a trouble coming up with a way to explain it and find strategies to deal with it, or else they are responding to a true demand, which I find hard to believe.

It surprises me marketing people haven't worked harder and pushing for crossover. However, I shouldn't be surprised by anything a wholesaler tries in this economy.

Charles Gramlich said...

The same thing happens in music. I like heavy metal, but they break it down into death metal, black metal, thrash metal, speed metal, and even, Odin forbid, Viking metal. 90 percent of the time I can't tell the difference. 100 percent of the time I just don't give a shit.

jedimerc said...

Garbage is what we make of it, or rather what the media makes of it :) Sometimes they build up expectations to the point a show cannot seem to fail and some good shows are lost because of the build up of other garbage, and that's just TV.

Thankfully, literature can be different, and I hardly think of labels, though I prefer easily categorised types of fiction... historical fiction and science fiction. I am not sure I think of sub-generes but of course they exist.

I think our present culture, as 'diverse' as it wants or claims to be, loves labeling. I suppose I should find that ironic, but I think it is simply sad.

Bernita said...

It does get a little absurd, does it not?
Thank you for dropping by my blog.

Jon said...

Very often our labels are our own. I'm sure that some/many of the subsets are created by the writers themselves.
Why be a middleing horror writer when you could call yourself the best damn Post-Fem-Goth-Space- Slasher-Gay/Lesbian Oriented horror writer in the country?

ORION said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm glad my query posting helped you.
It is a perplexing process!
(See Bernita - I cannot stop the alliteration thing!)

Susan Miller said...

For some reason, Stu, I just want to read another story. I don't care what label it falls under. Tell me a story.

Crunchy Carpets said...

I do think like the others that is is the publishers and the marketing.

Especially for things like the chick lit.

I mean instead of just literature. Or books about modern life and lives of modern women, lets come up with a cute name. That way the women will feel 'important' because they are reading a 'genre' and not just a paperback that looked vaguely interesting.

Niche marketing being marketed to people who didn't know they needed or were niches.

For sci fi (for me anyway)...there is good sci fi. Hard sci fi, lighter fare and crap.

But then..isn't that the way with most 'genre's??

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Hearty seconds for Gem, CS Harris, etc. Whoever's to blame, I take this issue personally because of the problems it creates in marketing a manuscript: is "The Fox's Daughter" historical fiction, "steampunk", flintlock fantasy, erotic fantasy, epic fantasy... Is it young adult? No, there's sex and graphic violence in it. There's cute Irish people and Chinese were-foxes-- oh, but mass murder too.
Before we even get to whether the book's any good or not, before it can be read, the marketers that have bought up publishing have to figure out its niche.
Maybe the answer is in small, eccentric presses where a book can be discovered and then adopted by the big corporate presses once the book is "proven".
A baby turtle making it from the beach to the sea has better odds, and the skills that marketing calls for are miles away from the impulses that led me to create,,,

Kate said...

I saw that call for pirate horror. My mind was well and truly boggled. A few months I came across a publisher looking for family friendly horror and all I could think was: how can that be?

I do agree that the problem has a lot to do with the homogeneous nature of our societies. You see the same categorisation happening in other mediums, film for example. It's not enough for a film to be labelled horror, instead it will be zombie horror, teen horror, supernatural horror, vampire, historical and so on.

Rick said...

Stewart equals patriarch... hmmm... I'm sorry it took me so long to stumble onto this posting.

Unfortunately, your topic of discussion reenforces your patriarchal obsession. 80% of all books are sold to women. You are a man. Men have ruled the literary bookselling world for centuries with their pontifical psuedo pragmatic labels and categories. Over senty percent of the marketing managers within the bookselling chains are now women. You, as a sour grapes patriarch, take umbrage at their innovative exploratory efforts to re-define the chavinist, male chosen labels that have been around so long that they should be buried in arthritic dust.

Erica Jong, one of the founding members of the National Writers Union, one said, "Men have defined writing because for centuries they controlled the purse. Now women carry the purses and buy the books and the biggest obstacle before us taking our rightful places as the guiding literary lights of our time is men trying to pull the plug and plunging us back into darkness."

Now a woman, H.K. Rowlings, has signed the largest single contract for writing remuneration in the history of the world. I say throw a blanket on men who complain about women's exploration of topics such as how to categorize literature and entertainment.

And "Sex and the City" works because it is both feminine and feministically edge.

Time for the old patriarchs to quit complaining and let the young women lead the way.

Do you remember when John Wayne said, "If you'll get me an Oscar, I'll carry a purse?" Me either, but you get my point.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Actually, Rick "old boy", the picture was a gentle joke at a comment someone made about me.

You're probably right about the percentage of women reading. I've written a novel with most the characters being women. Maybe I'll start using a female non de plume and see what fruit, no pun intended, it bears.

Vwriter said...

Hey, I knew that. I was just frustrated because I couldn't get the picture of my cat to appear next to my post the way it normally does!

Wait, I think I've fixed it.

And seriously folks, Stewart is as much a patriarch as I am serious.