Rethinking Genre

Hundreds of years ago, literature was just as varied as it is today, with a multitude of different themes, styles, and genres. Nowadays, though, we lump most of this writing together most of the time as “medieval literature.” largely ignoring the wide diversity of different kinds of writing that existed at the time. This is not, of course, the only example of ways in which our perception of genre has shifted. The appearance of completely new genres of literature, such as magical realism and science fiction, is one. Another is the expansion of genres to reveal hitherto unnoticed variety within it, like the division of fantasy into subgenres such as “high fantasy” and a variety of others.

All this is to say that, for the most part, the idea of “genre” is essentially completely constructed by readers and authors. Sometimes, as when Tolkien first created The Lord of The Rings, an author produces a work that forces us to redefine the way we see a genre. Sometimes, as has been the case recently with the explosion of young-adult novels, readers drive the creation of new kinds of works. Other times, as happens constantly throughout the years, a genre fades into obscurity or gets combine with others. Whatever the reason, whatever the process, though, the fact remains: what we cal genre is always changing, always open to interpretation.

There’s an opportunity in this for storytellers, and a lesson in it for readers. If storytellers can see, the opportunities inherent in genre’s fluid nature. The first person to create indisputable “high science fiction” in the same way Tolkien created indisputably “high fantasy” would have his or her name cemented in the same pantheon to which Tolkien belongs. Similarly, a great part of Marvel’s cinematic success is probably due to their ability to re-imagine the “superhero movie” as group of genres rather than a single one, finding room in it for films as diverse as a heist comedy, and intergalactic space fantasy, and a brooding action flick.

On the other hand, readers can gain a tremendous freedom from this knowledge, the freedom to read whatever they like, no matter the genre, without self-judgment. This, of course, isn’t to say that any book or author is as good as any other, or that I wouldn’t recommend certain books, like Moby Dick or As I Lay Dying, to everyone. This is just to say that you shouldn’t feel bad if you read, say, young adult literature, if for no other reason than that fairy tales were invented for adult audiences. Read what you love and love what you read, regardless of who it’s meant to be “written for” or what genre it might fall under. If it captivates you, then it’s already proved itself to be worth reading

With excitement and optimism,

Alex