Sep 21, 2022Liked by Lincoln Michel

I think the genre conversation falls flat so often because it focuses too much on the stuff - the werewolves, fairies, aliens and whatnot - and not what that stuff is used for. And that’s...not very useful analysis, as an author or a reader.

You can claim that you’re a horror writer because you’re into haunted houses, fine, but that still doesn’t tell me what kind of horror writer you are. What’s your artistic lineage? A story in conversation with Stephen King would be very different from one in conversation with Ursula K. LeGuin. Genre hot takes seem like just that; hot takes, not analysis.

I went to art school (the jokes write themselves) and we couldn’t just slap ‘postmodern’ onto everything we made. We had to actually name specific periods and micro-trends in our work, no matter how stupid or obscure. I don’t know why writers are so averse to doing the same.

All of this to say that I really appreciate you and Chiang making these thoughtful observations. They’re very much needed!

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Ted Chiang is amazing. Thanks for the wring this.

I think any "taxonomy" -- either it is fiction, music or species classification -- has a dual implication. At one side, a rigid boundary. We humans like to categorise, put things in their places when on the other side, we know they can move from one place to another very easily. I think you summed it up here nicely, "genre taxonomies are useful for writers only insomuch as they the reveal story possibilities".

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Totally agree with you here, Lincoln. I’ve always felt that genre – rather like Save the Cat-type plot paradigms - are great editorial tools, but not so much creative ones. It’s useful to impose different definitions and frameworks on a canon of texts in order to get a better handle on them, and so gain greater cultural or psychological insight. But genre definitions aren’t so great at helping you create those stories, at least not if you use them too prescriptively. In my experience, a story should be encouraged to become what it is. Leave genre theory to the critics.

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Well-written piece. Very interesting and true. I totally agree about YA--relatively new genre class. Just like NA--New Adult. Like you said these classifications and boundaries are always shifting. The boxes always overflow. I see genre more closely aligned with business modeling, really; it’s a folder to stick the book into for marketing purposes. Genre can help readers/authors generally find the spot in the bookstore, and it can help people generally grasp some underlying concepts about your book....but beyond that not as much. Although then again YA often has a very specific ‘set of rules’ and a ‘type of voice’ agents and publishers seek. But those aren’t the most profound books, IMO; if they were they would more likely defy genre conventions and be organically themselves. I think those are the most intriguing writers--the ones who go for honesty and raw truth over genre guidelines.

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I'm working within what might be called a new genre - 'place writing' - and have recently set up my own Substack newsletter on the subject. I am researching how 'place' as a field of study can be, (or indeed, whether it should be), categorised. It's interesting to hear the arguments you raise about genre in your article about Fantasy, Horror etc, because slippery boundaries are fascinating. You've expanded my thoughts on the subject. Thank you.

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The comparison of genre to dumpling is brilliant.

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The differences between sf and fantasy are less important than what they share. Genre is form, and most sf and fantasy take form for granted, focusing on ideas, which is why both are the favored fiction of economists, engineers, mathematicians and "geeks". Fantasy and sf are the preferred literature of atheists who need to believe in truth (and at its worst its a new personalized religion).

The only popular or pulp fiction that's accepted as crossing over into "literary" fiction are detective or crime novels, which are preoccupied with the observation and description of human behavior, and the form of communicating it. Detective fiction is about people who lie to themselves.

Any fantasy or sf that uses its spells or tech only as props on which to hang description has left genre behind. When the MacGuffin is the point, you have a problem.

NYT: "Hobbits and the Hard Right: How Fantasy Inspires Italy’s Potential New Leader

Giorgia Meloni, the nationalist politician who is the front-runner to become prime minister, sees “The Lord of the Rings” as not just a series of novels, but also a sacred text."


The only Tolkien inspired book that would interest me would make Gollum the main character.

"The Autobiography of Gollum" If I were a writer I'd try writing that. Someone should.

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Fascinating. So then what is the difference between “Soft Sci-Fi” and Fantasy?

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"Why are some terrifying mythological monsters—e.g. zombies and vampires—placed in horror and other terrifying mythological monsters—e.g. dragons—placed in fantasy?"

Huh, I don't know - this seems like a *relatively* clear-cut distinction. The terror evoked by horror monsters is based in empathy, while the terror evoked by fantasy creatures is based in the sublime. A dragon might represent wrath or greed, but we are not supposed to recognize our human capacity for wrath or greed within the dragon. Or at least, that's how I'd personally oversimplify it. Maybe you SFF lifers have enough counterexamples that this all sounds totally facile.

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