Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Essence of Genre Part 1 - Boxes with Eyes

This is my 1000th blog post! (on this blog, anyway....)

We're going to celebrate that by taking an eagle-eye view at genre -- and in particular how genre works very differently in different contexts.

The Importance of Genre

As with everything else in publishing, our view of genre has been warped by the needs of physical distribution and shelving.  In a physical bookstore, a book is placed on a specific shelf -- and only one shelf.  A lucky book might be put in its genre and on a featured shelf at the front of the store, but never in multiple categories.

So a customer has to approach browsing a bookstore by first thinking about what shelf they want to browse. And while some readers will experiment with all genres, most readers don't stray from those genres which they already know they like.  They'll never find a cross-genre book that they'd love, if it's not on the shelf they prefer.

We've all heard it again and again; it's critical to place our books in the right genre, or they'll be lost.

On the other hand, the internet does not have shelves.  We search and browse in different ways on the internet, ways that are eccentric and personal and changeable.  People can't even try to find a book by searching a genre the way you do in a bookstore. The shelf is too long.  No matter how you sort it, the reader will only see a fraction of the titles.

You simply can't predict how someone will come across your book.  So that whole genre-limitation thing doesn't work the same way.

But it is still important to be able to label your book.  Readers still need the answer to the question "What is it?" 

The Problem with Categories

Any academic and a whole lot of knowledgeable non-academics will tell you that it's easy to classify things. You set up your criteria and then sort based on that.  And there are oodles of books and flow charts out there to tell you how to sort your fiction.   It's easy, accurate and just plain right, academically speaking.

The problem is that these classifications are based on the object being classified, not the audience and their reactions.  It's rational and logical and ... you end up with just plain silly results, such as a friend who told me that Casablanca belongs with espionage thrillers.

I mean, yes, on a theoretical basis, sure.  It has an espionage thriller plot.  But that's not where any of its most fervent audience would ever ever look for it.  Ever.  Furthermore the people who love espionage thrillers (especially current espionage thrillers) do not consider it to belong in their genre, even if they like Casablanca a lot. (However, they might put it on a "cool non-epsionage movies with espionage in them" list -- more about that one next week.)

So if you had a video store and put it on the "espionage" shelves, you'd get nothing but complaints from the customers.  Fans of Casablanca would look for it in four other places, in this order:
1.) Classics
2.) Humphrey Bogart
3.) Romance
4.) War

And frankly, if they found it in War, they'd bitch.  Because even though they found it, they had to hunt for it. Furthermore the espionage fans would be constantly bringing it up to the desk and telling you "Uh, Dude, you put this on the wrong shelf."

The problem here is with perception. Scientists and academics make a point to take perception out of it.  They come up with criteria and then classify things based on it in a very non-emotional way. But customers, readers, and heck, even birds classify things by looking at perceptions first.

A Fur-Covered Box With Eyes

There was this nature show on cable, I think it was a David Attenborough show, where the filmmakers observed how birds were frightened by cats, and they wondered how to create an artificial cat to scare away birds.  The question of the show was "what constitutes a 'cat' to a bird?"

They started with photographs of cats, and statues of cats.  They tried furry statues and put them on tracks and made the move... and in the end, they found that the versions we humans considered most realistic were the most obvious fakes to birds.

To a bird, a cat is a fur-covered box with eyes.

All the rest of the details about a cat -- all those details scientists would consider critical -- are nonsense to them.  And regular humans, who also consider scientific detail to be nonsense, don't think of a fur covered box as a cat.  We respond to kitty cartoons as a better representation of "catness."

Category is in the eye of the beholder.  And different beholders have a very different view of what constitutes the essence of something.

That's a major issue for cross-genre books: two different groups of readers can be like people and birds. Both groups react to a real cat, but humans also respond to cat cartoons, and birds also respond to fur-covered boxes.  But birds don't respond to cartoons, and humans tend not to respond to fur-covered boxes unless it's some kind of performance art.  And neither care about the shape of the femur the way a scientist might.

An Example From My Own Books

My book Have Gun, Will Play is like a fur covered box with eyes, or a cat cartoon. It's a mystery/western.  The western audience sees it as a non-western or a bad western. It doesn't have what they look for -- no historicity, no grit, or authenticity.  The people who love it tend to be people who read mostly cozy mysteries and mainstream.  Which is good because that's who I wrote it for.

This particular audience tends to not like westerns, or at least they don't read westerns, because they aren't interested in grit, historicity or authenticity, etc. The most enthusiastic folks I've heard from don't even read historical mystery or mainstream.  But they all are convinced this book is a western first and foremost.  That's the shelf they would put it on, even though they don't like westerns, and they liked this because it wasn't like a western.

Which means, the primary audience for this book will never ever look for it on the shelf where they themselves would place it.

It would be a conundrum, except that the internet is making genre -- that is, formal genre -- obsolete.  On the internet, books are not on shelves.  Books are not  limited to one location.  Books exist in many places at once, on "shelves" of differing lengths.  They can be mystery and western and comedy and adventure and silly and serious all at once.  They can be on the horse shelf and the teen shelf and the adult fiction shelf, too.

So genre, as we know it in physical bookstores, is just not the same tool on the internet. We need to look at it differently.

One way to look at it is how they handle genre at the movies.

In Hollywood they have a much more flexible approach to genre, much more useful.  That's because Hollywood sees projects in a way more like individual customers do. (And that's why "Humphrey Bogart" IS a genre at the movies.)

Next week I'll talk about genre in the dream factory.

See you in the funny papers.

Whoops, I nearly forgot....

 A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

This Segment's Progress:  Taking what I said Sunday a little further -- I'm working of getting the small things off my plate, and also establishing a weekly pattern.  More about that next Sunday.

Sunday Day 42 - Day off
Monday Day 43 - HTML Day - formatting and webdeign and uploading, oh my!
Tuesday Day 44 - More on the Kerfuffle Hunt, and brainstorming


Shan Jeniah Burton said...

I am always fascinated when I come here!

Sounds like you are rolling right along!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Shan!