Both practically and theoretically I’m vexed by the question of genre. Practically, because as a writer of fiction I have to be able to categorize my work in order to offer it to readers, viz., to sell it; theoretically, because the more I investigate the question, the more it branches into galleries running ever deeper underground, like a network of unexplored caves.
I’ve written about this before. I know I’ve mentioned that my curiosity was first sparked by reading a bootleg set of notes of a Robert McKee seminar on storytelling, which spark was already a small flame by the time I got my own copy of his book, Story. Somewhere he makes the point (I can’t find the exact place) that no story is so original that it doesn’t resemble anything that’s been written before. Every story will bear a family resemblance to other stories.
In the lecture notes, McKee defines story simply as “traditional story type: war, crime, Western, domestic, love, musical, horror.” This is just a sample list, but there is already a problem in that it mixes categories. The category of, say, action (crime) is mixed with the categories of setting (Western) and mood (horror). The word genre is derived from the Latin genus, which is a class or set that contains a number of species. Sister Miriam Joseph, in her book The Trivium, defines genus this way:
Genus is that part of essence which is common to all the species that constitute the genus. For example, animality is that part of his essence which man shares with other species of his genus, such as horse, sparrow, oyster.
Essence, in turn, is that which makes a thing what it is. Take away the essence, and that thing ceases to be that thing. Take away his animality, and a man ceases to be a man. He becomes a spirit perhaps, an angel, or a corpse. But no longer a man.
The process of analyzing a genus into its constituent species is known as logical division. Here’s what Sister Miriam has to say about that:
Logical division includes three elements: the logical whole, the basis of division, and the dividing members. The logical whole, which is to be divided, is the genus. The basis of division is the metaphysical aspect, the point of view from which a division is made. The dividing members are the species resulting from the logical division.
She goes on to say that
A shift in the basis of division is the error of applying simultaneously, but incompletely, two or more different bases of division, for example, the division of books into Latin, English, French, poetry, history. A shift in the basis of division is the prime error in division, creating confusion and disorder. It makes it impossible to achieve what logical division aims ata division that is collectively exhaustive (complete) and mutually exclusive (with no overlapping).
So there we have it: the story genres are a mixed bag resulting from a shift in the basis of division.
Does this matter? Who cares?
Well, rightly or wrongly, I do. If genre really is important, as McKee stresses, then it should be addressed properly, should it not? Or is it that stories are so complex and varied that it is impossible to categorize them accurately? A mixed bag is the best that anyone can do.
To me that’s too defeatist. So I’ve been applying my mind to this problem, intermittently, and I think I’ve made some progress. But that all refers to the theoretical aspect of the problem, and maybe that’s not the most important aspect, at least from the point of view of marketing one’s work. To what section of the mixed bag does my own work belong?
The work I’m referring to is my work in progress, The Age of Pisces, which I’ve given the tag-line “an epic of the birth of Christianity.” In the label I see three possible genre handles:
- epic (story type or scope)
- birth of (in the pasthistory)
- Christianity (religion)
Now epic is a genre that goes right back to the earliest authority on the topic, Aristotle, and so you might think it would provide a solid footing. But epic is not an accepted genre label nowadays. We describe books as epics—:Paradise Lost, War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Firebut there is no bookstore shelf labeled “epic.” It seems to be a kind of accidental or transcendental category that books of different genres can all belong to.
What about the “birth of” partfor historical fiction is certainly an accepted genre label. My work, set in the 1st century BC, meets the basic criterion for inclusion. I even have the good fortune to fit into a subgenre within the genre, namely, ancient-historical fiction. But as I look at works in this genre, and at what fans of the genre enjoy about it, I start to have qualms. At Goodreads, the Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction group (2,360 members) describes its bent in the following way:
Preference is given to escapist themes of epic proportions: engaging politics, sprawling battles, drugs (errr … mead) and debauchery.
Hmm. I see the word epicso far, so good. But as for “escapist themes,” there I don’t feel quite comfortable. Although I believe in strong, fluid storytelling, I would never describe my work as escapist, although I might sneak in through the “engaging politics” doorway.
Finally we have religion. In genre terms, this might reflect the label devotional. To me, this brings to mind the large and very popular literature of Christian fiction. I understand that in the U.S., novels about the Rapture have been massive bestsellers. While I applaud the success of such works, my own is 6,811 parsecs removed from what they’re doing. The Age of Pisces is not a devotional work. Its author is not a Christian and will never become one. My work is about Christianity because Christianity is the spine of the civilization in which I write. I’ll go further: I believe that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is the DNA of Western civilization. I’m writing about the time and place in which that DNA was first assembled.
So what genre does that put my work in?