Thoughts on the lifespan of genres

I said in my post about William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories that I’d post shortly about the lifespan of genres. This isn’t a topic I know as well as I’d like to, but essentially genres are not the fixed things we tend to think them. New genres emerge, old genres gain respectability and cease to be seen as genre writing or lose popularity and cease to be read much at all. They ebb and flow.

The Edwardians were fond of post-apocalyptic fiction. It was a vibrant genre (sub-genre more precisely), and a reasonably popular one. Today, those novels are almost forgotten and the genre with them. In the 1970s and 1980s in Britain horror fiction was big business, in the 1990s it almost went extinct. On the other hand, we have supernatural romance now which never used to exist at all and although often filed in bookshops with horror or fantasy really has little in common with either.

I’ve seen it argued that genres have a natural lifespan, and I think there’s truth in that. A genre comes into being with a writer of group of writers (who may not be affiliated with each other) deciding to do something new. They write fiction set in a historical epoch featuring real people so as to cloak their fiction in the drama of the period chosen. They write fiction set in space in an imagined future so as to talk about situations on Earth in an allegorical fashion. They write romances aimed at teenagers and capture feelings of isolation and fear of bodily change in images of handsome vampires and werewolves. They experiment with form and possibility, and the result is something not really seen before.

Others are inspired by the new fiction the forerunners create. They see a pattern to the new works, and set out to see what they can do themselves with this new vision. They push the boundaries of the new genre, and in doing so help create them.

With any new genre, we can expect then a handful of early pioneers followed by an explosion as other writers see in the new form tools that they can use. The genre swells and becomes popular. Often it will become very widely read indeed, because the public have always been more sympathetic to genre conventions than the critics.

As a genre becomes popular it becomes more rigid. Boundaries become set and innovation ceases to be encouraged. New writers who arrive at this point come onto the scene with at least two generations of predecessors in the field. There are decades of existing stories and an already present fanbase. The genre’s authors at this point may well come out of that existing fanbase. Where originally the genre spoke to matters outside itself, now increasingly it refers to itself. Stories play with genre rules in ways only a genre insider will recognise or care about. Fans form solid expectations of what the genre will deliver, and become unhappy with tales that don’t conform to those expectations. The genre is now mature, and sclerotic.

With that sclerosis the genre becomes divorced from mainstream concerns. Increasingly it speaks only to the already converted. This divorce further emphasises the form’s insularity. It no longer has much to say to those who aren’t within the fold.

The risk with any form of fiction which has nothing new to say is that people will stop listening to it. That whatever it appealed to in its fans is no longer something that resonates. With the Edwardian post-apocalypse novels that’s what happened. The genre ceased to speak to people, perhaps the real world horror of the second world war made it no longer entertaining. Perhaps people wanted something more cheerful. I can’t say.

I can talk to British horror fiction though, because as a teenager I read a lot of it. Essentially, horror fiction in Britain became increasingly niche. It got nastier with writers using more and more blatant shock tactics and gore to gain effect. The hardcore fans responded, but general readers did not and the genre became dependent on a narrow fanbase whose tastes were distinctly at odds with the general public. As the fanbase went on to other things the genre struggled to survive.

Historical fiction, like science fiction, is infinitely reinventable. There are always pasts, and possible futures, that can reflect interestingly on our present. Historical fiction is now almost not genre fiction at all and is peculiar in genre in being considered for mainstream literary prizes. Science fiction hasn’t done so well and to my mind is showing the signs of a mature genre whose best days may be behind it. The reason when I read SF I tend to read the contemporary British ultra-hard stuff is that I think that fiction has something to say about the world we actually inhabit. Most SF I don’t think does anymore.

Contemporary fantasy fiction is the best support for my argument. Its fans are markedly hostile now to innovation. New books are marketed as volume four of an ongoing series, promising more of the same for many more pages. A genre which has, in the past, contained some extraordinarily fine writing now mostly produces works that could be generated by computer algorithm. Similar points could be made about romantic fiction. The vampires and werewolves became necessary because the fans of the existing field would permit no changes to it, and new readers do not always want just what has gone before.

New genres I’ve seen in my lifetime include the supernatural romances (child of romantic fiction and the urban fantasy sub-genre) and of course chick-lit. The lifespan of genres is such that both may well outlast me, and genres have a half-life in decades anyway so that fantasy and romance continue long after they stopped having anything to say. My point however is that genres are not as they seem fixed categories that exist in the world and that remain with us. They come into being in response to individual creativity, fossilise around those early inspirations and sometimes die with their readers. The interesting question is whether naturalism (which is often interchangeable with the notion of literary fiction) is subject to the same rules.

Some of the ideas in this post are built upon an article I read recently about genre lifespans in the context of science fiction. I forget the author and title of the article. If anyone recognises some of the concepts and can identify where I was drawing from I’d be grateful to know so I could provide an appropriate link.


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46 responses to “Thoughts on the lifespan of genres

  1. Interesting post, Max, that makes sense when you think about it. The ossification of genres is why, like many readers, I don’t read them. When people ask, I always say, “No, but I’ve read a couple of sci-fi/detective/historical fiction (whatever the genre being asked abou) books over the years”. I’ve usually read those particular ones because they have been recommended for having something special/extra, such as, say, Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale or Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They don’t “feel” like a genre book!

    I find series books tedious – I managed to make it half-way though book 3 of Harry Potter (and that was mainly because I was reading it to my daughter) but couldn’t keep going. Books like this are perfectly fine if you read primarily for story but if you read for something else then slavish adherence to form is a big turn-off.

  2. Quite. Whereas for hardcore genre fans the familiarity is often part of the draw. There can be a comfort in it, a reassuring lack of challenge.

    It frustrates me a bit, though it shouldn’t. When I read works by writers such as Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany I’m reminded of how potent a genre fantasy once was. To compare that to what you generally find on the bookshelves today under that genre heading is frankly depressing. A genre which was once exciting is now creatively bankrupt with an extraordinarily conservative (with a small c) fanbase.

    I do sometimes read for story, but even then I prefer to read stories which go where the author wishes them to rather than those which go where they must because the commercial constraints of genre give little other choice.

    That said, with older works it can sometimes be important to remind yourself that they’re not derivative – they’re what others derive from. Chandler’s hardboiled detective novels today seem full of stock ingredients, but they’re only stock because so many people copied him.

    On an aside, there is a possibility someone will read this and cite China Miéville as evidence that the fantasy genre isn’t as bad as I paint it. I do regard Miéville as a talented and interesting writer and I accept he writes fantasy. That said, Cormac McCarthy writes (wrote anyway) westerns and I’d hardly say that’s a vibrant genre today. One writer does not a renaissance make.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment about historical fiction. In fact, I would argue that it’s not genre fiction at all, any more than “contemporary fiction” is a genre. I read a lot of historical fiction (and review a lot of it at, and I’m convinced that historical fiction includes every kind of genre that exists in contemporary fiction – literary, mystery, romance, action/adventure – you name it. I generally gravitate to the more literary end of things, but there are a lot of readers devoted to other genres of historical fiction.

  4. Good point, Max, re recognising older works and their being innovative at the time. I have this discussion in another forum with a reader who keeps looking for innovation and seems to eschew writers of the past as being somehow boring but I argue that many of them – such as Jane Austen (you know me!) – were innovative in their time.

    Interesting point, Margaret, re Historical Fiction. So, would you say, for example, that there’s Romance, and Historical Romance? How would you classify, say, Philippa Gregory’s novels? I haven’t read her but in my bookgroup’s discussion of Wolf Hall she was mentioned as an example of genre historical fiction.

  5. It’s interesting that you say that SF shows signs of hardening whilst also admitting that you only read ultra-hard SF 🙂

    I think that there is still great work being done in SF but you really do need to look for it. The Hugos don’t track it and the Clarke awards struggle a bit too.

    Have you read Far North? firmly recommended. Ditto In Great Waters and neither of them are ultra-hard SF. In fact, they’re both written outside of the boundaries of traditional SF with Theroux bringing mainstream lit sensibilities and Whitfield working from fantasy and historical fiction.

  6. Contemporary romance novels and historical romance novels have a lot more in common, I think, than romance novels of either variety in contrast to, say, literary novels. Philippa Gregory’s novels generally do lean toward romance, but I’m more inclined to classify them as romantic mainstream historical rather than historical romance, because getting-the-guy is not the sole focus. In The Other Boleyn Girl, for example, there is a strong focus on portraying family dynamics among the Boleyns. It’s much too sensationalized, though, to be called a literary novel. And it does lean in the direction of genre romance. Wolf Hall, from my perspective, is clearly a literary novel. The characterizations are complex and realistic, the portrayal of their interactions is textured and full of nuance, and the novel offers much food for thought that is relevant in any era.

  7. Yes, the point made by my bookgroup member was that Philippa Gregory is “genre” because she focuses on story and the characters tend to be one-dimensional (ie each character tends to have on major characteristic/personality trait that defines them) which is of course not what we find in Wolf Hall. She was happy though to simply describe Gregory as Historical Fiction.

  8. GB Steve

    These genres never really go away, they just retreat into obscurity. The tail is massively long and there always seems to be someone churning out books in a genre you thought might have died. Ramsey Campbell, for example, in horror started in the 70s and has outlived Herbert, Hutson and then Barker. And he’s still going.

    In SF we had the Cyberpunk boom which in turn lead to Steampunk which itself has had a bit of a renaissance recently. And then there’s slipstream, interstitial and uncanny which attempt to mainstream genre fiction, with little success.

    It’s interesting to see how Gibson’s writing has changed since he was at the forefront of cyberpunk. In essence he still writes about the same period in time but as we’ve got closer to it, his writing has become more real (and better). I wonder if he’ll ever write SF again.

  9. “It’s interesting that you say that SF shows signs of hardening whilst also admitting that you only read ultra-hard SF ”

    I meant hardening in a different sense, but in any event I consider consistency vulgar.

    I don’t know those titles you mention. I’ll look into them. Increasingly I think the best SF is outside the genre production chain, I was very impressed by Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia for example which is sold straightforwardly as literary fiction despite being quite plainly an sf novel.

    Steve, there’s always a few outlier authors. Mieville with fantasy for example. I’m glad Campbell’s still around since he to an extent quit the field for a while in despair at the way his genre was trending towards the Hutson end of things.

    That said, I struggle to see a genre as alive if it has one or two people only working on it. Nothing in art entirely dies, there are no doubt people today influenced by Byzantine painting, but for all that the Byzantine tradition isn’t what I’d call a robust one today.

    Gibson and Sterling both moved more to contemporary fiction. We’re in their future, there’s no longer a reason to predict it. Of the two, I think Sterling made the adaptation more effectively…

    More in a mo re historical fiction etc.

  10. Margaret, thank you for your comments on historical fiction and for the link, which I’ll check out. Historical fiction is a curious one, as it does as you say contain genres within it. Historical crime is big for example, as is historical romance and of course straight historical drama.

    What they have in common I think is a focus on period emulation over the other elements. Which takes me to another point.

    I think much genre fiction isn’t focused necessarily on mere storytelling (I’ll come back to that mere). Often a genre has concerns of its own which aren’t the same as literary fiction, but aren’t about storytelling either.

    Science fiction is above all else a literature of ideas. Characterisation isn’t key and nor is prose style, both potentially could even get in the way. The point is the idea at the heart of the story, and the story generally serves that idea.

    Stephen Baxter, one of the leading science fiction writers today, has written a fine apologia in these terms in one of his novels and thinks nothing of having the story effectively pause while characters experience events which make apparent to them (or not to them but still to the reader) the ideas that he’s wrapped his work around. He’s willing if necessary to damage the story for the ideas.

    Equally, with historical crime, in Stephen Saylor’s masterful Roma Sub Rosa books the key goal is the evocation of Republican Rome. For me evocation of period is the essence of historical fiction and I’d appreciate Margaret’s thoughts on that. In the first of his Roman novels the entire plot stops for a whole chapter while the main character’s son undergoes an important coming of age ceremony – putting on his manly toga.

    The story halts, but the story is only a delivery vehicle for bringing Rome to life, which the toga chapter does better than almost anything else I’ve read in that vein.

    I think often genre fiction is judged on the wrong criteria, critically speaking. As a reader it’s as valid to say “the characterisation is weak so I won’t read this” as it is to say “this is just about character and not about anything important like the nature of the universe we inhabit so I won’t read it”. That’s a taste judgement. But to critically assess say SF on its characterisation is I think a category error. It’s not about that, it’s not trying to be about that. It’s about something else.

    I think all too often literary critics when reviewing genre effectively criticise apples for their lack of citrusy zest, they judge them on criteria which were never part of their goals. None of which means I think people should read genres that don’t speak to them.

    Oh, just to wrap up an already overlong comment, I think good crime fiction is not primarily about crime. It’s about the relationship between the individual and society, with the crime being a stressor which brings out the truth of that relationship. Bit of a no true scotsman argument there though I’m aware.

  11. All that and I forgot to come back to the mere. Suffice to say I sometimes distinctly enjoy novels which are all about the story, I just think that’s orthogonal to issues of genre (and sometimes to literary quality).

  12. GB Steve

    So Dan Brown’s OK then, because the plot is exciting? I mean, he certainly sells.

  13. Well, what’s Dan Brown selling? I don’t think it makes sense to look at his work and say that because the characterisation is lousy it’s a bad book. Does it set out to have good characterisation?

    I think it’s worth asking what a book sets out to achieve, I’m not sure I’m persuaded there’s a heirarchy of goals with some more valid than others. That said, there is ambition, and ambition can be to create a great novel of ideas or great prose or great many things. I’m not sure what ambition Brown’s novels show, other than ambition for great sales which isn’t quite the same thing.

    Also, it’s sometimes appropriate for a book to be efficiently written. I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for it to be badly written, and they’re definitely not the same thing. My impression is that Brown writes badly, not efficiently. I’ve not read him though so I could be wrong. For all I know in a 100 years he’ll be considered a classic. History’s judgements are funny that way.

  14. I think that people go easy on books that are ‘about the plot’. Most people don’t really have a good idea of what is and is not god writing and I think that plotting is no exception to this.

    For example, I went to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and really enjoyed it so I picked up the second book in the trilogy. The reviews said it was an exciting and rip-roaring intelligent thriller.


    What it is is a novel with a very thin plot that is hugely bulked out with scenes in which the characters work their way through maths books and go shopping in Ikea and discuss arranging carers for people who have had a stroke.

    Not rip-roaring. Not exciting. Boring. Padded. Poorly plotted. Shit.

    I think that “It’s all about the plot” is an excuse for “this is really shit and I feel like I shouldn’t be reading it but I’m enjoying it (quite possibly because I have some hideous tumour growing in the part of my brain that deals with aesthetic judgement)”

    In my experience, there are very few novels that stand up on the merits of their plot alone. If you can’t do character and you can’t do prose and you can’t do structure then how can you possibly do plot?

  15. Quite possibly Jonathan. There’s very little I read for the plot so it’s not my area of expertise. Where I do read authors for the plot it tends to be people like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Graham Greene, who are masters of pacing and structure.

    I’ve heard more than one comment that the Girl with series is bloated and in need of extensive editing. I don’t plan to read them.

    Where I was going with efficiently against badly written is that a novel can be plot driven and have stripped back and efficient writing that doesn’t distract from that plot. That’s very different to a flabby novel which has a plot but little else. Efficient writing isn’t bad writing, it’s appropriate writing. Elmore Leonard springs to mind as an example.

    On going too easy on plot driven novels, I think that’s because few of us want to say to people that they’re reading shit – which often they are. Many people don’t read because they enjoy reading and enjoy literature, they read because they’re on a beach or plane ride with little else to do and need something to while away the time.

    Books aimed at those who only read a book or two a year (“if you read one book this year, read this!”) don’t need to be well written. The audience they’re going for is too indiscriminate. It’s like film, if your intended audience only go to the cinema for something to do on a Saturday night, you really don’t need to try too hard. If however they enjoy cinema as an art form and actively seek it out, well, the Saturday night blockbuster may leave them a little unmoved.

  16. Max, I would say your comment “evocation of period is the essence of historical fiction” is generally correct. The best historical fiction does more than evoke a period, but illuminates it in some way that also evokes universal themes and helps to illuminate our present, perhaps by suggesting how something we take for granted came to be, by contrasting something we take for granted with a past in which the assumptions were quite different, or perhaps (like some Sci-Fi) by offering a story analogous to the present in some important ways – some of Saylor’s excellent Roman mysteries suggested parallels with the Bush Administration years. To truly evoke a period well, it’s necessary, I think, to get deep inside at least the major characters. To stereotype the people of the past is to fail in authentically evoking the past.

    Some of the historical fiction that I think most closely resembles other types of genre fiction is actually very sloppy in its evocation of the period. Much historical romance (not all) uses a quasi-historical setting that does not authentically evoke the manners, mores or customs of the period in which it is supposedly set, but uses a dreamlike “past” for its opulent costuming and displays of wealth (or perhaps its “barbarity”) while portraying characters who think and act in pretty contemporary ways – and often portraying many of the physical details of the past setting incorrectly. But the criterion for success of a romance novel is whether it evokes the feelings of romantic love and/or lust in the reader – fancy costumes or a “barbaric” lover may serve the purpose quite well, whereas authentically evoking a past era would often be counter-productive.

    WhisperingGums’s book group member’s comment about Philippa Gregory’s books belonging in the “historical fiction genre” because plot is the focus and the characters are one-dimensional is a major reason I resist classifying historical fiction as a genre. One wouldn’t classify contemporary fiction as a genre after reading a contemporary novel or two that focused on plot and had stereotyped characters!

  17. LOL People are shocked when I say I don’t plan to read them. But, everyone’s reading them, they say. Well not this everyone, I want to reply. However, I demur instead and just say that I’m sure I’d enjoy them, but I have other books I REALLY want to read! I gave one to my husband for Christmas; he’s not a huge reader but likes to read “decent” books with a good story. He enjoyed it well enough but is not rushing out to read more. He’d rather a good Jane Austen any time.

    BTW Max, I take your point about sci fi tending to be about ideas. I was clearly a bit too offhand with my plot statement!

  18. What does make me weep sometimes is people who’ll read terrible books in search of a good story.

    The truth is there are plenty of well written books with great stories. You don’t have to abandon good writing just because you feel like something relaxing and unchallenging for a bit.

  19. Margaret,

    You got stuck in my spamfilter, apologies for that. I’ve now released you (well, your post more precisely).

    And thank you for such an illuminating post. That’s fascinating and makes a great deal of sense.

    Now, I must see if you’ve covered any Alfred Duggan on your site…

  20. I agree with what you say about the best historical fiction evoking its period and conveying some universal theme to illuminate the present. But I’m not sure that I fully understand (yet, at least) your point about historical fiction not being a genre.

    I should add that my bookgroup member’s comment was not that focus on plot and one-dimensional characters *make* a work historical fiction but that these things are typical of what she would call “historical fiction lite”. I think she would argue that those two things would be typical of other “lite” forms of genre, the forms that Max would probably describe as moribund, or stuck in their conventions. Does this make any sense?

  21. I do think of historical fiction as a genre WG, so I’ll leave this one to Margaret who’s better informed on historical novels (however one may categorise them).

    The term genre is sometimes seen as pejorative, which may be an issue. I don’t see it that way myself. Rather I tend to find it a (generally) useful shorthand to a body of fiction which shares common themes or concerns.

  22. marco

    To paraphrase Jonathan, I think there is great work done in almost every genre, but you REALLY do have to look for it.
    Look at these two short pieces – one from a very young author, the other from a recognized master:

    They share an approach to the fantastical which is diametrically opposed to the algorithm fantasy you mention. Yet they end up marketed as fantasy just as the umpteenth rehashing of Tolkien.
    I could probably mention at least a dozen of original and interesting authors on my radar who write “fantasy” in this wider sense. Maybe not much when compared to the sprawling mass of by-the-numbers fantasy epics, but enough to influence new generation of authors.
    Same probably goes for horror.
    Popularity and innovation tend to follow an inverse relationship, but genres constantly ebb and flow.
    They only die out when society evolves past the need for that particular kind of narration, when their concerns become obsolete.
    Western is a dying genre because the world it describes doesn’t exist anymore. The same goes for allegorical epic poems like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. It has nothing to do with quality. In every era the formulaic and uninspired works vastly outnumber the original ones.

  23. A lot of people do think of “genre” as a pejorative term, which is one of the two reasons I prefer not to label historical fiction as a genre.

    One good reason to think of it as a genre is because a lot of people specifically seek out historical fiction when looking for something new to read, so that classifying historical fiction separately in a library or bookstore could be helpful for many readers.

    The main reason I don’t like to think of it as a genre is that the style and content of historical novels varies so much. For example, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is hugely successful, a well-crafted romantic novel that includes a limited fantasy element and has won a devoted following of readers. In some ways, one might compare it with the Twilight series (which I must admit I haven’t read), a contemporary novel which is also romantic and incorporates fantasy within an otherwise realistic setting, but is contemporary fiction. I would say that Twilight and Outlander are much more similar to each other than either is to Wolf Hall and, say, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a political novel loosely based on the story of Huey Long which was contemporary at the time it was written, or the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner, Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent. People don’t seem to be writing really meaty political novels lately, or I would try to come up with a more current example.

    The distinction between genre novels and non-genre novels really is not between popular but poorly written novels and novels of literary quality. For example, Sci-Fi is clearly a genre, which includes both. Critics sometimes talk about novels which transcend their genre, but those that do are still identifiably of their genre. So because novels in any particular genre usually have a lot more in common than novels in the “historical fiction genre” do, it may be quite misleading in some ways to call historical fiction a genre (even if useful in other ways).

  24. marco

    For example, Sci-Fi is clearly a genre,

    Well, actually everything you say about historical fiction holds also true for sci-fi, at least potentially.
    For example, McMaster Bujold’s novels are Regency in space. There are subgenres, approaches and interests so different that in some cases between them there’s almost no comunication or interbreeding.

  25. I didn’t know M John Harrison had a blog, though there’s no reason he shouldn’t have. Thanks for that link in particular Marco, he’s a writer I adore.

    That said, sure there are odd examples here and there but the genre in the main is pretty rigid. When a genre is vibrant, you don’t need to be a hardcore fan with time and dedication to track stuff down to find the good material – it’s right there.

    Take crime. Crime is still vibrant. Yes, the bookshelves are full of derivative and dull stuff, but there are interesting and challenging crime novels being reviewed and promoted actively all the time. By contrast, the interesting and challenging SF and fantasy requires real knowledge to locate.

    That to me is not the sign of a healthy genre. I’m not saying it’s all crap, that would be absurd, but I think the genre as a whole is pretty much flatlining with a handful of authors here and there still producing decent work – which hardly anyone gets to see.

    I would see a good argument in distinguishing between fat fantasy and the non-commercial stuff, but the non-commercial stuff is dwarfed by the series.

    Genres never wholly die, Steve is right on that. Post apocalypse is still with us. But would you really argue that fantasy literature today is as vibrant and diverse as in say the 1970s?

    Generally, thanks all for the rebutting examples of great books. I’ll follow them up.

  26. I’d call the Regency-in-space novels genre cross-overs. It’s a current trend – supernatural romance, for example, is a very hot cross-over genre right now. But usually one genre dominates. I haven’t read the Regency-in-space novels, but I would suspect the romance element dominates, and that these are read primarily by romance fans who enjoyed the Star Wars movies, not by hard-core Sci-Fi fans.

    One could certainly argue that the many genres within the historical fiction category are cross-over combinations of the historical fiction genre and whatever other genre is involved. But with historical fiction, it seems generally true to me that the other genre dominates, unless the other “genre” is mainstream fiction. There are historical fantasy novels – an example would be Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, in which the fantasy element is much, much stronger than the historical. There are historical mysteries, which include the full range of mystery sub-genres, from the cozy to the humorous (Irene Fleming’s The Edge of Ruin, about the fledgling movie industry in 1909, is hilarious) to the the police procedural (in time periods when police existed – Susanne Alleyn’s The Chevalier of the Apocalypse, set just before the French Revolution, is a good example), thrillers, etc.

    And then, a weird thing about historical novels is the way novels that were contemporary at the time they were written tend to get categorized as historical novels by readers in later years – personally, I would not categorize these as historical novels, but the difference can be subtle at times, and many readers would feel the distinction is academic and unnecessary. Jane Austen lovers typically refer to her novels as historical fiction, and I’ve heard people talk about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (which he personally researched during the Great Depression) as historical fiction. I guess I would ask – if so many readers can’t tell the difference between a historical novel and a contemporary novel written before they were born, how can these novels be clearly distinguished as a genre?

  27. LOL I do agree with you on one thing, Margaret, and that is that novels from the past but written about their own present are NOT historical fiction. Maybe general Jane Austen fans may see her books as historical fiction but that would not be typical of those who are “serious” readers of her.

    I can see that there is some validity to the idea that the distinction, with the passing of time, is academic, and yet I would argue that there is a different impetus behind a novel written about its time and that written about a past time. Austen is often criticised for NOT covering the “history” of her era. She assumed her readers know why Captain Wentworth, for example, was at sea; that they know the rules of entailment; that they understand the social nuances of a ball, etc. I believe, though haven’t really read them so I’m drawing a long bow perhaps, that Regency novels, for example, make a big thing of their setting/era and are careful to describe it?

    Does that make sense? In the end, I don’t think we are talking absolutes. Any sophisticated reader knows that there are shades of grey in any “categorising” we do, but that doesn’t mean, I think, that categorising has no value. It can be a useful “shortcut” to analysis and discussion.

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  29. I seem to be a bit late to the party, but thanks to Max for a thought-provoking post and to all concerned for the fascinating discussion.

    I particularly liked your distinction, Max, between efficient and bad writing. I have read some Dan Brown, and regret to say that it most certainly does fall into the latter category. The conviction that he followed a crib sheet ‘insert meaningless metaphor here’ gives no sense of efficiency. Efficient would be, for example, John Christopher, Death of Grass. The prose style gave no particular pleasure, but neither does it irritate, and overall conveys an uncompromising and valuable point, which certainly caused me to rate the book highly.

    I think this ties in with the discussion at Kerry’s about negative reviews. I try to avoid giving negative reviews, and one reason would be that, as someone who is not largely conversant with genre, it would be easy to miss the categorisation and thus point of a genre novel, leading to an overly critical review which tells more about the understanding of the reviewer than the book.

  30. I dropped here by chance and it happens to be 5min after I posted something about “beach and transportation” books, by which I mean books people read while travelling and in noisy environment.
    Max, I share your view on the distinction between bad and efficient writing.
    I really appreciate Proust’s prose or Jane Austen’s books. I just can’t read Proust in a train. When I just want to be distracted, I try to find a book with a good story and possibly an acceptable style.
    I have read both Dan Brown and the Twilight series. I read Dan Brown in French, the style is more than poor, it’s a desert and I didn’t even like the story. As far as Twilight is concerned, I read it in English, I don’t think I could have stand to read it in French. But I liked it anyway, I spent a nice time. No one will read them in 50 years I suppose, but these writers don’t pretend to be the new Balzac.

  31. I tend to read crime for that, or pulp fiction. I used to read a lot of SF for that purpose too.

    I’ll pop by yours tomorrow and comment there, pulp adventure and pulp crime is my equivalent of beach and transportation, I’m interested in your thoughts on the topic.

  32. When Stephen Baxter (whose Evolution and Time I read three or four years ago and loved) “abandons plot” to bring out an idea, isn’t that bad structuring? Isn’t seamless integration of disparate elements a part of good writing? While I would probably still enjoy the book, I would consider the plot-abandoning a negative point anyway, because it pulls you out of a direct relationship with the text, which is — at least for me — a problem with genre writing.
    Just because it’s not about characters doesn’t mean that the characterisation is allowed to be actively bad; sketchy, yes, but too much genre stuff — books as well as movies — provide us with things like characterial about-turns and senseless motivations, which is what critics may really be railing at when they criticise a book “for the wrong thing.”
    It’s not that they don’t get the point — surely, some don’t, but they are immediately recognisable — but that they felt this or that distracting in their experience of the book.

  33. Forgot to mention: your post was very illuminating. Thanks.
    It’s a problem with most book-blogs I see that they are too mired in just reviewing books that are “current” (mostly among brother book-blogs) rather than giving us posts of more general interest like this one, so it’s very nice to see this.

  34. Time is one of his best in my view. I think it depends how plot is abandoned.

    In Neuromancer the plot stops briefly while Case sees a TV show explaining how cyberspace works then resumes when Case turns the TV off on the basis he already knows all that. It’s a famously bad sequence in a generally good book. The need to explain suddenly intrudes, breaking into visibility.

    In some of Baxter’s work the characters cease at times to be agents and simply become observers as amazing things occur. It becomes like the end of 2001, a mere matter of observing wonders. That I think is different, because the wonders are the point and the plot was only ever a vehicle to take us to them.

    I agree characterisation shouldn’t be actively bad, but it can be sketchy. SF characters are often pretty broad brush which I think is fine, I don’t think the genre needs nuanced psychology generally.

    Returning to Baxter that’s often where he sits. Broadly sketched characters that lack depth but that aren’t bad as such, they’re just thin. That’s fine for what he’s doing. Appropriate even.

    Sometimes though he reuses characters novel to novel, changing the name but keeping them otherwise the same and that’s lazy and if you read more than one of his works distracting. I’ve lost track of the number of ruthless old women who’ll sacrifice everything to achieve their multi-generational goal for example. And Malenfant was just plain bad (even the name is bad). Those are fair criticisms.

    Where I think the point gets missed is where critics talk just about the characterisation and the writing, but fail to engage with the ideas. If a critic reviews a new Baxter and tells me that the characters are thin and the prose workmanlike that tells me something, but nothing really important. I don’t read Baxter for those things. They shouldn’t be bad, absolutely, but nor do they really need to be that good.

    My blog is rarely current I fear. My preference for paperbacks alone makes it hard to stay current. Besides, I don’t generally care who wins prizes, my interest in them is only when they introduce me to authors I hadn’t otherwise heard of.

  35. True, your blog is the least “current” among all I’ve seen (maybe I should have mentioned that last comment), but this question bugs me: why so few general essays? A majority of the well-connected (with a good commenter-base) movie blogs I follow subsist solely on general essays and in-depth essays about old movies.
    The one blog that has general posts — — has very few commenters from any book blog crowds.

    Have you read Evolution? In my memory, it is significantly better than Time.

    And about Time , I admittedly read it before I’d really developed a taste for what I read nowadays, but I remember Malenfant as an engrossing character with a refreshing zest for life.
    In fact, come to think of it, he’s the only character I remember in a positive light. (He and, of course, the squid.) The mathematician seems (in memory) too cocksure, the wife too weak, and the soldier-woman too obviously a plot device (last one felt like that even then).
    Of course, it’s all salvaged by their being in a book where one of the women takes off her spacesuit glove — among warnings that her body will explode due to the internal pressure — and feels the sand of earth’s second satellite.

    If a critic reviewing a Baxter tells me that the prose is thin and the characters uninteresting, I’m going to mentally blacklist him/her (I already have a little list based on what I’ve come across).

    While we’re on sf, can I recommend from my limited experience of the genre the book Anthropology through Science Fiction? Those are thee some of the best short stories I’ve ever read from the English-speaking world (most American, French and Brit short story writers strike me as trying too hard, the only non-sf writers I’ve developed significant respect for are the Russians, Borges, and the vernacular Indians). (Personally, I find recommendations odd but I can’t resist recommending to someone more knowledgeable than I am.)

  36. In my case there aren’t many essays because the concept of the blog was to write up every book I read (whether I liked it or not).

    Occasionally another topic strikes me, but it’s just not my focus. I think for a lot of bloggers their blogs (and those of others) are a chance to talk about books that have excited them, hence a lack of general topics.

    I have written about my thoughts on publishing a few times, but there’s others far better informed. Genre can be a sterile debate, it interests me but I’m not sure it really should.

    That said, there may be posts in a bit on writers’ guidelines (like the Leonard or the Knox ones) because I find them amusing or on Central European fiction as a more general topic. It depends rather on my free time.

    I haven’t read evolution, better than Time huh? Time wasn’t bad, but for me Space was the best of the Manifold thematic trilogy. Wonderful treatment of the Fermi paradox. The thing with Malenfant is that he’s in all three books, and he gets wearisome (or did for me anyway) when that exposed.

    Baxter of course is one of the best SF authors out there. Have you read any Reynolds?

    I’ll check out the anthology, I don’t know it. Have you tried much full length French literature? There really is some amazing stuff at the nineteenth century end. Also, have you tried authors such as Alisdair Gray or Haruki Murakami?

  37. Unfortunately, the only sf writers I’ve read full novels by are Asimov (Nightfall), Clarke (Childhood’s End) and Baxter. Reynolds may have written a short story I’ve read, but I have massive problems remembering the names of all the writers in an anthology.

    About full-length French lit, I’ve tried Sartre and Camus, and didn’t enjoy what I read, but loved The Three Musketeers, which I still count as one of the best action novels I’ve read.
    I am of course going to read Hugo and Denon sometime in my life, but meanwhile Guy de Maupassant has failed me in nine stories out of ten (literally). (I shouldn’t have put French on the list, now that I think about it. A stupid mistake on my part.)

    Both Gray and Murakami have been on my to-try list for a while, but I haven’t read either yet.

  38. Great post! Haven’t read that many novels lately, but I agree with your conclusions about the ebb and flow of genre fiction. That seems to be the case in the Philippine book scene. Romance pocketbooks has always been the King when it comes to readership while more literary stuff are relegated to the margins. Local crime fiction hasn’t really developed here and recent attempts to start the genre haven’t really picked up. Fantasy and science fiction never made it too, except in comics from the latter half of the past Century. But that has since waned in popularity. Now queer lit and chick-lit is the in-thing here. I wonder how long it lasts. 🙂

  39. Hi Karlo,

    Interesting post, it’s funny how genres vary country to country. Detective fiction existed in China for example a long time before it did in the West, but usually involved supernatural themes which for the Western genre is one of the few absolute no-gos.

    Have you read any of the Queer lit? Is any of that interesting?

  40. Hello. I haven’t read any Queer lit. But the ones I saw in both commercial bookshops and university presses either celebrated queerness and all that or essentially portrayed the problems, mostly relating to everyday life and so on, facing their community. I’m not interested in it. 🙂

  41. Fair enough. To be honest, if it’s really good it’ll escape that section of the shop eventually. Alan Hollinghurst for example is just filed with all the other literary fiction, but there’s no doubt his novels address gay issues and concerns.

    Ultimately, to be of interest beyond the specific community it’s aimed at it has to say something that people will recognise even if their lives bear no resemblance to those of the characters. That’s true of most genres come to think of it.

  42. I’ve been reading some genre stuff recently, because I ordered Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, who’s very famous for his genre-related theme, and I wanted some grasp at least of the genres in that book, crime, sf and fantasy.
    Crime: I’m halfway through The Maltese Falcon, and it’s brilliant.
    Fantasy: I’m reading a book called The Little Country by Charles de Lint, because I have no idea what non-mythological fantasy with themes (therefore excluding Harry Potter) is like.
    SF: This is the main reason I came over here. I read a few stories at, and all of them are… stories that encapsulate a lecture. And all of them get such glowing comments. Is that an example of what you are talking about when you say it looks into itself? I mean, these guys seem to have forgotten that the fiction ought to play a role, and, they are praised for it. Really disturbing, if this trend exists outside Thanks.

  43. The Maltese Falcon is spectacular. Beautifully written too.

    I’ve not read de Lint, though I’ve heard little but praise for him. At the Guardian books section there’s a blog series called Alison Flood’s World of Fantasy (the title is a bit of satire by other Guardian staff who’re not keen on fantasy fiction apparently) in which Alison Flood reads her way through a number of major fantasy works. It’s well worth looking out for as she really is going for the classics, and not always the best known classics either.

    On the SF front, you may not like Greg Egan then (though you should try him as he can be very good). Which SF authors are you into? Have you read any Alistair Reynolds for example?

  44. Yes I finished Maltese Falcon. Loved the “twist” in the end.

    de Lint is good, but his style is too much like an upgradation of a thriller writer: he’s following the same structure: everyone’s head is fair play, every memory of the head can be exposed, even if it doesn’t make any sense that the character should think of that then.

    About the SF, I think what disturbed me more than the lecture thing was the comments. They all talked as if the stories were great fiction. With hindsight, I cans see that the stories weren’t all that bad, just my reaction to the comments was.
    I liked another couple later: and .
    I read another good story, by the guy who wrote the Metamorphosis riff, and I was surprised to find that people were saying that they didn’t want sociological examination but technological details.

    What I’m saying is: what I was disturbed by wasn’t the stories themselves but the culture that seemed to surround them.

    As for SF authors, I’ve read mostly short stories, and don;t remember the names of writers. This collection is a favourite (I like all the stories), though and I’m sure Reynolds features in it.
    Anyway, memorable writers include Asimov, Baxter, Clarke, woman called Sheri S Tepper (I’m halfway trough a book called Grass right now), Fredric Brown and Borges.

  45. If I have one tip Ronak for sites where the public generally comment, it’s never read the comments. I don’t use the Tor site, but I have friends who do and they’ve not spoken kindly of the comments section.

    You probably would like Reynolds looking at that list. Tepper is well known, I’ve not read her myself but Grass is certainly well regarded. Octavia Butler might be worth checking out if you enjoy Tepper, though not having read Tepper I could be wholly off base there.

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