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.