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Imagine If Book Genres Were Like Theatrical Genres

When I think of book genres, I think of things like sci fi, fantasy, mystery, western, romance, and horror; when I think of theatrical genres, I think of things like comedy, tragedy, comedy of manners, musicals, dramas, and histories. The book genres tend to be named after the plot’s focus (magic, something scary, a love story, etc.). With theatrical genres, that doesn’t seem to be enough.

For example, a man and woman fall in love, but her father objects and forbids the marriage. The rest of the story is about the conflicts they encounter in their efforts to be together.

In a book, it would be a romance. In a play? I don’t know. How does it end? If one or more of the couple dies, or they end up parted forever, it’s a tragedy. If they marry and get rich, it’s a comedy. If there’s a lot of witty dialogue and mix-ups that lead to them marrying other people but living happily by having an affair, it’s probably a comedy of manners. If they sing and dance, it’s a musical.

This could go on for a while…

Honestly, theatrical genres are alternately vague and oddly specific. With some, it’s all about the ending. Others are more like book genres, and they’re about the focus of the plot. Yet others are defined by how the play is performed.

Can you imagine if books were like that?

I’m picturing a man going up to the librarian for help finding a book. He doesn’t know the author or the title, but he knows it’s in a magical world with dragons. The librarian frowns and ask, “how does it end?” The man frowns back and says he thinks it ends badly for all involved. The librarian leads him to the left side of the library, saying, “It’s in here somewhere. Don’t look on the right side. That’s the comedy section.”

Yeah, I know. No librarian would have a tragedy section without a fantasy tragedy subsection. But it’s a funny image (or not. My humor’s warped). On a more serious note (and partly due to flashbacks of trying to find plays in the library), maybe, we should be more grateful for fiction genres. As a general rule, they’re much better for browsing than theatrical ones.

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The Battle of the Genres

Some people get really intense about genre definitions and what genre a specific story is. I’ve heard several extremely impassioned arguments, including one about whether or not Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy (Google it, and you’ll see that my friends weren’t the only ones).

As they were arguing, I realized that there was a big problem: they had different definitions of the genre. One was using the literary definition, and the other, the common one. Unfortunately, the two definitions are not exactly the same. For example, a lot of the general public consider science fiction something with aliens, space travel, and/or fancy gadgets. For the literary community, on the other hand, sci fi is all about the technology (plot-wise), and the technology has to be “feasible” in the future.

How could they possibly agree on the genre of anything unless it does all of that?

It doesn’t help that definitions aren’t static either. As writing changes, so do the genres. Subgenres get added, and there are all kinds of mixed genre works now: romance has varieties in all the other genres, there are sci fi western, fantasy detective stories, and more. How on Earth are we supposed to narrow those books down to one genre?

And I hate to say it, but does it even matter?

As far as I can see, genres 1. help you find books at the library or bookstore and 2. help the publishers market to the right audience. If a publisher thinks that science fiction readers are going to like a book, they’re not going to let a few magical elements keep them from putting it in the sci fi section. Heck, I’ve been to bookstores where the same book is on display in 3 sections (not including new releases, large print, clearance, or hardbacks).

That’s why there doesn’t seem much point in arguing about genres – unless you like to, of course. In that case, you’re welcome to use any of these points as additional ammo for your next debate.

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Why Critique Why People Read? What’s Wrong with Escapism?

Why we read is a big part of determining what we read. If you read to escape your everyday life, then you probably don’t want to read something that reminds you of that life. You want to read something different. If your life is dull, you want excitement. If it’s frightening and stressful, you want fun and light-hearted. You want to imagine having what you don’t have and being what you’re not.

Like magic.

Since “fantasy” means 1. a fanciful mental image that someone thinks of repeatedly or 2. an idea with no basis in reality, it makes sense that the fantasy genre and escapism often go hand in hand.

I can’t think of a person I know who likes the Harry Potter series who wouldn’t love to get a letter from Hogwarts, pick out a wand, and fly on a broom. Even after the series got darker, the appeal of having that power was still strong. Having magic, showing courage, finding riches, being the “chosen one” who can save the world: these are fantasies that we get to enjoy as we read.

Yet people disdain escapism. For years, authors have faced literary critics who nitpick at the escapist nature of the books – with famous results.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
— J.R.R. Tolkien

That seems pretty hard to argue with, yet literary critics continue to try. This baffles me since most popular fiction tends to be escapist – it’s read for pleasure, not to experience some high literary standard.

Maybe, that’s the real issue, and this attitude is mere literary pretension hiding behind higher ideals. It makes me wonder what critics read… and why.

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Life & Fantasy: A Quote from Dr. Seuss

"Fantasy is a necessary  ingredient in living,  it's a way of  looking at life  through the wrong end  of a telescope.  Which is what I do,  and that enables  you to laugh  at life's realities."   -- Dr. Seuss

Laugh on.