On the tyranny of genre – So, today’s topic is something that I have thought about off and on for a while now. It comes up very occasionally in conversation, and whenever it does, I tell myself that I will put my thoughts down in writing, but then I never get around to it. Well, this is me getting around to it. (Tangent #1: When I was young, my dad had a wooden disc with the letters “TUIT” printed on it. He kept this for whenever someone said they hadn’t done something because they hadn’t “gotten around to it.” My dad may not have invented dad jokes, but he was a master of the form.) Much like my previous entry, this turned out to be far longer and far more meandering than I originally thought it would be. It is, at least, an attempt to deal with the topic, and put some thoughts down on (digital) paper.
The first time I remember this topic coming up in recent years was when I was talking with the author of a book I translated about a year ago (but which isn’t out yet—thanks, COVID!). He was complaining that his books, which consist of meditative poetry and life lessons, would often get shelved under “self help,” which was not really what they were about, or at least didn’t capture the whole picture. Booksellers didn’t know how to categorize his books, so many people who might have been interested in them probably ended up not seeing them. I mentioned this idea of the “tyranny of genre,” and he stabbed the air with his finger and said, “Yes! That’s exactly it! I am a victim of the tyranny of genre!”
More recently, I wrote a short review of a novel that draws heavily on historical sources, and in fact contains over three hundred citations of accounts by people who had actually experienced what the book was about. So it’s a novel, but the history that it presents to the reader is drawn directly from eyewitness accounts. The translators wrote in the afterward about the difficulties they had in publishing the book. They went to a mainstream publisher, but that publisher told them it was more of an historical text than a novel and that they should seek an academic publisher. They thought this was a great idea, but when they went to an academic publisher they were told that it was fiction and didn’t qualify as an historical text. The tyranny of genre strikes again! (Thankfully, they did eventually find a publisher who was able to see past all of that.)
Finally, and most recently, I was talking to my brother B about his music, and he expressed his dissatisfaction with having to conform to genre norms rather than just creating the music that he wanted to create. All three of these conversations revolve around genre expectations and what happens when artistic works don’t meet those expectations, or fail to find a place in the constellation of genres.
It might be obvious to most people reading this, but it’s worth starting this by asking what a “genre” is anyway. The word comes from the French and means “kind” or “type”; it is generally (that’s another word that comes from the same root) associated with works of art, whether they be literature or music or visual art, although it can obviously be used in other contexts as well. It also crops up in the word “generic,” which most people understand to mean “plain” or “ordinary,” but which more specifically means that something has the characteristics associated with things of a certain genre (as well as usually not having the characteristics that aren’t).
This entry is ostensibly about the tyranny of genre—that is, the downsides of it—but if genre weren’t a useful tool we wouldn’t have it in the first place. On the most basic level, genre allows for the categorizing and classifying of things, thus allowing us to organize a large number of items into a system that makes sense. But the most useful function of genres is what they can tell us about the items that belong to them. For example, if you know that a film is in the “romantic comedy” genre, you can expect to see certain elements. There will generally be two people who will end up in love and/or living happily ever after by the end of the film; they will initially get together or at least be attracted to each other, but some conflict will (temporarily) tear them apart; said conflict may be a misunderstanding on the part of one or both main characters, or it might be the result of poor decisions made by one or both characters; one or both of the main characters will have wise and caring friends who help them along the way; and there will also often be characters who conspire to keep the two main characters apart, etc. Not all romantic comedies will adhere to every convention of the genre, but they will adhere to enough of them to be familiar—that is, after all, why we put them in the genre in the first place.
Not only will not all works in a genre conform to every convention in that genre, but some works will deliberately defy well-known genre conventions. What if the main characters in a romantic comedy don’t end up with each other after all? What if they find their respective happily-ever-afters, but those futures are with someone else? I can think of a relatively recent romantic comedy that does this (I won’t say which, because obviously it’s a spoiler, but if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about), and it makes the ending of the film very poignant, flipping the very idea of a rom-com on its head. Or what about the fantasy convention (actually, it’s a convention in a lot of genres) of heroes having very thick “plot armor,” meaning that they rarely die despite often being in situations that would normally result in death? I’m sure you can think of a recent television series that bucked this convention and took almost sadistic pleasure in killing off its heroes (until they started running out of heroes, of course). If done properly, defying a genre convention can have a very powerful impact; if done poorly, though, it may just be jarring or confusing. But it’s not just about the impact that a work of art might have; flouting genre conventions can also call into question the things that we take for granted as “just the way things are,” and in doing so perhaps inspire people to question if things really should be that way after all, and if there isn’t a better way. It’s not always going to be so profound, but sometimes it can be.
(Tangent #2! One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even when it’s done well and for the right reasons, there will always be people who don’t like the “twist.” It might be because they don’t like being taken out of their comfort zone. It might be because they simply see the genre in a different way than the creator; they may fully “get” the intentions of the author, they just may not agree. That doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, or uncultured, or reactionary. Unfortunately, online discourse these days between people who have different opinions about how certain genres should be handled often lacks in attempts at mutual understanding, let alone civility.)
That tangent aside, there will also be people who rail against a broken convention because they have fallen under the tyranny of genre. I gave three examples of this tyranny above, so you probably already have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about, but it can manifest itself in a number of ways. More specifically, it can be experienced at a number of stages during the life of a creative work. As I was just discussing, consumers of art might not be able to fully enjoy or appreciate a work because they are constrained by expectations associated with a particular genre and cannot see beyond those expectations. Creators themselves may also feel constrained by those conventions and end up creating something too... well, generic. And the tyranny of genre may haunt the path a work takes from creator to consumer as well. In fact, two of the examples I gave at the beginning of today’s entry are of this last variety, namely publishers or booksellers not knowing what to do with a book because it doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre. This last type of tyranny is actually an extension of the tyranny experienced by consumers of art, as it is the job of the middlemen to get as many consumers as possible to buy the art. They thus have to make assumptions about how the largest number of consumers understand and perceive genre, which means that if most consumers are constrained by genre conventions, the middlemen will be too.
The reason this tyranny exists in the first place is pretty simple. Genres tend to be fairly distinct categories, but in the real world, things often do not fit perfectly into neat little boxes. Ideal examples of a genre—that is, those works that conform to most if not all of that genre’s conventions—are fairly easy to identify and categorize. It is the edge cases that give us problems. I touched on this idea a while back when I spent far too much time discussing the definition of bread (as opposed to something like cake). You may think that the two are very distinct types of food, but you’re probably thinking of “ideal” examples; once we start moving toward the fuzzy edges of these categories, things become less clear. When the conflict between the ideal of a genre and real-life messiness is decided in favor of genre because genre is thought to represent “the way things should be,” we have tyranny. If every work of art were an ideal example of its genre, we wouldn’t have to worry about this. We would also live in a pretty boring world, in my opinion, at least as far as art is concerned, because the works that leave the greatest impression on us are often those that challenge our expectations.
There is one more thing I want to discuss before wrapping this up. It may seem obvious, and I might just be erecting a straw man here, but you might be thinking, “Hang on. If genre is simply a way of classifying and organizing things, isn’t that something that happens after the creative process is complete? That is, aren’t works of art created first, with the genre classification coming later?” Indeed, if that were how the creation of works of art happened, we wouldn’t have to worry about the tyranny of genre from the creative perspective, at least. We’d still have the problem of trying to fit works into their proper genres so that scholars could study them, consumers could appreciate them, and marketers could sell them, but at least the actual creators of the art would be off the hook.
Of course, that is not the way creation works. To go back to the cake/bread metaphor for a moment, last week, over the holiday, I decided to bake an apricot cake. This wasn’t something I got out of a recipe book or off the internet; I just had an idea and so whipped something up on the fly. I started with an emulsion of dairy, egg, and oil, folded in a spiced apricot paste I had made earlier, and then added the dry ingredients to create a thick batter, which I then baked in a cake pan. But let’s take a step back for a moment, to when I had my original idea. I did not say to myself, “Hmm, we have some apricots here, so let me boil these up to make a paste, throw some other ingredients together, and see what I get.” No, I specifically thought, “I want to make a cake.” This is why I made a batter leavened with baking powder that I then poured into a cake pan. Had I instead wanted to make bread (and here I mean the kind of bread you could toast and then slather butter on, not something like what we call “banana bread,” which is really a cake—but I go into that whole mess in the bread/cake entry), I would have kneaded a yeast dough and incorporated my apricots into that. Had I been hankering for a pie or tart, I would have made an unleavened pastry shell to hold the filling. The point here is that I first had to decide what type (that is, genre) of baked good I wanted to make, because that decision would inform how I went about actually making said baked good.
Creating art works the same way. You may set out to write a detective novel, or paint a landscape, or compose a piece of electronic dance music, and that genre is going to inform your creative process. Even if you don’t consciously decide on a particular genre before you begin, you will still be influenced by other works that are “the kind of work” you want to create, and you will—whether you realize it or not—incorporate those influences into your work. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it is a bad thing to set out to create a work of a certain genre and to have a certain set of expectations concerning that genre. In fact, it’s a good thing, and the more you know about that genre the better! If you know the ins and outs of your chosen genre, you can cleave to genre conventions when it suits the purposes of your work and subtly (or not so subtly) subvert them when you want to achieve a certain effect. You will be able to draw on the decades or centuries (or possibly even millennia) of history in that genre, achieving much with a few deft strokes of the brush or sweeps of the pen. A creator who is ignorant of the history and significance of his or her chosen genre will also cleave to some conventions and subvert others, but this will be done unintentionally. And because these decisions are made without proper intention, they are probably not going to have the same impact that informed decisions would. Most likely, the work will end up feeling naive and amateurish, and someone later experiencing that work may wonder why the creator chose to spend so much time reinventing the wheel or ignore the subtle implications of a well-trodden trope.
Genre is thus not merely a convenience, it is a way of situating individual works of art in a larger universe, allowing them to interact with each other across time and space, and elevating each to something greater than the sum of its parts. The key—as with so many things—is to know when to follow the rules and when to break them. Genres allow us to better understand our creative works, and they allow for a synergy between those works such that the deeper we look the more there is to see. They are an extremely useful heuristic, and it is honestly difficult to imagine artistic endeavors without them. But the moment that we become mindless slaves to them, fearing to step outside the bounds that have been set by decades and centuries of tradition, we have placed ourselves under their tyranny. And although we use the phrase “tyranny of genre,” the truth is that it is a self-imposed tyranny; we’ve locked ourselves in a cage to which we hold the key.
The solutions to this problem are neither simple nor easy, and I am not going to try to tackle all of that today. I can think of a couple of starting points, though. The first is greater knowledge of genres; the more you know about a genre and its conventions, and about why those conventions exist in the first place, the better able you will be to make decisions on whether to follow or flout a given convention. The second is to not be afraid to color outside the lines, so to speak. Not every attempt at bending or breaking genre “rules” is going to be successful—after all, those rules probably have pretty good reasons for existing in the first place. But if we just blindly follow them, never questioning why they are in place or if they are in fact the best rules we could have, we’re never going to move forward.
These starting points are mainly aimed at creators, although consumers of art will also benefit from understanding genres better. But these ideas do not even begin to solve the problem with the tyranny of genre among the middlemen—the marketers, the publishers, the sellers. That problem is, I’m afraid, far too tall an order for today’s entry, as the issue in that case is less about genre and more about risk aversion, profit motive, and other things. So I think I’ll leave today’s entry at that and not bite off more than I can chew.