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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The grey area of Speculative Fiction genres and sub-genres

When I first thought about starting a book review blog I put together a guide to the prominent Speculative Fiction sub-genres. I have since edited it somewhat and posted it here. My intention was (and still is) to identify the genre and sub-genre of each book that I review. I have written a number of novice reviews on Goodreads but haven’t previously tried to label books in this way, so unsurprisingly I was sand-bagged on only my third review on the blog (now posted here). Fortunately it isn’t just me who struggles.

I was inspired to think more on sub-genres a few weeks ago while listening to this episode of the SF Signal podcast. While the SF Signal crew pointed out most of the recognisable categories they emphasised the very blurry boundaries that separate sub-genres.

Enter Lou Anders (Editor at Pyr, involved in numerous anthologies and other projects, including the recent Swords and Dark Magic) who falls into the category of ‘someone who should know.’ In this recent episode of Adventures in SciFi Publishing Lou described sub-genre labels as “nebulous, nebulous terms.” Further, since these terms are vague, “you shouldn’t split hairs too finely in any sub-genre arguments, they’re just bookstore categories.”

Lou’s position isn’t controversial. It's fairly representative of the feelings of industry professionals. In a discussion over at Babel Clash, Jeremy Lassen (Editor at Nightshade Books, involved in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), another ‘someone who should know,’ wrote “The marketing categories that books are shelved in, and the kinds of sub-genre tags we apply to books exist for one purpose, from my point of view as an editor and publisher.  They exist to help readers find the books that they will be pre-disposed to like.” Jeremy went on to describe sub-genre labels as “a bit arbitrary.”

So why am I bothering? Ultimately my aim in reviewing books will be to direct readers to stories they will enjoy (when some people actually read my blog), as is the aim of bookstores when they shelve books in different sections of the store. However, I’m hoping my labels will be a bit more informative than the broad category of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’ that is as far as most Australian book sellers take things.

Finally, I wonder how authors feel about the categories that get applied to their work. Some very clearly embrace it. I’m sure Cherie Priest loves being identified as a producer of Steampunk. Brandon Sanderson happily describes his work as Epic Fantasy. China MiĆ©ville calls his writing whatever the hell he wants (he describes The City and the City as ‘noird’ – don’t worry, there’s context). I have to imagine that there are some writers who don’t like having their work pigeon-holed, and others who deliberately combine elements of sub-genres (and tropes from outside the Speculative genres) in order to defy convention and create very original stories.

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