Genre Chaos

This past week saw yet another group of reviewers post their “best books of the year” listings, and there will be more yet to come. In times to come in Locus, at least four or five respected gurus will list their choices. Why, if an author can’t get something somewhere into something labeled as best, he or she obviously hasn’t been trying hard enough.

But what constitutes “the best?” According to my outdated Funk & Wagnall’s, “best” means “of the highest quality.” This doesn’t help much, because also according to that same dictionary, “quality” is defined as “the degree of excellence,” and “excellence,” in turn is defined as of “superior quality.” When you get a definitional circular argument in meaning such as this, it’s a fairly good indication of subjectivity. “Excellence” or “quality” falls into that category that might be described as, “I can’t really quantify or objectively explain why this is good, but by [the appropriate deity] I know excellence when I see it.”

Compared to what? To other books just like it? To all fiction? To a selected body of work based on the subjective criteria of the reviewer?

As all too many readers of speculative fiction know, a number of writers of “mainstream” fiction, or thrillers, or romances, or mysteries have adopted SF themes in their work, the majority, sadly to say, often badly, if not totally ineptly. The critique has often been that, first, yes, they were writing science fiction and, second, they did it badly. The real critique should have been more direct — they wrote bad books.

This basic issue of quality has been obscured by the “dictates of the marketplace” and aided and abetted by the growth of the book chain superstores [yes, yet another great sin laid at the feet of the evil empires of book marketing]. In their zeal to sell as many books as possible as easily as possible, clearly in competition with the comparative mindlessness of broadcast/satellite/multimedia entertainment, the publishers and the book chains have broken fiction into genres and sub-genres, and sub-sub genres. We have whole sections of bookstores devoted to media-spin-off-teenage vampire series or Star Trek spin-offs, or… the list is long and getting longer.

Yet for all this splintering of fiction into genres or sub-genres — perhaps better identified as niche marketing opportunities that require less thought and consideration by would-be readers — what we’re seeing is a lower and lower percentage of the population remaining as serious readers. One explanation for this is that reading is “merely” entertainment, and with the proliferation of other venues of entertainment — video and online gaming, satellite and cable television, multiplex theatres, DVDs, year-round broadcast sports, etc. — the proportion of readers is bound to decline. I certainly can’t argue with that, because it’s exactly what’s appeared to have occurred.

When I was growing up, back in the dark ages when television meant three network channels and one independent local TV station, reading was effectively subdivided into non-fiction, fiction, and magazines and comics. Comics were for kids, and reading only magazines suggested a certain lack of intellectual perseverance, which may have been why there were book clubs where people really read the books and discussed them. And… more people of all ages used to read books.

All the multiplicity of fiction genres, and their accompanying awards, to my way of thinking, puts more and more emphasis on following genre or sub-genre rules than on writing a good, intriguing, entertaining, well-written, and logically internally consistent work. Yet, every time I look around, it seems as though there’s another set of awards, based on another media offshoot, or another genre or sub-genre. As all these awards have proliferated, and as the book marketing empires segregate books, often quite artificially, a smaller and smaller percentage of the general population reads. Amid all the genre-chaos and confusion, a few handfuls of authors succeed in establishing themselves as “brands,” which is one of the few ways in which a writer can transcend the limitations of genre-niche-marketing taken to extremes. Others work on media or gaming tie-ins. The rest… well, the numbers are showing there are more and more writers being published, and most of them are selling fewer copies of individual titles than their predecessors of a generation earlier. Yet the multiplicity of awards continues to proliferate.

But, no matter, if I get an award for the best novel dealing with alternate history of an established fantasy series universe [if it’s my own universe, anyway], based on the greatest logical constructions of fantasy improbabilities, I’ll take it… graciously and gratefully, and my publicist will probably find a way to get it on the cover of my books after that.