I think that way that we, as booksellers and publishers and reviewers and readers, use the descriptive labels we have to define “genre” is wrong. What we commonly consider to be major genres, aren’t.
Simply put, there are two kinds of genres: one set describes an aspect of the plot or characters; the other set are much broader terms that should be used as adjectives. They can be used together, but using the umbrella terms alone doesn’t give enough description to accurately place the story within the context of surrounding literature.
The major umbrella terms, which I’m calling metagenres for the purposes of this discussion (because they don’t describe a genre as much as they describe a class of stories, or settings, which also have other genre lables) are Fantasy, Science Fiction, Westerns, Literary Fiction, Alt-History, Historical, Horror, and Weird. There are probably others but these are very common. If you think about it, none of those labels actually describes a story enough to tell you what it’s about. All a story has to have to be Science Fiction is an element of fictional science. Fantasy requires some kind of magical element, a Western is set in the American old West, Horror is meant to be scary, and a Weird story has a strange or occult element, meant to disturb the reader in some fashion. Literary fiction is fiction without a speculative element. Historical takes place in the past, and Alt-history stories take place on a world similar to ours but that evolved differently. That’s it. That’s all. Those labels cover much of fiction, and yet, they tell us almost nothing.
But as adjectives, tacked on to other genre labels, they better fit the stories we’re discussing. Just as calling something an “apple” isn’t as descriptive as calling it a “green apple”, but calling something “green” tells us very little about the object we’re looking for. Calling a story “romance” tells you that it centers on a relationship between two or more people. The story may have other elements but what’s important is that relationship. A reader will pick it up to experience the joy and longing and romantic tension between the characters. Compare that to “scifi” – right, that just means it has science in it. What’s it about again?
We don’t know. But if your romance is set in space, you can call it a SciFi romance, and suddenly you have a much better idea of what the story is about. The romance is with a vampire? Ok, call it paranormal romance, and you’re all set. Story has dragons? Fantasy romance. Love interest is a cowboy? Western romance. A Shoggoth? Weird romance.
What other genres describe parts of the plot? An adventure story is focused on action, moving forward, exploring, brave new world/frontier mentality. Military stories are centered around characters in the military, following or rebelling against orders, being part of a unit, some battle, some interacting with the government. Spy stories are similar but usually have a solitary character being a lot sneakier. Detective stories involving solving a mystery, whereas noir stories may have a detective (and may not) but are noted for being setting in a noir world, where the character either dies, or fails to solve the problem, or solves it but nothing changes. Humor stories are funny, and will end in a light-hearted and happy way. Thrillers show characters trying to escape from danger or unravel a mystery but also imply that the answers are kept from the reader too, so that they and the characters figure out who the bad guy is at the same time.
There are more, of course, but don’t they give you a much better idea of whether you want to read a story than any of the broad metagenres do? And by putting a genre lable with a metagenre label, you get very well defined categories… think Military Fantasy, Weird Noir, Erotic Horror, SciFi Adventure, and so on.
We need genre labels to sell books to new readers without giving away the whole plot. We have to have accurate labels in order to make sure that what we’re selling is what the reader wants to buy. They have to be able to trust us, trust our recommendations. It also helps us as writers to be able to describe our own stories – if we can clearly define it to ourselves, it gives us a better idea of whether we end up with the story we meant to write.
I’m not sure if breaking it down this way is the best answer. I do think it’s better than simply saying, “Oh it’s fantasy,” or “Oh, that’s science fiction,” which all too often can be said in a dismissive way, as if the book isn’t good enough for the reader, or the reader isn’t smart enough for the book.
But you tell me. I want your opinions. I am working toward a more thorough explanation of genre and even if I don’t agree with you I want to be sure I considered all the options.