“What’s this book you are reading?” I hear Deepak asking this question but not listen until he repeats it.
“Oh, this!” I am finally brought back to reality as I register the surroundings around me. He stood curiously peering at me, waiting for a reply as I sat snuggled on a cold wooden bench at Ashoka University—a liberal arts institution—the institution where they say that the categories and divisions of subjects blur.
It must be around 7 PM, which means two hours have already elapsed since I have been reading. The assertion reminds me of his impending question again, and I proceed to answer. “The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Do you remember the myth that we read in the Literature class? That Geryon, the red-winged monster, slain by Hercules as part of his tenth labour? So Geryon is reimagined as a modern man in South America here. It is set in both the real and unreal worlds, and the line between the two is like, you know, invisible.
Geryon is still a red monster, but he’s also a sensitive young man who falls in love with impulsive, heroic Hercules. So basically, he’s a red-winged monster in love with a man. So yeah, a Greek myth but a modern coming-of-age novel too. The writing, too, then is verse but also prose, so like verse-novel…? I guess it doesn’t matter because they’re all words anyway? So yeah, this book is about desire, but also abuse, coming-of-age but also myths, and like fun but also makes you cry…”
I look at his furrowed eyebrows frowning as if the small gap between them has a question mark residing in it. Maybe he expected me to say gay-fiction, or like romance, or Greek Mythology?
“Oh no, I just meant which genre?”
This question of ‘which genre’ lurks in my head long after Deepak has gone. I try to categorize this book into a genre, and that brings me to a question that what is this whole business of genres even about and why this categorisation? Today, we live in a world of 150 plus genres and subgenres; a world where most conversations about books become ‘what genre’ and a society which affects readers, writers and publishers equally in amount, yet in unequal ways.
It becomes impossible then to not ask the long-due question of what is it about genres? To find a possible answer, I head to the library. Literature, Politics and Society, History, Culture, and Anthropology—the categories stare at me. I smile recalling the orientation speech delivered by one of the esteemed faculties: ‘Liberal Arts, a place where categories of subjects and knowledge become irrelevant.‘ I guess then categories can never leave us?
This obsession with categories is, of course, well-reflected in the genre, which has been described in the literature as an intangible taxonomy – the basis of classification. However, what might seem to be a recent obsession with categories, date back to Plato and Aristotle.
Plato introduced the approach of grouping objects based on their similar properties in his Socratic dialogues. Later, Aristotle continued this system of classification by asking narrowing questions: Is it an animal or vegetable? How many feet does it have? Does it have fur or feathers? Can it fly?
In their work, they also then delineate the distinction between literature. Plato separated three imitational forms: dramatic dialogue, pure narrative, and epic while excluding lyrical poetry as a category. Aristotle, following Plato’s diaeresis, added that two additional criteria should distinguish them: the object to be imitated—inferior or superior, and the medium of presentation such as words, gestures, or verse.
Based on these distinctions, he classified four types of classical genres: tragedy (superior-dramatic dialogue), epic (superior-mixed narrative), comedy (inferior-dramatic dialogue), and parody (inferior-mixed narrative).
He also defined what a tragedy and epic should exactly be like. These genre hierarchies of superior and inferior, and a prototype of what a genre should be, still exist strong — even centuries later.
Plato and Aristotle didn’t use the word ‘genre’ though, and it only became popular in the 19th century. The word genre, along with words gender, genesis, and generation, is derived from gignomai in Greek, meaning birth, and later, the birth of a kind. What initially then had the connotation of birth, life, and nascency, has it now become a symbol of divisiveness, death, and stagnation? This prompts us to examine the effect that genres have on us, and then evaluate if we can throw them out of the shelf, quite literally.
There are no qualms that genres have played an important role in publishing industries — determining both: what a buyer buys, and to monitor and study what sells more. This access to information and trends is crucial for them to evaluate what they choose to publish, for like every other industry, the publishing industry, too, is thrived by the profits. It also makes practical sense to have distinct categories for distinct pieces of fiction for the ease of readers to choose. Then, you might almost question, what is the problem in this innocuous act of categorisation into genres?
Firstly, of course, how we classify text into a particular genre is a problem in itself. Genre as a construct is a reflection of our expectation of certain concepts like ‘horror,’ ‘romance,’ ‘action,’ and ‘thriller.’ These expectations are then shaped by societal conditioning, and what makes one genre is captured by the zeitgeist of that time. Due to the changing times, what might constitute genre also keeps on evolving.
For instance, a lot of what would have earlier constituted horror has transfigured to the thriller section. But isn’t genre supposed to be a stable entity, and if what constitutes it – the expectations – themselves are dynamic and changing, can we ever have genres then?
Also, what these expectations then do is set conventions for what a specific text will be and what they do to you. It furthers your bias towards a particular genre and makes you oblivious to a good book owing to the genre under which it is labelled. For instance, if 1984 by George Orwell is shelved under the genre Science Fiction, or Political Fiction or Dystopian Fictions, its readership and sale are likely to vary. Of course, then it also brings to the most crucial question: Is 1984 a science fiction, political fiction, a dystopian fiction, a social science fiction, or merely a drama? Or is it all of these?
This question is true for a majority of books where conventions of several genres are dominant. Still, they are shelved under one genre that in publishers’ view, or calculations to be precise, is more attractive, and thus likely to sell. Consider War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – It can be labelled in all these genres – war and family drama, realism, romance, philosophical literature, a historical fiction.
About War and Peace, Tolstoy writes, “This work is more similar to a novel or a tale than to anything else, but it is not a novel because I cannot and do not know how to confine the characters I have created within given limits – a marriage or a death after which the interest in the narration would cease. [it] is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace are what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.”
‘What the author wished’ — Leo Tolstoy’s words prod me to implore further how much control does an author has on which genre a book is written, and what genres do to authors? Recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, in a conversation with Neil Gaiman, discussed how his book, The Buried Giant, was labelled as a fantasy book merely because pixies and ogres existed in his imaginative world while he never planned on writing a fantasy book all along.
Concerning the same context, is it then fair to label A Christmas Carol by Dickens as a ghost story merely because of the presence of ghosts and magic?
Further, writers and their imagination tend to be negatively influenced by the genres. Writers subconsciously or consciously decide to write according to the rules of which category of book is more likely to be published, and hence, perpetuating the bias of one genre over the other.
Genres also tend to reduce writers’ ideas into a certain category, which can be problematic from a social aspect. For instance, when gays and lesbians are the protagonists, it moves away from being any other novel to gay fiction. Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman has often been described as gay-fiction, instead of romance — a clear manifestation of the culture of heteronormative in genres. Similarly, a book by a woman becomes woman fiction — Gaynor Arnold’s A Girl in A Blue Dress was reviewed as “about a lady, by a lady, for ladies” — while a man in literature is given the prerogative to almost write about anything, without being labelled as man fiction for his gender is almost considered irrelevant to his work. Similarly, black fiction, as a genre, is equally problematic for its apartheid separation of books.
Recently then, a new “genre” to avoid genre (what an irony) has been created—literary fiction. One might assume that separating books from pigeon-hole categories into another category will be a panacea; however, as long as genre fiction as a category exists, it only widens the schism between literature. Owing to this distinction of literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction between what is considered to be quality literature and what is popular and hence, crass literature, is created.
This is then manifested in the distinction between what is deemed to be highbrow and lowbrow literature—giving rise to what has now come to be recognised as lit-snobbery. The class issue becomes more critical with books, especially with the Victorian notion of reading for improvement. Reading literary fiction and unpopular authors then become a matter of pride. For instance, when Deepak asked me which book I am reading, I almost took pride in telling him that “hey, Autobiography of Red—the book that I am reading is not popular and mainstream!”
This way, a ‘wannabe’ reader like me in point, wants to be associated with literary authors, while the same good writing could scare other readers who dwell in the comfort zone of the genre they like best. It is best put by David Hare when he says that the two most depressive words in the English Language are ‘Literary Fiction’. The genres, as well as lit-fiction in this sense then, serve no purpose than just being a gatekeeper for a reader willing to venture to the risk and cross these ‘boundaries’, while writers being put in unnecessary pigeon-holes.
A perfect analogy for the genre would be gender, for they share much more than the prefix. Both of them, while serving some purpose—a genre for the publishing industry and gender for social and cultural purposes—are artificially created boundaries without which we would be much better off. While there has been a recognition of harms of imposed categorisation in gender, the same awareness is lacking for the genre. What then happens is the choice of books because of genre becomes more like boys’ toy’ and girls’ toy, and often people end up preferring the same toy over and over.
What is needed then is the same fluidity in books and what should matter then is the beauty, the energy, the imagination, and how well-written a book is. The fact that a writer has chosen to set a piece of writing in a previous century or a parallel universe, or a criminal underworld, or with a war theme, has no relevance at all to its quality. Walter Benjamin once said, “all great books either establish a genre or create one,” however what the greatest books do is then render the concept of genre itself meaningless.