A rallying cry for more subgenres, please
Spend twenty minutes on Pandora and you’ll be told that you prefer folk-influenced indie rock with strong harmonies. Toss a few star ratings into your Netflix account, and they’ll offer you a near-endless supply of dark murder mysteries with a strong female lead. Somehow, though, the technology gods have not seen fit to bestow on us a similarly comprehensive system of literary genres.
In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, the US, UK, and Canada published over half a million books altogether. Yet of this infinitely categorizable bounty, we’ve apparently only managed to sort books into as many genres as your neighborhood Waterstones has clusters of shelves. I call shenanigans! Why should it be so hard for me to get my fix of YA novels set in boarding schools? Of epistolary fiction of any stripe? Of historical novels set exclusively during the London Blitz?
The farther down the literary establishment’s respectability rankings we climb, the better the genre categorization seems to become. One reason, of course, is that fans of a despised genre may differentiate themselves from bad, not-serious fans of the bad, not-serious examples of that genre, and genre vocabulary serves as a marker of this kind of in-group status. The insouciant shortening of science fiction to sci-fi had arrived by 1954 along with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the first of an unending line of Godzilla films. Twenty years on, the term sci-fi had acquired the sheen of cheap production values, and the ‘true’ fans of the genre distinguished themselves by saying SF.
Even today, this kind of no-true-Scotsman-ism persists in the distinction some sci-fi fans draw between hard (i.e., real) science fiction and the presumably soft, squishy, emotions-heavy kind beloved by bandwagon jumpers (i.e., girls).
In a more amiable register, fans of genre fiction appear to be comfortable accepting the existence of and providing catchy names for the recurring subgenres in their world. Speculative fiction types will speak casually about their taste in the ‘subcreation’ of a ‘secondary world’ fantasy— terms used by Tolkien in 1947 to refer to entirely fictional worlds for which the author serves as God. Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism in 1983 to describe the increasing popularity of an aesthetic in which black histories and cultures are incorporated into science fictional or fantastical worlds.
Romance critics have an even more extensive vocabulary of subgenre, splitting romance novels not just into modern, historical, and paranormal, but subdividing them further by the tropes they employ (fake dating, cabin romances, mistaken identity, friends-to-lovers) or the behavior of the romantic lead as an alpha or beta male.
Fanwork websites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own have subgenres down to an art with systems of tagging and filtering that should, but don’t, cause companies claiming to be the ‘Netflix of books’ to hang their heads in shame. The near-infinite variety of tags on these sites encompasses fandom, story length, genre, mood, setting, and just about anything else you can think of.
Literary fiction lags—I hope they won’t mind my mentioning it—woefully, catastrophically behind. Beyond ‘historical fiction’, very little shared vocabulary exists to describe even the most common of recurring types of Proper Fiction, like ‘Aging Professor Whose Best Work Is Behind Him Contemplates Whether or Not to Bang This One Coed’, or ‘White Girl Goes Missing to Chagrin of Small Town’. There seems to be a feeling that if the informal subgenres in literary fiction should catch the eye of the establishment, they will be cast out of the formal dining hall and made to sit at the kiddie table with the roughly twelve thousand variations on cyberpunk (of which even the OED currently recognizes only the original and, grudgingly, steampunk).
I am not a crackpot: a true Netflix for books would be about the Balkanization of genres. Imagine a world where you could narrow down the impossibly broad field of literary fiction (or any genre! Pick your poison!) to suit your ultra-specific tastes. I find it unbearably suspenseful when characters in a book have done an ill deed and are waiting to be found out: make that a filter! And I like to read about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, so let’s toss that in there too, and for good measure, set it at some kind of place of education.
I have just described The Secret History by Donna Tartt, one of my favorite books of all time. See how brilliantly the system works?