Monday, May 7, 2012

In Response to Charles Stross

Charles Stross has written another mindblowing essay, called "The Death of Genre." The essay is, in part, a response to Elizabeth Bear's recent essay suggesting science fiction and fantasy (which  we call SF/F but others, including Bear, call speculative fiction) have gotten too impressed with their own seriousness (which she pejoratively calls "grimdark"); and Abi Sutherland's response that, no, SF/F is plenty fun, thank you very much. Stross thinks they're both asking the wrong questions. Rather, he argues, we should be asking what the label SF/F actually means, where it came from and, if the conditions that led to the genre-balkanization of literature are even relevant anymore. And if not, what's next?

The Death of Genre

Stross argues that genre-balkanization is an effect of shelving expediency in the physical bookstore:
Regular bookstores have to rely on churn, to attempt to provide a customer who returns every month to buy a couple of books with a fresh selection, to provide the illusion of something wider than the choice dictated by the rent they pay on floor space.
But suppose you're a reader looking for a new novel by your favourite author in a shop with thousands or tens of thousands of titles! You need some sort of indexing system. Consequently, books are filed by category—which in fiction means by genre—and then, hopefully, alphabetically within their category. 
The book store clerk, then, has to be able to rapidly identify the category to which a book (coming in one of several cartons, along with hundreds of other books) belongs. And that's where the rocket ship logo on the spine, or the headless woman with a stake (back turned to reveal the tramp stamp) comes in. It tells the store clerk that this is a work of SF, or a work of paranormal romance. Which in turn tells them where to shelve the book.
And this is where our genre ghetto comes from.
Then he argues that ebooks have completely flipped the script:
Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with "Rule 34": do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn't it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category? We've seen this in microcosm with Harry Potter: the use of adult-friendly covers allowed parents to buy the books and read them during their commute to work, for example.

On paper, that's very expensive/hard to organize: in electronic media it is simply a matter of commissioning as many cover designs as your book design budget will stretch to, and then convincing the big retailers to associate a different cover image with the results of each search by genre category. 
We already see ebooks being tagged as multiple categories. It's only a matter of time before publishers and authors develop more sophisticated electronic marketing strategies that either micro-target a specific audience, or that target multiple readerships in parallel.
The upshot of this is that ebooks allow for a break with genre-balkanization, the implication being that once you have a more complex and multidimensional labeling system, you don't need the shackles of genre, which may be comforting, but in reality have regulated you to a specific section of the bookshop,  separated from others who are different from you. Instead, you can label something in all the meaningful ways you can think of, and draw consumers from all those orientations. For example, Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occassional Music would be labeled as: dystopian science fiction, detective/noir fiction and literature. It would not be relegated to just one shelf. This, Stross argues, portends the death of SF/F as mode of categorization.

In Response 

Before adding my thoughts, I'd just like to say that I think Stross' essay is brilliant. There's loads more thoguht-provoking stuff in the article that I don't have the time or the space to cover here, so please click through and read it in its entirety.

That said, while I accept the premise that the ebook market will transform the way we categorize books, I think Stross is only partially right in his conclusions. Here's why...

1. It's doubtful the "idea" of genre is going anywhere. Sociologists and psychologists have figured out a lot about how and why human beings categorize things. Turns out, it's a pretty simple evolutionary mechanism: categories help us sort complex realities into easy-to-digest blocks, which allow us to make snap judgements when there's little time or will for lengthy evaluation. Stereotypes work like this, as do categories in the arts and consumer products. A new retail paradigm may open up possibilities for multidimensional categorization, but they don't obviate the human desire to categorize.

2. The actual genres we have now probably aren't going anywhere either. Why? Because of the power of path dependency. This sociological concept explains why we're still stuck with things after the initial conditions that led to their emergence have disappeared. The classic case is the QWERTY keyboard, which emerged because spacing out the vowels made typewriters less likely to jam. But we still use it today, on our computers, tablets and smartphones--even though they are in no danger of jamming. That's because of the generations of accumulated usage and knowledge sharing have led to a consequent orientation to think of the QWERTY keyboard as normal, as "the way things are done." Numerous institutions (computer/phone manufacturers, typing/computer classes, IT departments, etc.) help pass all this down from generation to generation.

Literary genres likely work the same way: we have several generations of accumulated knowledge of SF/F, an archive of works already classified as SF/F and a book-reading world normatively inclined to think of SF/F as a "natural" pillar of literature. Every existing generation of readers, every publishing house, every bookseller (including the online ones) and every marketing campaign indoctrinates the next generation to think in this way. This doesn't mean change is impossible, just that it's less likely than you might think.

3. Multidimensional labeling may lead to more genre-balkanization, rather than less. Stross argues that his new novel, Rule 34, is as much police procedural and mainstream literary fiction as it is near-future SF. In the old system, though, Rule 34 would have been relegated to the SF/F shelves. Marketing campaigns, by extension, would concentrate on marketing the book as SF/F. Ebook retailing allows publishers to market a book simultaneously in all three categories. He's right, but it's just as conceivable that multidimensional labeling pigeonholes books like Rule 34 as police procedural near-future science fiction.

Put another way, though tags and such allow for the transgression of genre boundaries, they also allow for specification within those boundaries. As much as physical boosktores ghettoized SF/F, they also presented an undifferentiated SF/F to customers. That is, the near-future science fiction was right next to the epic fantasy, the space opera and so on. Multidimensional labeling allows consumers to avoid all that stuff and go straight for the very clearly specified sub-sub-genre of their choosing. Rule 34 is probably safe from this--Stross is a big name in SF/F, with a loyal following. But what about new writers? If the SF/F market fragments, it may become harder and harder to market novels to a broader audience outside a hardcore niche.


The bottom line is, Stross has written a fascinating essay on the future of literary SF/F, presenting a number of ideas and predictions that should be taken seriously. Actually, I'd say it's just about the best thing I've read on the topic this year. That said, I don't see the kind of epic change in the works that he does. I think the changes we're more likely to see in the next two decades center on the publishing side of things, a potential break in the dominance of the "big 6" and the emergence of new, dynamic publishing models to pick up the slack. Science fiction and fantasy, I'd imagine, will still be with us in some form or another.

The question, for those who care, is how to ensure that the relatively bright future Stross envisions wins out over a darker phase of endless balkanization.