Why We Still Need Genres

Over the past several weeks, I have been seeing a handful of articles arguing that we don’t need genres anymore. The main argument seems to be that they are too confining, limiting the writer’s creativity to one setting, or the readers to one type of entertainment. These articles claim that genres are mainly marketing tools for brick-and-mortar publishing houses, and with the rise in indie and self-publishing, it’s an outdated mode of thinking to market on the belief that cross-overs can’t be successful. Some of these articles even go so far as to suggest that genres be done away with completely.

(Insert Psycho soundtrack and close-up of Janet Leigh’s horror-stricken face from the shower scene here.) Let me explain why this is a baaaaaaad idea.

 

Twilight killed the vampire genre!”

I am a fan of vampires. I collect literature with vampires; I write literature with vampires. I decorate my writing “dungeon” with vampires. Therefore, I often end up researching the folklore and history surrounding vampires. But I swear to you, there is no such thing as a “vampire genre”. How did this even become a thing with modern media? The answer lies in the lack of understanding about what genres are and why they exist, and I’m going to use this supposed “vampire genre” as an example to prove it.

I come across statements like, “Twilight killed the vampire genre!” regularly while doing research for my own novels. It is the number one complaint from people who disliked the Twilight series, second only to, “Real vampires don’t sparkle!” At first I sighed. Then I got annoyed. Now, I consider it my mission as a writer and fan of vampires to get a message out there to modern media and all who partake in it. The idea that the vampires in Twilight are not scary enough, are too sparkly, or are otherwise somehow just “wrong” is not an author problem. In fact, it’s not a problem at all. This is a result of not understanding genres.

The word genre comes from the French word gender. It’s means kind, or sort. Society is just starting to take a lesson from biology in defining genders and sex in terms of slider-scales, rather than extreme dichotomy. In a similar fashion, literary genres are not meant to limit books and films to confined, pre-defined boxes of “this” or “that”. Genres (and genders) are more like ingredient labels telling us “this” and “that”.

Let’s say you pick up some bread at the grocer. You might want to know whether it’s gluten-free, or whether it has animal products? Does it include beef lips? (You’d want to know if your bread included beef lips, right?) In the Middle Ages, bakers sometimes substituted sand for sugar and plaster for flour in baked goods. It was cheaper and stretched their resources further. But most people would be upset if they unknowingly bought a cake with sand-frosting, or opened their bread bag to find a sausage roll of beef lips, instead of a baguette. Ingredient labels let us know exactly what we’re purchasing, so we don’t break teeth on plaster-flour or get sick on wheat allergies from gluten. The label may not be complete, but it often includes more than one ingredient, and we’re thankful for that because the more information we have about what we’re purchasing, the better our chances of finding what we want—finding something we think we’ll enjoy. This is how genres are meant to be used. Book labels tell us what was stirred into the plot, characters, or settings, so that we can make better decisions about what we wish to purchase and consume.

Vampires, however, are not genres. Vampires are characters … like high school students, truck drivers, aliens, superheros, and talking cartoon monkeys. You won’t find a superhero or talking cartoon monkey section at the library or book store, but you will certainly find comics. Can you imagine what libraries and book stores would look like if we categorized all books and films by their characters, instead of genres? Or worse, how in the world would we find what we’re looking for at all if we throw away labels entirely?

Genres are based on archetype literary elements, or tropes. Horror, fantasy, comedy, romance, and folklore are examples of genres. Genres can be broken down into sub-genres to help us see exact content. Why settle for generic fantasy when you can have dark fantasy, high fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk fantasy, erotic fantasy, etc. And cross-overs? No problem! A fan of horror and steampunk would probably be thrilled to come across a book with both of those labels on it. Likewise, a person who dislikes horror will be thankful to know which section of the bookstore to skip.

Readers should not be tricked into trying new genres by authors avoiding labels; that’s disrespecting the consumer’s right to make informed choices. However, readers are responsible for being savvy about which genres they like and why, or they will end up feeling disappointed, angry, cheated. Recently, one of my fellow Scriptors authors received a two-star rating because her book is YA. (Um … yes, it’s a YA book, so it delivers exactly what the label says it should.) One of the responses to her dismay over this was something like, “You’d think people who know how to read would know how to read.” The authors are not to blame when readers don’t know their own preferences.

I consider my Elf Gate series to be dark fantasy genre because it has elements like elves and vampires. However, I’ve also thrown in some steampunk and contemporary elements. (These elves have trains, and their human captive has a “mobile”.) But my books are not “vampire genre” any more than they are “elf genre” or “human genre”. I do, however, lament that I’m often stuck with just “fantasy” as a label because it doesn’t let the reader know what else is in there. If anything, we need to be adding more labels to our choices, not getting rid of them.

So, as characters, vampires can appear in a wide variety of genres. The vampires of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series are scary because he writes horror genre books. The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are dangerous and sometimes cruel, but they are not mindless, ugly beasts; they are evolved protagonists who ask cosmic questions about whether or not there is a God. Her books are literary genre with elements of horror. The vampires of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series were written for romance and young adult literature fans, so, yes, relationship troubles are what’s important there. And vampires such as Bunnicula and Count Von Count were created for children … for fun and humor and even educational purposes.

No one screams, “Real vampires don’t suck carrot juice!” or, “Real vampires aren’t made of felt!” about vampires meant for children’s literature. Yet people get upset because Twilight vampires are boyfriends, rather than murderous monsters. (Perhaps it could be argued that Edward was a monstrous boyfriend, but he IS a vampire, and that’s beside the point.) Horror fans might as well phone the creators of Sesame Street and complain that Count Von Count should be eating children, not teaching them how to count. (“Nom. Nom. That’s two! Two delicious children! Ah-ah-ahhh!”) It’s not fair to judge YA, romance, dark fantasy, children’s literature, or horror by the standards of another genre. My advice? If you want scary vampires, step away from the YA and romance and look for horror, instead. I promise that’s where The Scary still lives. YA and romance can include elements of horror as cross-over genres, but why would anyone look for horror in YA and romance first?

Someone could easily say of my books, “Real vampires aren’t elves!” Well, while “real” vampires is another topic entirely, my stories are dark fantasy, so I can turn elves into vampires if I want … by the hordes if I want. That’s the beauty of the fantasy genre … and fiction in general. Anyone who thinks there is a right or wrong way to make a vampire needs to read a little more history, folklore, and literature on the matter.

Start with very old folklore genre vampires like “The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima” from Japan, or the Mananangaal of the Philippines. Dracula is fairly modern from the Gothic horror genre and central Europe, but he is by no means THE STANDARD by which all other vampires are to be created. In fact, he is the creation of an Irishman who was fascinated by Romanian culture and history which he researched as being based on Nordic lore. So, Dracula is not even a “traditional” vampire; he was born from various international traditions. And each genre of vampire fans will cherry-pick which attributes they prefer in the same way.

Dracula had fur on the palms of his hands in the original novel by Bram Stoker, but how many derivative works about him include furry palms? Would Eric Northman be as sexy if Trueblood vampires had that attribute, as well? Vampires didn’t burn in the sun until 1922, when the film Nosferatu introduced and popularized the idea with modern audiences. Before that, Victorian vampires, including Dracula, Varney, and Carmilla walked in full sunlight. Varney was probably the first vampire to gain romantic sympathies, rather than being a grotesque corpse that fed on the living (1845). And Anne Rice’s vampires were glowing and “glittering” like alabaster marble with shining eyes long before Edward was sparkling.

 

“To put it bluntly, if Akasha and Enkil should ever walk hand in hand into a furnace, we should all burn with them. Crush them to glittering dust, and we are annihilated.” (graffiti on a bathroom stall in a vampire club; Queen of the Damned, “Proem”, p.12, 1988)

 

So, tell me again exactly how Twilight destroyed the “vampire genre”? Scary vampires are alive and well; no harm done. But readers are responsible for knowing where to find their lairs. Readers and movie goers cannot realistically expect every single vampire created to be a clone of something from a Stephen King novel … or Dracula, or Eric Northman, or Count Orlok, Lestat de Lioncourt, Edward Cullen, Count Von Count, and Count Chocula, for that matter. There are different kinds of vampires because there different kinds of genres.

Know your genres, Peeps! Because while the mystery of not knowing what a book contains might have a sense of adventure now and then, most people get upset when they expect one thing and are surprised with another. (Seriously, horror fans, did you expect Twilight to be about something other than vampire boyfriends? Tsk, tsk, tsk …) Vampires can be boyfriends. Vampires can be elves. Vampires can be bunny rabbits, high school students, or aliens. There can even be talking monkey vampires! And, yes, they can have fur or felt or sparkle. But none of those characters can be genres. And without genres, we’re stuck guessing at the ingredients in the book or movie we’re purchasing. And that leads to too many “Real vampires don’t … blah, blah, blah!” memes cluttering my research and other authors getting two-star book reviews based on genre bias rather than how well a book is written.

The more genre labels, the merrier! That way there’s something for everyone, and you’ll know exactly what you’re getting before the purchase. And that’s a good thing.

 

Melody Daggerhart
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Melody Daggerhart

Writer, Editor, Data Consultant, Artist at Bad Cat Ink
Melody Daggerhart has been writing and illustrating novels ever since she was old enough to hold crayons and talk to stuffed animals. After pursuing an education in English literature and working in a library and as a freelance consultant, she figures she is ready to share her fanciful tales with more than her statuary, guinea pigs, cats, best friends, and her own captive children. (Hair color is subject to change with writing projects and moods.)
Melody Daggerhart
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6 Comments

  1. This is an awesome rant!! I love the Bannicula reference. I haven’t thought of those book in ages. : ) And the idea of Sesame Street’s The Count eating children! That image needed to come with a beverage alert. : )

    Reply
    • LoL … Sorry to sneak up on you there with The Count. : ) You know, another example of different genres and vampires is the anime “Trinity Blood”. That show has a sci-fi/ dystopian sort of thing going on, and the vampires are aliens. (There’s a plot twist to that, which I won’t spoil.) They’re called the Methuselah race because of their longevity, but the fact that they have all the other traits of vampirism leads humanity to consider them vampires, rather than aliens. That was the first alien-vampire I’d ever seen, and the idea blew me away because it was so different, yet worked so wonderfully for its genre! And “Priest” has a western/steampunk/dystopian theme, so it has cowboy vampires. So, each genre determines what’s acceptable within its own standards, and more people need to realize that. Genres are important. : )

      Reply
    • LoL … Sorry to sneak up on you there with The Count. : ) You know, another example of different genres and vampires is the anime “Trinity Blood”. That show has a sci-fi/ dystopian sort of thing going on, and the vampires are aliens. (There’s a plot twist to that, which I won’t spoil.) They’re called the Methuselah race because of their longevity, but the fact that they have all the other traits of vampirism leads humanity to consider them vampires, rather than aliens. That was the first alien-vampire I’d ever seen, and the idea blew me away because it was so different, yet worked so wonderfully for its genre! And “Priest” has a western/steampunk/dystopian theme, so it has cowboy vampires. So, each genre determines what’s acceptable within its own standards, and more people need to realize that. Genres are important. : )

      Reply
  2. I agree with you about genres needing to stay. If Amazon, or bookstores, or libraries did without genres, how would we find what books we liked to read? Author name? Book title? That’s not how you discover new books. I don’t want to spend hours browsing alphabetically, hoping I’ll stumble upon a book I want to read. As an indie publisher, I wish Amazon would allow us to list more than two genre categories, or would offer more sub-categories for labeling books. Two isn’t enough if you write anything with multiple elements.

    Reply
    • Exactly! Even if book stores were to just list everything alphabetically, people wouldn’t have the time or patience to browse every single book to find something they might like. We need genres to help us narrow that search to a reasonable time and number. And without genres, authors are stuck trying to describe their books based on plots and character development … which is also time consuming because it’s a couple of paragraphs, rather than a few words. And I agree that two genres isn’t enough for authors to tag books with multiple genres. Mine could carry about five labels, if they’d let me. But I guess it still can sit on only one shelf at the book store. I’ve started using my blurbs to add the other genres to help readers see what’s in there.

      Reply
  3. This is a well-done post! And the thing is, many stories are cross-bred through genres. A genre shouldn’t have to restrict creativity. Each genre has its ingredients, but it’s also okay if a work of fiction fits into more than one genre. It’s up to the author to see what elements make the story work.

    Reply

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