Scifi, mystery, literary, these are all genres, and each of them means something different. But what does genre mean, exactly? How important is it to the writing process, or the publishing process for that matter? Listen in as we tackle those very questions this week. We discuss what genres are made of, whether the western is still viable, and what happens when aliens show up in a pre-modern time period. Plus, we get meta and debate the genre of our own podcast.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening Theme]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: So, folks, what genre would you say our podcast is? We’re recording remotely through lines of electricity across hundreds of miles. No, not hundreds. Dozens. Maybe fives of miles. So, that sounds like science fiction, right? We’re definitely a sci-fi podcast, I’d say.
Wes: I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think I have an answer: drama. I think we are drama. Drama.
Oren: To be fair, sometimes authors find things that I wrote and then don’t like it and that causes drama.
Chris: But actually I think that that speaks to something about the term “genre.” What a “genre” is for a podcast is very different than what we would consider a genre for books or fiction in general, because obviously our podcast is not fiction, but within the podcasting sphere, I guess it would be called a discussion podcast. But that’s a totally different type of thing than how fiction is categorized. There are just loose categories that change depending on what people need.
Wes: And you can just infinitely drill down. We say subgenre, but you can just tack on as many “sub”s as you want. And then we’re increasingly getting into cross-genre territory, where it’s just like, “All right. The only one that makes sense is, ‘how old is this media? How is this media age appropriate for this age group?’” I’m just like, “Okay.”
I was trying to be a little funny and serious when I said we were like drama, because I wanted to get the largest umbrella term possible for genre for this one. And we said, fiction, right? So, fiction is a genre. That means nonfiction is a genre. And then, poetry is a genre because both fiction and nonfiction are written in prose and poetry is written in verse. There’s a form differentiator. And then drama is another one. Drama can be fiction or nonfiction, but the point is that it can be written also in verse or prose, but it’s meant to be performed, and it’s almost exclusively dialogue, which is why we are performing a podcast that is almost exclusively dialogue, except for the music at the beginning.
Oren: Or the stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”[Laughter]
Wes: We should upgrade our transcripts because that’s kind of like a screenplay in a weird way. So, as far as like written works go, I think those four really lock it down. I don’t know how you could go larger unless you’re breaking into just the mediums.
Chris: Here’s a question. Is prose anything that isn’t poetry?
Wes: So, prose is anything that isn’t verse. I think that’s the important distinction. If it’s just written out without you thinking about how to lay it on the page with white space and line breaks and stuff like that. If you’re making fun play of white space and line breaks, it’s arguably verse, not prose. Prose is just like, “All right, I’m using paragraphs. Let’s do this.”
Oren: Writin’ normal words for normal people. Nothing to see here. Movin’ on.
Wes: I like that.
Oren: So, of course, when, when we spec fic fans talk about genre, we’re usually drilling down further than that. We’re usually talking about science fiction or fantasy or horror, and then we can drill down further and get into space opera or hard sci-fi or high fantasy or cosmic horror. And that kind of just goes forever. You can keep digging if you want.
Wes: It sure does. We don’t have to spend much time on this, but I was trying to think about another tier of broad genres. And certainly there’s children’s, and then there’s YA and adult. So there’re age groups. And then, you said fantasy. Fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction, romance. And then… do people still write and read westerns? I feel like that was a genre for a minute.
Oren: Western is definitely a genre and yeah, there are still Western stories. They’re less popular now than they used to be.
Wes: In a visual medium, I feel like western is a strong genre, but I don’t know about reading them so much anymore, unless they’re getting blended. That’s an important thing I think we should talk about.
Oren: Here’s what I would say based on my (admittedly anecdotal) knowledge of westerns. So there are still a fair number of movie and TV show westerns being made, but they tend to be very strongly subversive because the Western genre was really heavily played for a while. Also, nonwhite people already knew this, but among white people there’s an increasing cultural awareness that actually westward expansion was really bad and caused a ton of problems. And so I suspect that is behind what’s fueling a lot of the more subversive media. Like, “Hey, what if it’s a western, but everything sucked?” Even though these westerns don’t often actually directly address things like the genocide of Native Americans or the enslavement of black people, you’ve got things like a Deadwood, which isn’t really about either of those things, but it is about how dirty and grungy the West is. And then you’ve got things like 3:10 to Yuma, which is a remake, but sort of a similar concept.
Wes: Right. I remember in the 90s, Unforgiven came out. That was Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman. It got so much acclaim because there was only one real gun shootout thing, but it was just… bleak. The whole thing was super bleak, trying to portray the reality of the situation. I think you’re right that it affected the 3:10 to Yuma remake that they did, and a lot of stuff about how much it sucks out there. These white people are terrible, and terrible things are happening now.
Oren: Now, as for fiction, I haven’t sought out straight westerns. I suspect they still exist, but in the ones that I’ve read, the stories either take magic and put it in the actual historical West, or they just use western-like tropes in a fantasy setting. I see that a lot. Firefly is largely a Western with sci-fi tropes thrown in. I think the western trope is alive and well. It’s just when we interact with it, it tends to be much more like a western story with other sci-fi elements or spec fic elements thrown in there.
Wes: It’s funny what the crux of the western is. Adventure is also a genre, I suppose. There has to be an exploratory element with adventure, and there have to be guns, but not automated ones. There have to be pistols and rifles. That’s about it. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is super fantasy spec fic, but the main character, Roland, is a gunslinger and therefore the whole thing is tinted with western stuff.
Chris: The environment of the gunslinger, too, has a lot of traditional western tropes, where we have a dryer setting with little isolated towns that feel like they operate independently and are just barely getting by, and some of those other things that are also in the gunslinger.
Oren: Right. And we’re sort of getting into what really defines a genre, which is not ever any single one thing in most cases. Most genres, especially aesthetic genres like western or space opera or steampunk, have a collection of things. There are a collection of traits that are associated with these genres. And so something can be more or less a western, but there’s not really a point at which it stops or starts being a western, at least not that you can measure scientifically. And it’s the same thing with most genres. That’s why you can have Star Wars, which we generally agree is sci-fi, even though it has a lot of fantasy tropes. It has fantasy elements, but it has enough sci-fi ones that it still feels like sci-fi.
Chris: If you give a story magic, it feels like it should just automatically be fantasy, but that really changes quickly depending on how you flavor the magic and what you call the magic. If you call the magic telekinetic powers, then suddenly it could be science fiction, even though it’s really the same thing. Whereas if you call it magic, then suddenly it’s pretty much in the fantasy genre, but you’re choosing to make it that way by theming it as magic and not pretending that it’s advanced technology or anything like that.
Oren: And I would say that it is tempting for us to conclude that, like, “Oh, well, genre doesn’t matter, because as we’ve established that so much of this is just based on perception.” But I would argue it does matter. It matters for one reason: ease of curation. Genres existing makes it easier for people to find things they like. That’s what it means. That’s what it’s useful for, most immediately. And this is not an excuse for gatekeeping. This is why it’s pointless to get into arguments about, like, “Well, is that really sci-fi?” because that’s usually a pointless discussion. The issue is whether it’s enough like sci-fi that sci-fi fans will like it, in which case, it should be shelved with sci-fi.
Wes: I think that’s a good point. Because we curated it, people can find what they like and buy it. But then you think about how that over time can lead to genres acquiring different meanings if they blend, or certain types of books series get more popular, and things like that. I feel like the mystery genre is dominated by a certain type of expectation, but really mystery can be any other type of genre. There’re fantasy mysteries, science fiction mysteries, romantic mysteries, western mysteries. If you have a couple of prolific authors that are dominating the shelves, it’s kind of reinforcing one kind of expectation, which isn’t great. But then, on the same line, that opens you up for more subversion for future stories, which is, I think, a good opportunity.
Chris: I mean, it’s about what people associate with various genres. And so if there’s a very popular author writing in that genre, and everybody has at least heard of their work, then what they write becomes heavily associated with that genre. But it’s interesting to think about the fact that these associations are like apples and oranges. They’re not necessarily the same type of thing. Mystery, for example, is generally based on a type of plot that’s driven by a question. And there’s nothing in that conflicts in any way with the trappings of science fiction, which are usually about having futuristic technology. And so you can just pair a mystery plot with a science fiction aesthetic, and there’s nothing about that which conflicts or has to be worked out in any way. They’re just compatible genres.
You can definitely mix sci-fi and western, but there’s more of a sense that because they’re both very aesthetic, there’s a certain sense that they have to share or trade off with each other. They not just layered on top of each other. So in Firefly, we go to these planets that are low tech, with people riding horses, and then we get in our spaceship and take off and go to a planet where everybody’s really rich and has this awesome technology. We make them fit together in the same world, but because they’re based on things that are in some sense mutually exclusive, you have to work out their differences to combine them.
Wes: Have either of you seen Cowboys and Aliens?
Oren: I don’t think so.
Wes: It’s Daniel Craig, and I think Harrison Ford was in it. Minor spoiler alerts. Aliens arrive in a western area somewhere in North America, and you find out that the aliens are actually after gold because they need the gold to power their ship or something like that. I cannot say it’s a good movie, but it was a fun mix of, like, “Okay, somebody probably had to try this blend.” And I don’t know if it works, because it’s not like Firefly, where there’s humans with spaceships in space. It’s like, “What if a bunch of cowboys are trying to manage their small town and then an alien ship started mining gold in the hills nearby?” Usually in that whole “The aliens come to earth” trope, it’s more or less now or in the future. And so the thought was, “What about in the 18th century, out west?” And so it’s a funny idea. Anyway, like I tell some, I don’t know if I can recommend it, but I feel like I have to talk about it. It’s so weird.
Oren: That brings up something that I wanted to touch on: things that you as the writer should be thinking about in terms of genre. Because for the most part, the best practices of storytelling don’t change across genres, but there are certain things that you need to keep in mind. For example, if you have aliens show up, the default assumption is that they will show up at whatever the time is that you’re writing the story. And as a result, they always have their tech carefully calibrated to be better than ours, but not too much better. That can be kind of weird if you want to have aliens show up in, for example, the old west, partially because nowadays we all pretty much have a pretty good concept of what an alien is. But if you had aliens show up in Charlemagne’s time, would they even be able to conceptualize what an alien is?
Wes: Oren, you just reminded me about this book that I read that was written in, I think, the early 20th century. It’s called The High Crusade. The plot is about a small English town which is preparing to go off to fight the Hundred Years’ War with France when an alien spaceship crash lands nearby. So the Knights storm it and kill the aliens that didn’t die in the crash, because they’re all discombobulated, and take one hostage. Then they decide, “Hey, this thing is huge. We could put the entire town in it, fly to France, and end the war!” And then they get lost in space.
But to your point about the tech, the author decided that the alien tech is so advanced that it only works on other alien tech because it’s so advanced that they’re only trying to account for one another’s technology and ignoring things that no reasonable person would do, like getting stabbed with a sword. So that’s how the Knights tend to do their space battles. It’s so ridiculous.
Oren: That’s a trope that I’ve seen in other places, too; the idea that advanced technology isn’t specifically more powerful, but that it’s almost meta. The idea is that, like, “Oh, well, if your technology gets too advanced, you lose the ability to deal with sticks and stones.” It’s a concept which I find rather questionable. I also have read some books, like a book that I talk about a fair amount called Eiffel Haim, which is the story of an alien ship crashing next to a town in Germany in the 1300s and this priest has to figure out what aliens are and how they affect his worldview and what that means to him.
It’s really neat and it’s a really good story, or at least that part of it is. In that case, they deal with the tech issue by saying that most of the alien technology was destroyed in the crash. There’s enough left to be wondrous but not enough that they can’t be threatened, because part of the story is the priest making sure that the human lord doesn’t kill the aliens. So, in order for that to happen, the aliens need to be vulnerable. And their way of explaining that is, “Most of their technology was destroyed in the crash.” And it’s just a really neat concept. So you can do it, but you definitely need to be aware of these genre clashes that you’re going to have to navigate.
Chris: Well, one thing I want to point out is that, especially with the Cowboys and Aliens story, sometimes genre clashes also provide some novelty. I don’t think it lasts very long, but I suspect that even though Cowboys and Aliens probably felt really ridiculous because it had this clash where it didn’t really feel like the cowboys and aliens belong together, that was probably also part of the campy fun of that particular movie.
I have a post on why you should theme your world that’s pretty old. In it, I gave an example of a world that just had a mishmash of theming to try to explain to people why that doesn’t work as well. But at the same time, seeing that mishmash in brief, as one paragraph, comes off as pretty funny. And we don’t always want our stories be campy and funny, but there’s always that one person who is like, “But that sounds great because it’s hilarious!” With those things, it does provide some brief novelty. When that novelty wears off, it’s certainly not going to help anybody take your story seriously, but for a campy two-hour movie, we can have this clash happen.
Oren: That’s why most of those like social media memes of “What if you took this wacky story concept?” That’s why those are memes and not stories. That’s why we continue to meme them: they work by providing some conceptual novelty. But if you actually tried to write them, you would figure out that they are just not workable for most stories, and that’s why they aren’t written more. It’s not that all of the world’s writers have just somehow missed this brilliant idea, it’s because that brilliant idea doesn’t actually work in it as a long-form story. It just works as a funny meme.
Wes: I like what Chris said earlier about compatible genres. Because mystery and science fiction blend well. Chris, you said that mystery is actually dictated by how the plot is going to go and science fiction is more about theming and content expectation. There are no plot expectations in science fiction.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, there can be plots that are more associated with science fiction. Oren has talked about the one about the introduction of new technology and how it affects people. The associations can be different types of things, but most genres lead towards certain types of associations, or others, and I would argue that as much as we might associate looking at the impact of the introduction of new technology as a science fiction plot. That happens a lot. I would say that’s a side effect of science fiction having technology that hasn’t been invented yet in it, and that particular plot doesn’t do any good in determining whether or not something is science fiction. Because if you have that, but it’s about the introduction of cell phones 10 years ago, it’s not science fiction. And if you have something with futuristic technology, it doesn’t matter whether it’s about the introduction of that technology. So, there are sometimes associations, but for science fiction in particular, I don’t think that they’re particularly strong.
Oren: Same thing with fantasy and the return of the one true king. That’s a trope which is very commonly associated with fantasy, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do that in another genre. It’s just associated with fantasy. There is one thing, though, that I was thinking about. You should probably make your story fantasy or historical if you want this: sword fighting. Because it’s just really hard to justify sword fighting in settings that have more advanced technology.
I guess some authors don’t care. Gideon the Ninth is just like, “Nope!” Gideon the Ninth just doesn’t care. It’s a sci-fi setting with spaceships and everything, but all of the combat is done with swords. And I’m just sitting here being like, “Why are they using swords? They must have a more advanced weapons.” It just does not care, and clearly it’s very popular. So you know, that seems to have worked on some level, but it’s just annoying. If you want your sword fights to be credible, you probably shouldn’t have technology that makes swords obsolete. That’s just a basic thing.
Chris: Gideon the Ninth is about necromancy, right?
Chris: So people probably just like the novelty of necromancy and space.
Oren: Well, that’s the thing about Gideon the Ninth. It’s not actually in space. This is why I also have another article, which is probably out by the time this podcast is released, which is about sci-fi stories that would have been better as fantasy. Because the whole story of Gideon the Ninth takes place inside a weird haunted castle.
Oren: That weird haunted castle is on an alien planet.
Wes: Well, planets are in space![Laughter]
Oren: But like the oldest technology and stuff, we know that exists. It just happens elsewhere.
Chris: It never minds me of Queen of the Tearling, which is a fantasy. Technically, the people are colonists from earth, and they have things from earth and this technology, but it never feels like it ever matters in the story. It feels like we could take it out and none of the aesthetics, or the mood, or the atmosphere, or the plot, or anything would change, so it just feels like it’s a waste. If you’re going to do that, then make it matter so that we actually get novelty from it. And if you’re not prepared to do that, you’re just making your setting more complicated.
Oren: In Gideon the Ninth, I think the main thing that it gets out of its sci-fi setting is the fact that people are more willing to accept the main character speaking in a very casual, modern way, with a lot of modern idioms, which bothers me in a sci-fi setting, too. The whole reason it bothers me… it would bother you in a fantasy setting if someone was talking like that because it feels like the wrong context to have characters saying, “What’s up, my dude?” in Middle Earth. That would just seem weird. It seems weird to me, too, in sci-fi, but clearly people are more willing to accept it there.
Chris: Right. People just don’t think about how much our future culture would change as much as they notice it in a fantasy if you have current culture. If a character is saying “My dude,” then and everybody else would be like, “Wow, it’s so archaic! What an archaic way of speaking. This is clearly one of the ancients! They’re using ancient terminology like ‘My dude.’” Well, it sounds like a silly work.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely subversive and irreverent. I still think it would work better as just a straight fantasy, which is why I included it in that article, but it’s not as bad as it could have been. It’s not grimdark sci-fi. If it was, it would be really hard to take seriously.
Wes: We just had a really good point. The expectation is there. It’s like, “Okay, there’s there’s space, it’s science fiction!” and then you’re like, “Wait, isn’t this supposed to be science fiction? Where is it?” and your readers are just confused. A small example, Chris, is in one of your critique posts that may or may not be out by the time this comes out. It was in that real bad book where the bad guys are called…
Chris: Maximum Ride.
Wes: Yes. Where they’re called erasers, but they’re werewolves. That’s kind of what we’re talking about. It’s like, “Why are you not just calling them werewolves?” and then if they turned out to be a variation, that would be cool. Instead, you’re calling them something else and making us remember that, but then also, we’re like, “Why aren’t they just called werewolves?”
Chris: This is a book that’s clearly in something like a modern-day setting. And yeah, it has these guys that are called erasers, but then it describes them as men who can turn into wolfmen at will.
Chris: It’s like, “Okay, well, we call those werewolves. That’s what we call them.” And on one hand, it made me wonder if the writer was going for a different kind of theming, just like we talked about. We can call magic different things, but then you just wouldn’t just make werewolves. We’re used to calling magic different things. We’re used to calling it psychic power if it’s psychic power, or it could be really advanced technology which basically does magic. But werewolves are werewolves. We don’t have any tradition of calling them something different. If you don’t want them to feel like werewolves, you should probably just not make them werewolves.
Oren: With that context, I can maybe see why we wouldn’t want to call them werewolves. The term “werewolf” has gotten a little silly-sounding. So I can think of maybe calling them something else, but I would still make it related to what they are. “Eraser” sounds like a thing that can erase things from existence.
Chris: Well, I think the idea is that they are hunting the kids with powers. The kids with powers in this book were made in a lab.
Oren: Right. I mean, I understand, because they’re supposed to be hitmen who stop you from being around anymore, but that just doesn’t sound very descriptive. Unless you have a really strong reason not to, I would say just name them, I don’t know, “Hounds,” or something that’s a little more descriptive. Calling them erasers gives the expectation that they’re going to have some kind of erasing power, which they don’t.
Wes: Or maybe the expectation that it’s a science fiction story where they’re infiltrators and they do data wipes.
Chris: I mean, honestly, if they were just regular dudes with guns, if they were just the hit squad, I feel like it would be less weird to call them erasers, because then we would be focusing on the function they perform, which is erasing these kids. Their job is getting rid of these kids. We’re focusing on the fact that they’re going to murder you. But adding the whole wolfman power thing really just overwhelms whatever else they are.
Oren: We’re talking a lot about expectations. One other thing that’s useful to think about for different genres is that sci-fi tends to have less leeway in the way that its supernatural elements work. Both of them have limits. There is a limit to how much your audience will accept that your magic can do – and then, of course, you get into power implications and what have you – but with sci-fi there’s just more of an expectation that your technology will conform closer to the rules of reality as we understand them. You can still, of course, get away with breaking them, but the number of things you can break is probably smaller in sci-fi than it is in fantasy.
In sci-fi, we tend to err more towards breaking as few things as possible, whereas in fantasy, we’re more willing to accept that this is just a wacky world where things are different, which is one of the reasons why I just don’t think Star Wars works anymore. Star Wars works fine as Star Wars, but I think if someone else tried to write something with the technology that works the way Star Wars tech works, I just don’t think people would take it that seriously. Star Wars is like World War II in space, and we all know space doesn’t work that way. And it’s a little irritating how in Star Wars they can go from one planet to another in five minutes without even using the hyperdrive. If you tried to do that with a story that isn’t Star Wars, people would be like, “Why are you doing that?”
Chris: We talk about speculative fiction a lot because that’s what we cover at Mythcreants. We sort of define it as an umbrella genre, meaning anything that deviates from reality. So we cover of science fiction and fantasy and all the other things. But I always find it really awkward that horror is half in, half out. Because horror is a more of a plot-based genre, but it’s basically associated with really high threat. Sometimes those threats are paranormal in nature, and sometimes they’re not. Horror is often considered to be a speculative genre, but there are lots of horrors that don’t have any speculative elements at all. So on the side I usually list, it includes paranormal horror. But not like the movie Scream, which has a couple of regular killers in it, which is just an awkward place to be.
Oren: Speaking of awkward places to be, we are at the end of our time. Man, I’m so good at these segues.
Wes: Yeah, you are.
Oren: All right. So, those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. Finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
Chris: If this episode resonated with you, post a review on iTunes to increase the range of our spells.[Closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: ‘The Princess Who Saved Herself’ by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?