Saturday, March 6, 2010

Genre Prejudice and Segregation

by Scott D. Parker

Hercule Periot never solved a crime in outer space. Frodo Baggins never encountered aliens. Perry Mason never went on a safari to search for lost Aztec gold.

These are things we cannot imagine because they were never written that way. Agatha Christie was quite content to keep her detective on earth, solving earthly crimes. The same for Frodo and Perry. They have their own universe and never the twain shall meet.

And I’m okay with that. Frankly, I don’t want Periot to get on a rocket and go solve the mystery of the intergalactic express. I don’t want Frodo donning armor and machine-gunning aliens. And Perry’s best adventures are in the court room. We like our characters in nice, neat little plots of land with tall fences around to keep out the riffraff. We don’t want dragons to interfere with our traditional mysteries featuring quilting groups. And you lawyers and doctors: you best stay out of intergalactic space, thank you very much. Space rangers are good enough.

Genres--in books, on television, on the silver screen--are comfort food. In my writings on “CSI: Miami” this season, I’ve said as much. If the writers get too fancy with Horatio Caine’s character, ratings drop. If an author puts just a little too much romance in a piece of crime fiction, readers don’t like all that mushy stuff.

Why? Why is it so wrong to cross-pollinate genres?

This is a crime fiction blog and I write crime fiction. I read crime fiction. But there are times when I just want to follow Conan as he slashes some giant creature or jet off with Doc Savage to some far-off land in search of something mystical. I get in genre moods and I discover that I only want to read fantasy or mysteries or classical literature. I can’t say why this happens. If I knew, I could control it. But, frankly, I kind of like the pendulum swinging the way it does.

Currently, I’m in a fantasy mood. I’m reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels and The Graveyard Book, and the second Doc Savage novel. Next to me on my writing desk is the complete chronicles of Conan. P. D. James’s Talking about Detective Fiction is here, too. Naturally, the things I’m writing correspond to my reading. I’m working on a collaboration with another author and we’re writing an adventure tale with some steampunkish elements. Another solo story is a straight-up steampunk tale. Next on my list, after I finish a piece of crime fiction, is a werewolf tale in the old west. Talk about mixing genres.

But I still come back to this genre segregation and why it exists. I’ve only read the first J. D. Robb/Eve Dallas novel but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a mystery story, set in the future, with strong romantic themes and scenes. I talk to SF readers about the series and they don’t want to touch it because it’s too “romancey.” I talk to mystery readers and they dismiss the series because of the love stuff and it’s got too much SF. The only people who seem okay with everything are the romance readers.

Judging purely from book covers, romance books have their heroines in contemporary settings, fantasy and urban fantasy settings, supernatural settings, historical settings, science fictional settings, and others. And those book sell very well. I wonder why that is? Does love conquer all? Is it a case of that particular genre being flexible enough to accommodate all styles of storytelling and the readership just goes with the flow?

To be honest, this is not the conclusion I expected to reach when I started this post but I’m glad I got here. Why do readers of one genre reject so many tropes of other genres? Or am I just going off and making up a problem that doesn’t really exist?


Steve Weddle said...

Odd what people feel comfortable with, isn't it.

We expect so much from the world that visit, so much that's already set down.

If you pick up a murder mystery and there's a ray gun on page 3, well, then that's a certain kind of place.

If it's all normal and then on page 213 there's a ray gun, well, then you're freakin out.

Jay Stringer said...

good point there, the Weddle.

For instance, put a spaceship in the opening frames of a pulpy action film and the audience will love it. Out one near the end of a pulpy action film and the audience will say George Lucas has ruined their childhood.

Chris said...

I love stuff that hops across genres. I just read the trade collection of Warren Ellis' Ignition City and absolutely loved it -- more than anything of his in some time. It was sci-fi, alternate history, western, and pulpy as hell. Just a lot of fun.