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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Genre Labels: Are They Reductive?

A friend and I were having a discussion about The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a Nigerian novel with particularly obvious fantastic elements, and he thought that by labeling the novel as fantasy, I was being reductive. I'll try to recollect much of the discussion here, but I'm sure I'll leave out some salient point that I can't remember.

Okri's novel is about a young boy who is, in certain African religious traditions, a spirit child who has decided to finally live in the real world, rather than be born, die, and return to the spirit world. However, this boy never fully separates from the spirit realm into the real world, the result of which is that he can see and is influenced by all manner of spirit creatures (from ghosts to really strange humanoid beings to manifestations of nature's spirits).

For me, this is very clearly a fantasy. The elements are all there. As far as I know, the novel does not posit that the boy is delusional, but takes very seriously the fact that he is a spirit child. In saying it's fantasy, however, I'm not at all saying that it isn't something else too. My friend, however, thinks that the label somehow leaves out those other elements (and he did, at one point, cite things like politics, etc. as part of what gets left out of the fantasy label).

For me, however, the label "fantasy" encompasses a wide range of fantastic literatures and can include all manner of plot elements, whether they be political or romantic. Fantasy isn't reductive, for me, because when we say "this is fantasy," we're not saying that the novel is only about dragons or spirits or the fantastic, just that an element, or the prime component, of that novel allows it to fit within the fantasy genre. I see fantasy as a very wide and open genre, stretching from literary to pulpy, Tolkien-esque to urban, etc.

So, I'm going to ask you. Do you think that labeling things as fantasy is reductive? Could the same argument be made about science fiction, romance, mystery, etc.? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. When describing elements of a story, I find it most awkward to describe what's missing. What's the shortest clear way to describe a world that's just like ours, except that there are no men? This comes up all the time when talking about fantasy and science fiction, which may be one reason our labels tend to emphasize what's there versus what isn't.

    Even relatively narrow sub-genres like "cyberpunk" or "new weird" are mostly defined by the elements you expect to find in the story as opposed to "cyberpunk stories don't have hobbits." This allows us to easily talk about overlapping genres. This is clear to those of us that read, think about and discuss genre fiction, but less so to those that see a genre label and translate it as "not what I read."

    I find it's infinitely more interesting to figure out how many different ways I can describe a story than to find the single way to describe it that is best. You can check out my particular obsession with these ideas by visiting my TagShadow project, if you so desire.

  2. I agree, and on the flip side, it feels awkward to me to have to label something by all of the things that apply to it. An example is the TagShadow you linked. Go to the everything tab, and you can see all the dozens of different ways to label a book by its elements, even if those elements are necessarily "genre." Imagine, then, trying to use a similar strategy to describe to each person you meet what a book is categorized as.

    If we take Lord of the Rings, for example, and only talk about the themes, rather than individual characters or creatures, we end up with a list so massive to render it useless for any discussion about what that "book" is.

    I suspect that some part of this issue of "reductive labeling" is in how non-genre people visualize the fantasy genre. The problem is that fantasy (and its fans) have done a fine job of making the name seem synonymous with the cliches, despite the fact that the genre encompasses so much...

    Thanks for the comment. TagShadow is an interesting idea :).

  3. Fantasy is such a huge, overwhelming umbrella term that it is impossible for it to be reductive. The problem is that the snooty lit buffs have ghettoized all genre fic. The biggest shots to the cause of genre lit being accepted is when people who so blatantly write genre fic bash genre fic (i.e. Margaret Atwood). We need more JG Ballard's who not only accepted he was SF, but reveled in it.

  4. WTF? All labels are reductive, by nature. That's the POINT of having labels at all. How the hell does calling a label "reductive" invalidate the use of said label? That's like calling a definition too defining so it shouldn't be used.

  5. I can't believe I never responded to you guys. Idiot moment. I'm late, but whatever.

    I agree with you that it's impossible for it be reductive in a negative sense. Dave is right that all labels are reductive by nature, but I think what I was trying to get at was the notion that the labels themselves are reductive to the point of being detrimental to the text.

    So, Dave and I agree :P