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Old 04-28-2022, 09:03 PM   #1
ZodWallop
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Empty genres; or what to do with all those -punks?

On the Grimdark thread I was being a bit of a jerk about what I considered silly genres.

I just read an article that did a better job explaining my opinion than I have done: Identity through Consumption - On Steampunk and the Empty Genre Problem of Consumerist Storytelling

If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, I don't blame you. Here's the relevant points:
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Dieselpunk. Biopunk. Fantasy of Manners. Noblebright. Cassette Futurism. Steampunk. These terms ostensibly describe genres of imaginative literature – but can you name a Noblebright book? Can you name a story of Cassette Futurism?

These terms don’t really describe genres, they describe hypothetical genres by plucking out a few aesthetic or conceptual guidelines which could theoretically be developed into a genre of story. More accurately, they describe settings.
And the problem with that is:
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When an author chooses a setting, it should be because, along with the other elements of the story, it participates in eliciting the particular theme he wants to show. When Raymond Chandler gives you a private eye pounding the streets of Los Angeles in The Big Sleep, the setting supports his efforts to show how a regular guy can stick to a moral code in a society that’s corrupt from top to bottom, and what that code will cost him.
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Boneshaker is “a science fiction novel… combining the steampunk genre with zombies in an alternate history.” But why are there zombies, and why is it steampunk? There’s no meaningful thematic connection in the novel between the zombies, the gears, and the story. In other words, the choice to include them is a purely aesthetic one, completely disconnected from any thematic point to the story.
After slagging Boneshaker, the author does point to positive examples: William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, where the steampunk setting is more than just set dressing.

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Old 04-29-2022, 12:24 PM   #2
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Thanks for starting this thread! I have Opinions but didn't want to derail the other thread.

I read the article, and it didn't impress me. I'd place it in the "insult something popular hoping for rage reads" subgenre of clickbait.
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Dieselpunk. Biopunk. Fantasy of Manners. Noblebright. Cassette Futurism. Steampunk. These terms ostensibly describe genres of imaginative literature – but can you name a Noblebright book? Can you name a story of Cassette Futurism?
Sure. For "Noblebright", Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionawar Tapestry series is the first that springs to mind -- an epic tale of fight against a world-threatening evil, with likeable protagonists who overcome personal weaknesses and win through heroism and self-sacrifice, and with a hopeful ending. I've never heard of "Cassette Futurism" before, but it sounds like futurism based on the 70's and 80's, so maybe the comic Paper Girls by Vaughan and Chiang, and Stålenhag's Tales from the Loop?

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These terms don’t really describe genres, they describe hypothetical genres by plucking out a few aesthetic or conceptual guidelines which could theoretically be developed into a genre of story. More accurately, they describe settings.
That sounds like a unnecesessarily restrictive view of what a genre is. Some genres describe the setting, like "historical fiction" and "steampunk". Others describe the mood, like "humour" and "grimdark". Some describe the main plot, like "romance" and "crime". And when we get to more detailed subgenres, a lot of them will describe some mix of setting, plot, and mood, like "cozy mystery", "hard science fiction", "sword and sorcery", and "fantasy of manners".

I've read Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, and I'd say the setting is important to both the plot and the mood of the story. You have this huge train thundering over the prairie, with a heavily guarded freight car which the passengers get increasingly uneasy about. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that the freight car contains zombies, and that they get out. In part it's a story about a powerful company using technology in unsafe ways, blithely willing to risk other people's lives, and when things go wrong trying to surpress the truth to avoid bad PR. If you open a random newspaper the odds are good you'll find some version of this story, and it has probably been told in every setting and genre, from Henrik Ibsen's plays to the latest Netflix hit. The story works really well with the combination of horror elements and weird science in Boneshaker. (I didn't like it because I never connected with the protagonist, but I have no complaints about the setting or genre(s).)

I'd also say that there's nothing wrong with writing in a setting simply because you like it. The author complained about Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. The story about the friendship between the fleeing heir of duke Franz Ferdinand and a junior crew member on an airship could probably have worked just as well on a sailship or steamship, but why shouldn't Westerfeld set the story on an airship if he wants to? Is there some artistic or moral merit in avoiding steampunk elements?

The author of the article also complains that people make and buy "steampunk'd objects" that "serve no functional purpose whatsoever beyond ticking all the aesthetic boxes of the setting". Has he met human beings? Decorating ourselves and our surroundings with non-functional stuff because we like how it looks and/or because we want a connection with other people is as human as telling stories.

I see these micro-genres the same way I see all genres: labels which can be helpful in finding what we like. And a narrow term like grimdark or fantasy of manners is far more likely to give useful information than huge overarching genres like fantasy and science fiction. Some genre names may be short lived, but that's fine. And of course, very few genre names will be meaningful and interesting for everyone, but there's no reason they should be. I'm sure there are lots of words and expressions which describe the nuances in poetry, wine, baseball, rap music... Most of those words are meaningless to me, but their existence doesn't harm me, and is helpful to others, so why should I mind that they exist?

There are, of course, some books where you get the feeling that the author doesn't like or respect the genre they are writing in, and is indeed only using it because they imagine it sells well. But that's an argument against those specific books, not against the genres.
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Old 04-29-2022, 12:50 PM   #3
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... can you name a Noblebright book? Can you name a story of Cassette Futurism?

No, but discovering new settings is one of the things I most enjoy about reading.

... These terms don’t really describe genres, they describe hypothetical genres by plucking out a few aesthetic or conceptual guidelines which could theoretically be developed into a genre of story.

Couldn't the same thing be said about the earliest writings of R. E. Howard? Or even Edgar Allan Poe? Someone has to be first.

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Old 04-29-2022, 03:44 PM   #4
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It's not just books that have expanded their genres. It's people too. Back when I was in school, we had hippies, nerds, cowboys, and jocks. When my kids were in school there were a lot more. Things I had never heard of. Goths and emus and things like that. Don't even think about trying to learn what's represented in the LGBTRXQWZ+ group. Have you looked at how many different music genres there are these days?

I think everybody wants to come up with a new identity to describe what they are - an identity that is unique and different from every other person. But there aren't enough real identities to go around. So you end up with a bunch of meaningless and made up differentiators. This is what has happened to book genres, and everything else.
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Old 04-29-2022, 09:56 PM   #5
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For "Noblebright", Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionawar Tapestry series is the first that springs to mind -- an epic tale of fight against a world-threatening evil, with likeable protagonists who overcome personal weaknesses and win through heroism and self-sacrifice, and with a hopeful ending.
Yeah, but that is the vast majority of fantasy tales before Thomas Covenant (and most after). That is such a broad tag, what is the use of it, except to say 'this isn't grimdark'?

I shared the article not because I think the labels must be wiped from use. But mostly because I think they are stupid and having a million sub-sub-subgenres stops being informative and can become a hassle. As an example, Gullstruck Island (a book currently on sale) is #94 in Teen & Young Adult Fiction about Siblings and is #258 in Teen & Young Adult Siblings Fiction.

I know those are different, but they still illustrate my point.

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The author of the article also complains that people make and buy "steampunk'd objects" that "serve no functional purpose whatsoever beyond ticking all the aesthetic boxes of the setting". Has he met human beings? Decorating ourselves and our surroundings with non-functional stuff because we like how it looks and/or because we want a connection with other people is as human as telling stories.
Yeah, that part of the article I didn't really care about.

I'm willing to admit that maybe this whole thing comes from the sub-sub-subgenres being new and me being old. I don't like them and they need to get off my lawn!
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Old 04-29-2022, 10:10 PM   #6
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Yeah, anything beyond Thriller, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, and Action/Adventure is lost on me!
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Old 04-30-2022, 05:57 AM   #7
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Don't even think about trying to learn what's represented in the LGBTRXQWZ+ group.
Mocking important parts of people's identities like gender and sexuality is unkind, and makes me think less of you.


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Yeah, but that is the vast majority of fantasy tales before Thomas Covenant (and most after). That is such a broad tag, what is the use of it, except to say 'this isn't grimdark'?
I read an article about noblebright, and found that it is both narrower and broader than I thought. It does seem to mean "not grimdark", but the article said that it's adjacent to "clean" novels (which is an icky way of describing books without explicit sex or violence), and to Christian novels. So while the term technically is very broad, it seems to me that authors who choose to put that label on their books probably aren't for me.
So this thread has resulted in me learning a bit more about a subgenre that's helpful for me when vetting books, that's good

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I shared the article not because I think the labels must be wiped from use. But mostly because I think they are stupid and having a million sub-sub-subgenres stops being informative and can become a hassle. As an example, Gullstruck Island (a book currently on sale) is #94 in Teen & Young Adult Fiction about Siblings and is #258 in Teen & Young Adult Siblings Fiction.

I know those are different, but they still illustrate my point.
Heh, I don't get the difference between those two. And I'll agree that some microgenres seem silly. Cassette Futurism, for instance, does seem more like a setting than a genre (and a quick search doesn't show me anyone who's using it as a genre term, so maybe that one's made of straw).

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I'm willing to admit that maybe this whole thing comes from the sub-sub-subgenres being new and me being old. I don't like them and they need to get off my lawn!
I'm getting a hint of grumpy curmudgeon in this discussion, yeah. I'll bask in my adventurous youth (I'm 54) and go seek out some hopepunk
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Old 04-30-2022, 03:17 PM   #8
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I read an article about noblebright, and found that it is both narrower and broader than I thought. It does seem to mean "not grimdark", but the article said that it's adjacent to "clean" novels (which is an icky way of describing books without explicit sex or violence), and to Christian novels.
That is the way the author of that article describes it. I would bet four fantasy fans would have four different definitions of noblebright. Or what books count as biopunk. Eventually you have so many microgenres, you wind up with one per book. And how helpful is that?

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So while the term technically is very broad, it seems to me that authors who choose to put that label on their books probably aren't for me.
So this thread has resulted in me learning a bit more about a subgenre that's helpful for me when vetting books, that's good
The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Dragonlance Chronicles all seem like they would fall under your above noblebright definition. So I wouldn't say that is a good signal of books to avoid.

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Heh, I don't get the difference between those two.
Oh, my phrasing was off.

Teen & Young Adult Fiction about Siblings and Teen & Young Adult Siblings Fiction seem like they are exactly the same.

I meant those made up Amazon genres are different from the fan-made made up genres we are discussing. But to my mind, they are about equally useful.

Quote:
And I'll agree that some microgenres seem silly. Cassette Futurism, for instance, does seem more like a setting than a genre (and a quick search doesn't show me anyone who's using it as a genre term, so maybe that one's made of straw).
I guess in the end, it just comes down to my feeling like noblebright and the various '-punks' are just terms made up by people on twitter that are not useful in a real book store/library/whatever.
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Old 04-30-2022, 11:49 PM   #9
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Mocking important parts of people's identities like gender and sexuality is unkind, and makes me think less of you.
No one is mocking. It's a perfectly valid example to illustrate the high number of sub-genres and sub-classifications that we are now dealing with in many walks of life. Just like all the other examples I gave ... groups in high school, music genres, etc. The point was to illustrate how we are flooded with sub-classifications these days, in all kinds of different areas of life. Even the gay community itself now adds a plus sign on the end of the letter designations to indicate there are too many to list. Given that, I can't think of a better example to illustrate my point. So I included it in with my other examples, because it is a good example.
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Old 05-01-2022, 01:52 AM   #10
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No one is mocking. It's a perfectly valid example to illustrate the high number of sub-genres and sub-classifications that we are now dealing with in many walks of life. Just like all the other examples I gave ... groups in high school, music genres, etc. The point was to illustrate how we are flooded with sub-classifications these days, in all kinds of different areas of life. Even the gay community itself now adds a plus sign on the end of the letter designations to indicate there are too many to list. Given that, I can't think of a better example to illustrate my point. So I included it in with my other examples, because it is a good example.
As someone on that spectrum, I took no offense and think the comparison was an apt and valid one. All of those letters do have meaning, to those they represent. But expecting someone on the oustide to remember every letter in the ever expanding tag is unrealistic.

And going back to the premise. I similarly think all those microgenre tags come off as dense and impenetrable.
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Old 05-03-2022, 08:20 AM   #11
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The good thing is that no one really needs to penetrate dense genre subclassifications if they don't want to. The larger umbrellas they fall under aren't usually that difficult to suss. Go as granular or broad as you like and allow others to do the same. Discussing examples of ones you "don't get" is rarely helpful/enlightening, and is typically unnecessarily dismissive (even when you don't intend to be).
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Old 05-03-2022, 08:33 AM   #12
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Social media and self-publishing have opened the floodgates. Choice is no longer curated (limited) by bookstore stocks or publisher gatekeepers. Anybody can find whatever they want to read. It makes perfect sense that an explosion of options would require additional categories.

Genres are time-saving signposts. They not only help direct people toward the material they want, but also away from what they wouldn't enjoy. What's not to like?
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Old 05-03-2022, 08:59 AM   #13
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Also, the article's author tips his hand in the final paragraph. "Write a real story," he says.

And there you have it. This pretentious prig wants to decide which stories are "real," and then tell us to read them. Only them. He yearns for the control the publishing houses used to wield over what we read.

Sorry, Charlie. That ship has sailed. Get over it.
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Old 05-03-2022, 11:23 AM   #14
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Sometimes too many sub-genres can turn you away from something you might like. Case in point for me. When I originally saw the genre "Urban Fantasy" I didn't know what it was. I knew I felt more comfortable in the rural or suburburban areas rather than the urban ones - using the traditional understanding of these words. And fantasy is something I sometimes like a little bit, and other times avoid. So I stayed away from "Urban Fantasy" because it just didn't sound appealing. Then for some unknown reason, I read Jim Butcher's first Dresden Files book. And I really liked it. Will I like other authors take on Urban Fantasy? That, I can't say. But I can say that I was initially repelled from the genre just by it's chosen sub-classification name, and not knowing what that meant.

So it works both ways. Too many oddly named sub-genres can be a turn off as well as an invitation. Had I been asked how to describe Jim Butcher's work, I would have called it something like "Crime/Mystery, with a magical twist". "Urban Fantasy" seems like an artificial jumble of unrelated words to me. An attempt to distinguish the genre as something different from all the rest, but doing so in a relatively meaningless way. Basically, it is just plain old Crime/Mystery. With a twist of the occult added. It's not really a "new genre" IMHO.
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Old 05-12-2022, 03:16 PM   #15
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As I mentioned in the SF/Fantasy thread, I have a tendency to start to draft answers, and then never getting around to posting them because I want to answer all points I find interesting in the thread. I'll post this even if it isn't complete:

Quote:
Originally Posted by ZodWallop View Post
The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Dragonlance Chronicles all seem like they would fall under your above noblebright definition. So I wouldn't say that is a good signal of books to avoid.
Sounds about right for me, then

(I'm glad to have read LotR and the Narnia books, as they're foundational to the genre, but they're pretty far from what I prefer to read these days.)

Quote:
I guess in the end, it just comes down to my feeling like noblebright and the various '-punks' are just terms made up by people on twitter that are not useful in a real book store/library/whatever.
All words are made up. Terms which are made up in conversation between readers and authors today are more likely to be useful for readers than terms made up between readers and authors forty years ago. I remember the terms "hard science fiction", "low fantasy", and "high fantasy" from when I was a teenager. They aren't terribly useful when I'm looking for books now.


I'm reminded of this blog post about discovering a genre, by Sarah Rees Brennan:

Quote:
So my agent, the Lovely Kristin, had given up on getting me to write anything popular, because I am a monster who destroys all in my path! Or… I march to the beat of my own drummer, or something.

KRISTIN: So what’s this… thing that you want to write, then?
SARAH: Oh gosh okay wait till I tell you! It’s going to be awesome. You’ll see. It’s about a lady reporter who lives in a tiny English town.
KRISTIN: Always England with you…
SARAH: But this is different! Lexicon was cities. This is in the country, and that’s quite a different feel. You know what Stephen King called ‘The Peculiar Little Town’? Secrets. Beautiful surroundings. Oppressive feelings. And on the hill above the town, a house…
KRISTIN: Oh you’re writing a Gothic novel.
SARAH: … Beg pardon?
[ ... ]
KRISTIN: You know, Gothic novels. A girl trapped in a house… not sure if her surroundings are sinister, or sure who she can trust…
SARAH: Wait, like Rebecca? Oh hang on, wait, I’ve read tons of books like that! Huh. You know, I never put it together that all those books with a similar theme were a genre and not, you know. A weird coincidence. Gothic novels! How about that.
KRISTIN: They were very popular… in the eighties. You want to write a kind of book that was popular thirty years ago. This is a terrible idea.
SARAH: Terribly awesome.
...and then she went on to read a lot of gothics, and wrote about the conventions of the genre, and which ones she chose to use in her own book, and how and why she chose to use them. You don't need to know anything about the gothic genre to enjoy Brennan's Unspoken, but having read a lot of them when they were popular in the eighties, it was fun to see her take the tropes of genre apart and put them together in a new way.





On the answers to haertig's "LGBTRXQWZ+ group":

Adding a lot of nonsense characters to LGBT+ seems awfully like mocking to me. If I'm wrong, and that's a real acronym, I'd appreciate a link to help me learn better. Google didn't find it.

I'll try not to stray over into Politics & Religion territory, but this is a good parallel to the genre discussion: Noone's demanding that everyone know all of the intricacies of gender identity and sexuality. Some people find the rare terms useful, that's great for them. The rest of us can ignore the details, and just stick to some easy rules of manners (address people as they want to be addressed, basically). If someone finds it helpful to use a term I don't understand to describe themselves, that's no skin off my nose.

I'm probably skating close to white-knighting here, but the rights of transgender and non-binary people are currently under attack in my country, and mockery has been followed by more concrete harm (reduced access to health care).
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