Thoughts: On genre distinctions

As probably everybody knows now, I am trying to read more science fiction this year. I have started to collect books I want to read this year. While doing some research on what I want to read I stumbled on one particular road block: genre distinctions. Which got me thinking.

There are some books that are obviously science fiction (like the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, or the Imperial Ladch trilogy by Ann Leckie) but quite often I am not sure what genre a book really fits in. Which I love by t25970139he way. I adore books that straddle the line between different genres and mix different tropes inherent to them. But it makes deciding what counts towards this goal a bit tricky. For example, I have been reading the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer and hope to finish it this month. Does this count as science fiction 34368756or is it more of a dystopian novel? The same question works for the first book of his that I read: Borne. What makes a novel dystopian as opposed to science fiction? I mean, obviously there is a certain degree of pessimism involved. Dystopia takes trends from today and thinks them to their (inevitable?) extreme. But doesn’t science fiction often do something similar? One can argue that science fiction focusses science and creates a world based on this. But then again, does it have to be science as in inventions or can it not also focus social sciences and their possible differentiations? Arguably, this is what Becky Chambers does; sure her books feature scientific inventions but the focus is more on the different social structures of the different groups and their interactions.

Science fiction is not the only genre where I struggle with genre distinctions; another is magical realism. Sure there are typical examples that can be used to extrapolate what magical realism has to be like (Gabriel Garcia Marquez comes to mind) but newer magical realism does not always fit neatly into these ideas. When does magical realism become urban fantasy? And when does urban fantasy become paranormal? And when does paranormal become paranormal romance?

Genre fiction is not the only time I wonder: when does general fiction become literary fiction? Also, who decides how a book is marketed? I am sure there are lots of studies done on whose work is classified as literary and whose isn’t. (Please do link me some articles if you know of any)

It doesn’t always matter to me but I do like to put my books into nice little shelves on goodreads and I do like knowing what genres I read the most of.

What are your thoughts? How do you differentiate between similar genres? Does it even matter to you?

20 thoughts on “Thoughts: On genre distinctions

  1. I agree, Hannah, categorizing can be a real complication. Nearly all titles fit into two or more genres. It would definitely benefit everyone, from reader to author, if the industry stopped pigeonholing books and we were simply permitted to enjoy reading!

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    1. I do rely on genre categorizations though. But a thing I have been wondering about/ being annoyed about is “women’s fiction” – why do some books gets classified thusly and others not and how many great books have I and other reader missed because we tend not to read books classified this way? I usually assume “chick lit” will be romance heavy but I am sure not all is.

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    1. Yes! When I was looking for recommendations for sci-fi to read this year, people kept recommending The Broken Earth to me – which I never ever would have thought could be thought of as sci-fi and yet people do. Which, I guess makes sense, but the science is geology instead of physics.


  2. I’ve always found the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction to be interesting – often literary fiction becomes everything that isn’t genre fiction, though I don’t really think the literary fiction genre is that broad. I’ve just finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and while it was clearly both science fiction and dystopian, it had so many more themes than those that I don’t think it should be pigeonholed!

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    1. The lines get blurred even more when looking at people like Ishiguro – is Never Let Me Go really dystopian or is it literary fiction? Would it have been as widely read and acclaimed had it been written by somebody else? I do think it is brilliant but lots of genre fiction is.

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      1. I agree about Never Let Me Go! Having read it, I consider it more literary but I also don’t think I got the enjoyment from it that others did (perhaps those who are bigger fans of dystopian/science fiction than I?) Which makes me think, did my mental categorization of it as literary contribute to my opinion of it (due to the expectations I had)? Possibly.

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    1. I have been thinking of just using that umbrella term, but I don’t know… Maybe it is a bit too broad for my tastes. But then again, broad can be fitting.


    2. (Oh, the other thing is a technical distinction between post-apocalyptic and dystopia. Borne is post-apocalyptic: it’s about people living in an environment that has already been struck by catastrophe and no longer has a government. Dystopia, by contrast, is specifically about people living under a particular kind of government: one that portrays itself as good while actually being bad. So The Hunger Games counts, but The Road, for instance, doesn’t.)


  3. This is a great post. I don’t have much to contribute to the classification of sci fi vs. dystopia discussion, because I also have no idea, so I’ll skip to the literary fiction part. Not that I have any answers here either. I find this so interesting and frustrating because it’s inherently such a subjective classification. I read a review not too long ago that said something like ‘are we calling everything that doesn’t fit into another genre literary fiction now, regardless of the quality of writing?’ It made me realize that I do use my ‘literary fiction’ shelf on Goodreads as a kind of catch-all, even though I do think of literary fiction as requiring a certain quality of prose that not all of the books on that shelf have.

    I thought this post discussing the rise of ‘upmarket fiction’ as a term was interesting:

    And this info graphic I think drives home how subjective this whole thing is… because I would absolutely classify Station Eleven and All the Light We Cannot See both as upmarket, not literary. They’re both genre fiction (dystopia and historical fiction respectively) that happen to appeal to a more literary market, and isn’t that the whole point of ‘upmarket’ anyway?? But I do think the explanations of the different classifications are on point.


  4. Magical realism should never cross into fantasy. It’s taking “real life” and having a moment during which something that can’t happen does, then going right back into real life, often with evidence that the magical thing happened–and everyone ignores it. Great example: in the movie Trainspotting, Rents swims to the bottom of the ocean-toilet to recover his drugs, which are huge and glowing. He comes back out. Obviously, he didn’t swim to the bottom of the toilet because he lives in a real-world Scotland. However, in the next scene, he goes home and his clothes are still soaking wet. Then life moves on with no more magic. Boom, magical realism.

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  5. I think this is such an interesting discussion, and I agree about the blurred lines between what is commercial and what is literary. I don’t know if you ever read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, but that was originally classed as literary, and then it went on to sell so many copies that it somehow crossed the line into being commercial–so is literary just a word for a well-written book that doesn’t sell so many copies?

    I’m not sure, but I definitely hope genre restrictions continue to blur and break down.


    1. Oh, the commercial appeal is also a really interesting discussion to be had! (weirdly enough, I really, really struggled with The Miniaturist – I have since realized that maybe historical fiction is just not for me)


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