What’s in a genre?

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I recently had a delightful conversation with one of the Flying Karamozov Brothers after their new show “4 Play.” The juggler/actor/performer/musicians were working the crowd after the show, and Stephen Bent (very tall and very cute) asked me how I would classify their show. That one stumped me. Is “variety” a classification? The show was fun, judging by the constant smile I wore throughout. Their juggling prowess took my breath away. Their schtick was sometimes adult and sometimes very, very childish. And they combine many different aspects of the performing arts. But that makes marketing a real challenge.

So it goes with genre.

In what section of the book store do you place a historical fantasy with spaceships? Or a medical drama featuring a hospital staffed by werewolves? (hey, I should write that! “Full Moon General?”)

Once upon a time I got lambasted for having spaceships show up in a fantasy story. But isn’t that what Anne McCaffery has done with her Pern novels? Or Marion Zimmer Bradley with Darkover? There is no genre, or even sub-genre, that has not been liberally dosed with the tropes of another.

I say it’s the story that matters, and the elements of genre are just there to serve good storytelling. And that’s what I saw on stage with the Flying Karamazofs. They were having fun, putting on a good show, and if that involved dancing around in pink tutus, so be it. Vision first, marketing later.

One of the most interesting discussions happened at my recent writers club meeting, over the word “speculative.” To me, it was the most mundane name I could come up with for a writing group: the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writing Group. But some of the members were facinated by this word. It is to genre fiction what “variety” is to theater. According to Wikipedia:

“Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more highly imaginative fiction genres, specifically including science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction and alternate history.”

I like that, “highly imaginative.” It gives us the freedom to play, to tell the stories we want to tell without the limits or constraints of what’s “real.” Once upon a time, any of those genres listed above, and many sub-genres not listed, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, new weird, slipstream or urban fantasy, were new, some lucky bastard (male or female) was the first to latch on to a combination of elements that combined to form something fresh and new. Over time, they caught on, and today you can go to a steampunk convention and dress up in goggles and a jetback that look smashing with your vest and cravat.

Okay, none of this answers the marketing question Stephen asked me. To him I said, basically, “tell everyone. Tell anyone. The broader your audience, the more venues you have to spread the word about what you do.” They’ve already taken the first, most important step. They’ve created a piece of art with all the whimsy their collective imaginations could bring to it. Which is precisely what I’m going to keep doing until the world takes notice. And even if they don’t.

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