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Monday, November 4

Guest Author Michael Kinn: On Genre Angst

By Michael Kinn

Please help me welcome Michael Kinn to the blog today to share with us some of the puzzles and frustrations of not fitting into a genre--and the even more frustrating "almost" fitting into several.

Michael makes up stuff as a scientist, a storyteller and a writer, any combination of which sets his creative juices flowing. He loves the ocean, writes under the influence of green tea and finds life a breeze compared to negotiating his teenagers’ freedom charters. Michael is addicted to great stories and in dire need of extra lives.

Take it away Michael...

Thinking outside of the box is good and well if you've got a box.

The scientist in me wears a T-shirt with large print on the back: "There is no f***ing box!"

Boxes are fictions of the imagination: non-rational happenings without causality, peskily occurring in the real world where such things have no place--a true low-fantasy concept according to Wikipedia. And I'll have none of it, thanks very much.

To see the world clearly, you've got to start without a box.

The same goes for writing, or so I’m told. The last thing a writer needs is to mold their writing to a box while dreaming up new worlds. Who needs a stifled imagination or formulaic books?

I don’t write to fit a genre, but, once I’ve completed a novel, I can’t help but ponder genres. I want to put my work in its little niche, protected by sturdy fences. Shameful, but there it is. I crave a box--if only to break out of it.

Venturing into the speculative zone, I dropped my novel straight in the fantasy box. Next, I read the instructions below the label (stupid, I know) and panicked. My story has no magic or secondary world.

Embarrassed, I scrambled for the low fantasy sub-compartment and lobbed the story in there. Low fantasy is all about low fantasy content, including magic.

All seemed well, until readers started calling my story "epic". This confused me no end. Epic fantasy has magic in it. Sure it does. My story has no magic (or does it?). It isn't "epic", I insisted. It's low, so low it's like coca cola-zero--fantasy-zero.

There, I did it. I was home, in my F-0 box. Except, there is no such thing. Wikipedia references pin low fantasy as "a subgenre involving non-rational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world (= the real world or a rational fictional world) where such things are not supposed to occur". Jeez. My story has no such happenings, yet takes place in the rational world. But it seems low, R. R. Martin kind-of-low, with measured doses of magic (ok, in truth, no magic). So, how low can you go?

Should I box it under magic realism in that case? Guess what. It doesn't fit that box either.

I felt exposed, box-less, until Wikipedia finally delivered, with Rod Serling's definition of science fiction. I worship Rod, for he gave me my box.

Twilight Zone's authoritative feedback is crystal:
Science fiction is the improbable made possible. Fantasy is the impossible made probable.
Bang on. And my story, if anything, makes the improbable possible.

Satisfied, I shoved my work into the SF box, clapped my hands off it and moved on.

Except, my readers still insist I wrote epic fantasy. They wonder what other fantasy readers will make of it, it having no magic and all. Or does it have any after all? That's what they wonder. Now, so do I.

Did I write Epic-0? And won't anyone drink that? Did I cross genres, serving fantasy that's SF? If so, I can't wait to try the reverse. But wait, what would that even mean? I'm confused.

Genres suck... when you’re trying to fit in your own work.

The writer in me is gonna wear that T-shirt too from now on.

Genres are crossed all the time, or confused. Genres evolve. It’s a catch-up/rear-view mirror kind of game. When enough novels differ from prior genres, yet share traits in common, new sub genres are born, like the tricky magic realism, or, more recently, urban fantasy and steam punk. New novels are written every day, breaking or crossing genres. Boundaries shift and blur. Small wonder that genres can spark fierce debates.

Yet, pondering subgenres gives me a deeper insight in authors’ choices and the nature of their work. And, breaking/crossing boundaries is fun. Let the academics scramble to catch up.

Writing on… But as a writer, not-quite author (when it comes to fiction), I get genre-obsessed at times.

What about you? Can genres do your head in? Especially the more ill defined ones? Do you feel the sand is shifting under your novel all the time? What’s your take on genres?