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Sunday, February 04, 2007


Genre stats

This is most interesting. A discussion on Miss Snark's website threw up the following statistic: that more than half the people who answered a 'What's Your Genre' poll on Absolute Write were writing fantasy. Looking at it, the statistics are a bit funny - if you add all the percentages, you get by my (unchecked) calculations a grand total of 259.36%, so either people are writing multi-genred books that let them tick multiple boxes, or else they're writing several different books at once. However, if you add up science fiction, fantasy, horror and paranormal, which is to say, books with a non-realistic scenario, then you get back up to roughly half again.

What's going on? This being an internet poll, it's almost certainly not a poll of everyone who's writing a book, just the people who are writing a book and who regularly use the internet to inform and entertain themselves rather than just for e-mail, which narrows down the category, and, as Miss Snark remarked previously, science fiction and fantasy fans are probably 'early adopters of electronic forms' - ie, likely to be over-represented statistically in Web polls, because the mystery writers aren't surfing. A survey in a newspaper or a public library might produce some interestingly different statistics.

However, I certainly remember from the last job I had a pretty high number of stories with a science fiction or paranormal leaning in the slush pile, which suggests that a lot of people are writing that kind of thing. Wondering why it's so popular, I suspect one major reason is that the fans of - oh, I need a blanket term, and I can't stand the acronym SFF, so let's call it paranatural for the sake of argument and amusement - fans of paranatural literature tend to socialise over their genre more than most. They get on the Net and meet people who share their tastes, they organise events, they have magazines; there's an air of participation that you don't get with, say, action/adventure fiction. That sense of participation might well lead you to take the next step, which is to participate by trying to write one of those books yourself.

Conversely, at pretty much all the writing classes I've ever attended, there have been practically no writers there who were writing paranatural stuff: the vast majority would have been what that survey called 'Mainstream/Contemporary', with a handful of mystery and thrillers thrown in. From what I can gather on the Net, this may be because paranatural fans have their own writing classes specifically for paranatural fiction, and also use the Net more. (It may simply be that the kind of classes I went to happened to attract mainstream/contemporary authors, of course, but still.)

Personally, being an enemy to genre labels of all kinds, I think segregated writing classes are a bad idea, whether for paranatural, adventure or minimalised conceptual fiction-bytes. You may have the benefit of an audience who are sympathetic to your aim, but it's a way of keeping a genre ghettoised; if you only have to work to please people who are already on side, with the basic idea if not necessarily with all the details of your execution, then you don't have to work so hard. The result is stuff that'll seem closed-off to outsiders, because you can rely on conventions and presuppositions rather than striving to create something that can stand alone. I remember going into a comics shop for the first time, having read Maus and wondering if there was anything else like that (I suspect there isn't, but I thought it was worth a try), and being utterly bewildered: to someone who didn't already have a good familiarity with the genre, there was simply no way to browse, because it was entirely organised for people who pretty much knew what they were looking for before they went in. I wandered around leafing through stacks for about five minutes, then gave up and left in sheer puzzlement. An overly in-turned genre can feel like that: you pick up a book and go 'Huh?', leafing through in confusion, wondering what all these assumptions that seem to be being addressed actually are. Any genre that has a loyal readership can develop habits, and habits are bad for fiction: you can put something in because it's habitual, neglecting to justify its presence, and that'll alienate people who aren't already in the habit. That's going to keep your readership small, and almost certainly produce worse work.

But that aside, what draws people to write particular genres? Which is really the most popular? And if so, why?

I'd say one of the biggest draws to writing a certain genre is what you've grown up reading. All my life, I've loved science fiction and fantasy (often both stuck along with horror and paranormals under the label "speculative fiction") and so that is what I love writing. I honestly can't make myself write a normal fiction story that could happen in the modern day world without trying to inject some out-there element to it. It's how my mind works.

As for genre labels..yea, it sometimes sucks to have to squidge a story that is truly unique into a certain category that then lets readers pre-judge its contents according to their genre-bias. But I suppose such things are needed at times so the booksellers don't get up in arms over whether to stock the latest vampire-romance in the pink heavy valentine's day section or the goth-tones fantasy shelf.

Judging from what I see online, the most popular genre to write in these days is Fantasy. I attribute this to the success of Harry Potter and Eragon, among others. I remember when I checked out the top selling YA books on Amazon, they were all Fantasy. Something tells me tho' that it's more popular with writers than with readers. As Josh suggests, I think many people are writing Fantasy because that's what they love to read (at least, they've read Harry Potter, oh and they watch Buffy).

Most of the Fantasy I see in workshops and slush is not publishable. The SF is actually worse, if you can believe that. Many people seem to think that Fantasy is easy to write (because you just make everything up with none of that pesky research) and budding SF writers are perpetually reinventing the wheel.

Old and grumpy, that's me.
Ye speaketh the mighty truth, Buffy. Neil Gaiman says he lovs his job because he gets to make a living making things up. I think a lot of budding writers (as if I'm not one of them) look at that and say..hey...I had this cool dream last night that was way wacky and could just work as a novel idea if I actually put some logical flow between the part with the purple, one-eyed monster and my long-lost kitten appearing at the end with a flaming spear of justice. Sometimes it surprises me how few take the time to actually understand the world they're writing within. And while there are certainly people who can wing that sort of thing, a fantasy world is apt to not make sense unless some thought has been put into the kingdoms, cultures, and systems of magic that make up existence.

Science fiction..gah..even a bigger bucket of creepy-crawlies, because you have to, generally, make it seem logical and plausible,. So many times it seems that people figure they can just throw in a Macguffin like a time travel machine, never even attempt to explain how the thing works, and they've got a story. In this way, non-speculative fiction is almost easier to write because you can base everything on things we are already familiar with. We have cars. We have computers and the Internet. You don't have to go out and make a six-legged creature called a Gnorpf to explain transportation or embellish on a planet-wide system telepathic linkup.

But it's those people who skimp on developing their world, even in their own minds, who end up hurting the genre, I'd say. Not that I have an opinion or anything.


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