Genres are terribly messy as a classification system. Though they may come off as clear-cut to someone who only reads mystery novels, anyone attempting to pursue writing outside of that genre will likely become aware of the shortcomings of the perception of literature as fitting into genres at all.
While several different ways of listing literary genres and sub-genres have been introduced, for the purpose of this discussion we can broadly base our approach on the literary sections one usually finds in book stores as representing genres in the colloquial sense. On the shelves, we will typically have a section on fantasy and then another on horror, indicating that these are two separate genres (a notion furthermore supported by the editors and contributors of Writers Digest, see examples here and here). A novel that contains elements of both fantasy and horror can then be seen as being a hybrid or cross genre.
But how could fantasy and horror even be a part of the same metric in the first place? One being determined by a setting and the other by an emotion? For anyone who values a coherent classification system, that’s downright headache-inducing. Fantasy and horror aren’t naturally separate sides of any spectrum, outside of the artificial construct of genres. One then has to wonder whether other genres fit better into a scheme that’s broken down by mood/emotions (like horror) or settings (like fantasy). Or are different genres maybe meant to be determined by altogether different characteristics, pinpointing the defining feature that separates one type of story from another; so that if a novel is best defined by its mood it will be a horror/thriller/comedy, whereas if it‘s better defined by its relationship with reality it will then be fantasy/literary fiction? It should be noted here that fantasy tends to be lumped in with science fiction (which raises an interesting question regarding science‘s dependence on fantasy/imagination – and vice versa – in today’s world).
In a previous post on this site I have toyed with the idea that literary genres are becoming like a mock-up of movie genres, and that hence we could even expect them to lead to something resembling the rating system for movies. In a rating system of novels, similar to that of the M.P.A.A., Y.A. could then become a rating of books applicable to PG-13 for films (which is recognized as being generally the most profitable movie rating with the greatest marketing potentials – and incidentally Y.A. has similarly been described as being the most profitable genre for books). I went on to suggest that the Board of Education in America (deciding which works of literature get taught in schools, which furthermore can be a deciding factor for which books will be considered Y.A.) could become a gatekeeper for that rating system, similar to the M.P.A.A. or The Comic Code Authority.
If there were a formal classification committee for novels the way we have with films, there would supposedly be a criteria sheet with scenes, or story elements, that would ultimately determine a story’s rating. This shouldn’t be too hard to imagine, considering how a written work becomes perceived as erotica by containing explicit sex scenes. The same kind of perception could (if it doesn’t already) extend to other story elements that then move a work of fiction from one ‘type of fiction’ to another. We could imagine the ladder of the rating system for literature as looking something like this:
Children‘s literature – Young Adult – New Adult – Mystery – Thriller – Horror – Erotica.
In this bastard of a rating system, at least the genres would fit into a functioning scale, though with notable omissions. Fantasy, for one thing, wouldn’t fit into it at all; children‘s fiction are typically fantasy, but then so are many Young Adult books. A Song of Ice and Fire would be a fantasy that crosses thriller, horror and erotica. In fact, as fantasy is traditionally determined by a setting, the fantasy genre is hardly exclusive of any other theme. If we take any published novel that didn’t take place in a fantasy setting and rewrite it so that it does, does that story then automatically change genre? If so, there may be significant unused potentials for the fantasy genre, where any book that has sold well that wasn’t written as fantasy can be rehashed in a fantasy setting and thus be perceived as something altogether different. This could mean an evolution, where all other genres get consumed by fantasy. Perhaps what’s been holding such a revolution of fantasy back so far are merely fixed ideas that people tend to have regarding the fantasy genre on the whole, associating it primarily with children’s literature, or sword and sorcery. But, as fantasy can contain all the elements of all the other genres, it could even be seen as the most superior of fiction genres. The immense popularity of the Game of Thrones TV show already gives an indication to an upcoming explosion in the output of fantasy-fiction as it is.
Perhaps, rather than going on with trying to fit all fiction into genres, it should be broken down into more relevant parameters, such as: Realism: True realism/Surreal/Other-worldly; Mood: Humor/Suspense/Horror. That information could be listed and fitted neatly on the commonly unused space on the back of book covers, under the blurb.