FOGCon: Writing Between Genres or “You Got Chocolate on my Peanut Butter!”

Panelists:  Madeleine E. Robins; Robyn Bennis; Katharine Kerr; Delia Sherman; Sarah Stegall.

The FOGCon panel on Writing Between Genres talked about fictional works that fall between established categories. It’s like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial: “You’ve got peanut butter on my chocolate; you’ve got chocolate on my peanut butter!” In our case it’s more, “You put magic in my historical novel!” “There’s too much history in my fantasy novel!”

The question of “Why do we need genre for, anyway?” was answered sarcastically with, “So bookstores know how to shelve your books,” and, generally, some idea that pulishers needed genre for marketing purposes. Delia Sherman had a more thoughtful answer. “We are categorizing creatures –we like to know what to expect, what parts of our brain to bring to bear.” Then she said, a bit more flippantly, that some people “want what’s in the box to look just like the box.”

(This might have been a reference to the “Nuggety Nuggets” metaphor offered by one of the Hugo slatist supporters in 2015. It goes like this: Nuggety Nuggets is your favorite breakfast cereal. You buy a box every week. One week you bring home the box and eagerly pour out a bowl. Only, it’s not Nuggety Nuggets! It’s Choco Puffs! This is what it felt like to the slatists when they bought a book with a space ship on the cover and, upon starting to read it, found out that the Imperial fleet is about, well, imperialism; that the characters are complex and complicated and some even have different skin color or grew up in a different culture than the reader did. The reader just wanted a book about space ships, not this other stuff! Not Choco Puffs!)

Sarah Stegall said that she thought you could bring a lot of science and hence science fiction into almost any kind of story, but that fantasy is harder because fantasy rules are different. For example, her YA novel Chimera has a werewolf but she creates a scientific reason for lycanthropy.

Stegall also look the panel off-course in a delightful way by bringing up squid, then Amish squid, then Amish vampires in space (which is a thing.) It didn’t exactly tie in with the topic, but it was entertaining.

Robyn Bennis’s book, due out in the summer of 2017, is called The Guns Above and it clearly has a steampunk cover. Bennis said that her publisher labeled it steampunk after a writer who blurbed it for them used that term. Whatever kind of book and series Bennis thought she was writing, it is definitely steampunk now, with a steampunk title (The Signal Airship) and everything.

I haven’t read this yet, but I think this book is a good example of the “Nuggety Nuggets” fear. This book is about a world with airships, and a nation’s first woman (I presume military) airship captain. In the Amazon blurb, it’s compared both to David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (military SF) and Naomi Novik’s The King’s Dragon, (military fantasy). Is there much reader overlap there? Maybe; I mean I overlap. Still, I can picture a marketing person grabbing the blurb with both hands and saying, “Oh, thank God! It’s steampunk! Yeah, that’s it! Steampunk!”

The rise of Amazon and social media may change the need for hard-and-fast genres, Madeleine Robbins thought. While it isn’t like browsing a brick-and-mortar store, the Amazon search feature and the “People who bought this also bought…” algorithm can bring a new book to a reader’s attention even if it is not in their usual “category.”  (Robins has a set of Regency-era mysteries in an alternate British Regency, with a woman consulting detective.) Thinking about Bennis’s book with a “steampunk” blurb, a clearly steampunk cover and a series title providing the finishing touches, I also think about emerging writers who are adept in social media using crowdsourcing to end-run the categories. How many readers in their twenties and thirties are bypassing the label and looking on Tumblr and Twitter to see what their associates, or writers they admire, are extolling? If Aliette de Bodard is talking up a book on Twitter, I will probably hunt it up regardless of the “type” of book it is.

I asked why it was that mysteries can have no trouble with ghosts or psychics – both fantastical elements – and plenty of thrillers have either scientific or paranormal tropes, and romance has a whole category called paranormal romance. Those readers don’t seem to have any problems accepting speculative elements. Why do SF readers get so caught up in it?

Sherman said she thought each of those categories are identifiable by a specific structure. Speculative fiction can use any structure to explore a science fictional or fantastical element. A book with a space ship on the cover may turn out to have the structure of a mystery, or even (gasp) a western. Speculative fiction is about the elements, not a specific structure. A person who is unconsciously expecting that structure may feel disappointed.

The audience enthusiastically supported fiction that surprised us; that brought together unusual elements. China Mieville’s The City and the City was cited as cross-genre classic – an SF police procedural. Bennis said that the sage of Gilgamesh and Inkidu is a fantasy action-adventure and also the first gay romance.

Later, I thought about City of Stairs and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett; a pair of fantastical political-thriller-murder-mystery-spy-novels.

I wish I had thought to bring up the type of book being published as “fantasy;” second world stories with no magic whatsoever. Robins’s Regency period books fit here, so do Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Chronicles, where Lady Trent is an aristocrat on her world who travels about studying dragons; the technological level of development is about mid-nineteenth century; the feeling is Victorian, the dragons are real and Lady Trent is more of a naturalist than a wizard. A new book that fits right into this kind of story is Lara Elena Donnolly’s Amberlough.

As for Amish Vampires in Space, even I don’t quite know how to categorize that. It may have created its own “Amish in Space” genre.

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