Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Genres and Misfits - Labels in Literature

The digital age demands categories and labels in order to sort the overwhelming quantity of data and information floating through cyber space. Search engines want to know where we fit and where our ideas fit. They want to know because there are people at the other end trying to sift through all this information to find what they seek. Genre labels can help your audience find you, and they can help you connect with the right people and places. Nevertheless, the process of labeling oneself tickles a disturbing place in the brain.

I recently checked out an online database for submissions called duotrope (my thanks to Pete Morin of the Fiction Writers Guild on Linked In for sharing this). It seemed like a great resource, but it forced me to parse things into multiple layers of categories. Duotrope's lists were not only sorted into 9 genres, but also into innumerable subgenres and each of those were sorted into styles. I struggled to determine which of my stories fit into which categories, or whether my stories were misfits.

Agents and publishers use genre labels, too. So often, the bio information for editors or agents at a conference or in a newsletter includes a list of genres they seek and those that "need not apply." Meanwhile, authors struggle to decode what each agent's definition of these terms might be. Do they interpret "horror" the way I interpret "horror"? How are they defining "magical realism"? What's their issue with "inspirational," or do they really mean "anything at all to do with religion"?

I suppose it's better than being back in high school, where people assigned labels and categories to human beings. Still, I can't help but notice that same, rebellious piece of my brain fighting against the boxes, whether it's "jock, brain, stoner and drama fag" or "horror, romance, mystery and thriller."

None of us like being pigeonholed. Maybe that's because so many voices coexist inside us. We are filled with selves - dark selves, humorous selves, adventurous selves, argumentative selves. Each self has it's own collection of stories, and those stories take many different forms. Perhaps that's the beauty of the whole genre and subgenre game. I'm not labeling myself. I'm just labeling one story. And I have an unlimited supply of stories inside of me, stories of many different stripes.

Classifying and categorizing is part of human nature. Even as young children, we sort our world into categories - people who look like our parents and people who don't; men with beards and men without; humans, animals and clowns (their own disturbing category). It's how we store memories and organize data in our brains. The danger comes when we exclude things from our world based purely on labels and categories, when we shrink our world to fit those categories, when the labels serve as boundaries to our vision of the possible. Narrowing the search shouldn't mean narrowing your mind.

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