Are publishing genres morphing, as fantastic and sci-fi elements become more commonplace? If so what does that say (if anything) about our culture or selling stories into our culture?

I read the new bestseller, The Lost Island by Preston & Child, and started to think about what this book says about publishing genres in Story Telling.

In mature industries, products become commodities and commoditization is countered by ever-finer segmentation of the market. And what industry could be more mature than Story Telling? Whether you read it, watch it, or listen to it, behind the differences in technical delivery systems (books versus e-books, books versus movies, movies versus television) Story Telling is mature and yet the human appetite for stories seems unquenchable. My question to you here is whether the segmentation, or genre groupings, is morphing yet again. In particular, in our modern world, are folks with no interest in Sci Fi and Fantasy happy to have such elements in the stories they do like?

The premise of The Lost Island is [spoiler alert!] that America was discovered by ancient Greeks; the Odyssey recounts the voyage; and if you travel to the right place, you’ll encounter what Odysseus encountered.

So how do you classify this book? Amazon does it this way:

Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers & Suspense > Crime > Heist


And yet, many of the story elements are usually labelled as “speculative fiction”. This story could be regarded as either “fantasy” or “science fiction”, I suppose, and yet somehow it feels like “action-adventure” to me.  Moreover, the same is true of many other thrillers, from The Da Vinchi Code to secret agents. Many contain fantastical or futuristic elements.

In science we say that systems of classification are about the lowest form of science. You observe things superficially, you name them, and you group according to names. As your science progresses, you drill down into the elements, trying to understand how things work. Classifying stories by genre is similar I suppose. It’s like folding bed sheets: the flat sheet folds neatly and the fitted sheet doesn’t. The point is that, with apologies to Amazon, Netflix, and everyone else, genre labels matter—they correlate with consumer tastes—but they may matter less and less.

I’m not sure it’s the Story Tellers themselves who are keen on genre labels (I may be wrong). Robert McKee might say that every Story Teller works in a genre whether s/he knows it or not, and it’s best to know the conventions of the genre. The content pipeline has to communicate with the public, and the bookstores and streaming services need to know what shelf the story goes on. Finally, if the consumer thinks they’re getting oatmeal and they’re really getting granola, word of mouth could be a problem.

Evidently, the method today is whether the story is really “about” the fantastical elements, or whether they are there simply as props. If the publisher and consumer find the story to be “about” the rapid unfolding of dangerous events, who am I to dispute the thriller/suspense category?

That said, most if not all stories are really about characters and events, everything else is a device and I’m unsure where the gridlines should fall. Perhaps all stories should be labelled, with apologies to Aristotle and Professors of English: Journey, Chase, or Stranger Comes to Town?

The reason we come to a story isn’t the reason we stay with the story—and the story stays with us afterward. Is Ender’s Game Military Sci Fi, or is it (in the author’s words) a story of gifted children trapped in childhood, exploited by adults? There wasn’t even a category originally for Lord of the Rings, which the author thought was best pigeon-holed as “historical fiction” but was introduced in America as science fiction. While I’ve focused on Sci Fi here, the question applies to other genres.

Meanwhile the public is consuming a steady TV diet of horror and fantasy and science-fiction-like high technology, and many of these viewers would never watch something labelled as science fiction. Personally, I’d say reality TV is another form of horror and fantasy, but maybe I’m a snob.

My puzzlement at all this might seem tediously abstract, but fortunes rise and fall on getting the categories right. Story Tellers have to convey this to distribution channels and then to consumers. The key to this, I suppose, is to differentiate the product in a manner that is meaningful to the buyer. Hopefully the “science” of genres will progress. With the tidal wave of content out there, everyone could use a little progress on this front.

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