The Soft Prejudice of Genre

Labels don’t always mean what they think we mean.  In the world of fiction, there are a plenty of labels to go around.  Most of those labels serve only to divide and prejudice the audience, and it’s time we stopped looking at them as some indicator of innate quality.  Labels work best when they are applied to concrete qualities, but it’s human nature to take those concrete qualities and apply abstract assumptions to them.  It’s nothing new, and we do it all the time.  It’s a convenient shorthand, but convenient is all it is.  It isn’t always true, and often, it leads us to the wrong conclusions.

I am a fantasy writer.  I’m confident with that definition because all my stories have important fantastic elements to them.  I’m a humorous writer.  Again, whether I want the label or not, I can’t deny that there’s a healthy dose of intentional humor in nearly everything I write.  Those are simple labels.  They get the job done.  But they tell you nothing about the quality of the stories.  They only tell you what elements you can expect to be incorporated into them.  You might like those elements.  You might not.  It’s a handy jumping off point to gauge your interest, but it isn’t an indicator of the quality of the writing itself.  There’s a sort of soft bigotry at work in all of us.  It’s soft in this context because it doesn’t do much damage, but the results are still the same.  By forming assumptions, we cut ourselves off from experiences.  We sort everything into neat little categories, and we decide the value of those categories arbitrarily.  It’s like meeting the love of your life and missing out on the chance to know them because of the color of their eyes or the style of their haircut.

I write fantasy.  I write humor.  I love robots and space aliens and minotaurs.  It’s very easy to see if a story has those elements in it.  It’s just a checklist.  It doesn’t mean I like every story (or even most stories) with those elements in them.  I grew up immersed in the superhero genre, and I’m still fond of it.  But there’s a lot of superhero stuff I just don’t care for.  There are many classic superhero stories I find downright overrated.  Seriously, if someone tries to tell me how awesome The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, or Watchmen is, I’m happy to discuss it, but I am not going to agree.

I love robots.  I have no interest in the newest Transformers movie.

I love kaiju flicks.  I found the most recent Godzilla to be an empty exercise in plot zombies (i.e. characters who exist only to do what the story needs them to do without any other sense of purpose).

That’s okay.  I can say these things are bad (subjective).  It doesn’t diminish the genre.  It doesn’t mean that all robot movies stink or all kaiju flicks are stupid.  That’s my biggest pet peeve with the defense of these stories.  I hate when someone defends the snoozefest that was the newest Godzilla by suggesting that the kaiju genre is synonymous with “bad movie”, and since Godzilla wasn’t terrible, it is more than one could reasonably ask for from a kaiju flick.  That’s the soft prejudice of low expectations.  Worse, it diminishes an entire genre which is full of great stories, terrible stories, and a whole lot of unexceptional stories as well.  It suggests that genre indicates quality when all that the kaiju label means is that at some point a giant monster is going to appear.

Perhaps its because I’ve always loved the less respected genres, but I object to this notion.  I get angry about the latest Godzilla flick not because it’s a bad kaiju movie.  It’s just a bad movie that happens to be of the kaiju genre.  Yet for most people, even people who call themselves fans, the idea seems to be that kaiju stories are innately stupid.  So many people, both artist and audience, seem to embrace this notion as truth that it’s practically invisible.

I’m also sensitive about it because this is the stuff I’ve chosen to write.  These are my influences, and I think they’re worthy influences.  I don’t think having a robot or a vampire in my story means I’m writing slight, inconsequential stuff.  I don’t think pointing out absurdity makes me a silly writer.  I don’t think humor or fantasy equal fluff.  I’m not slumming it.  I’m not writing these things because I’m not good enough to write in other, better genres.  Genre isn’t a measure of quality.

Genre exists for a reason.  It’s a tool to help guide us.  But, too often, it also limits us.  It bars us from experiencing stories that could genuinely mean something to us.  Maybe my stories will be too silly for some.  Maybe the themes I explore and the characters I create will be impossible for some people to enjoy.  That’s okay, expected.  But it’s a real shame if the only thing keeping someone from enjoying them is what section of the bookstore those books are shelved in, and it’s a small tragedy when a dull movie like Godzilla or Skyfall succeed because they apologize for their genre rather than being interesting stories in themselves.  (Not that everyone who likes those stories likes them for those reasons.  Taste is subjective in the end.)

The tyranny of genre is that it holds us back.  Don’t let it.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write





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