The Joy of Genre (part one)

Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett

I must confess, I love cover songs—the more bizarrely genre-bending the better. (Think the Hayseed Dixies’ covers of AC/DC, or Ministry’s version of “Lay Lady Lay.”) From the popularity of The Voice and American Idol it seems I’m not alone—millions tune in to hear not entirely new music, but new versions of old songs. There is an important lesson here: it’s very easy to enjoy variations on familiar themes: ‘easy’ in a cognitive sense, in that little effort is needed, and (thus) having broad appeal. I’d argue that there’s a ‘sweet spot’ between a too-perfect copy (and therefore boring) and extreme originality (and therefore, requiring more effort to comprehend).

This ‘theme and variation’ approach seems particularly relevant to understanding genre fictions as sets of literary conventions: mysteries, horror, science fiction, and many others. Gary Wolfe noted that the genres with easier-to-summarize (and therefore communicate and learn) conventions (Westerns, Romance) made the transition from pulp magazines to books more quickly than “fantastic” genres like Science Fiction and Horror—and it’s obvious that the former require less effort to ‘learn,’ since most of the conventions are this-worldly. Western writers don’t have to invent Arizona; SF writers continually re-invented Mars, building new variations on their predecessors’; fully appreciating an author like K.S. Robinson requires one not just understand his world, but all the other ‘Marses’ which came first.

On second thought, that’s not quite true: there are additional levels of appreciation possible when one is familiar with the genre—it’s not that one level is ‘better’ or ‘deeper,’ just that there are more options available. Familiarity with a genre can ruin a novel, too, as one may not be able to appreciate an author’s world without being distracted by comparisons, especially with particularly derivative works.

My point here isn’t that authors use rules of composition to create narratives in this-or-that genre, but that for the reader, these conventions are a significant part of the fun: Thomas Disch pointed out that genres are as much or more about the audience’s expectations than the author’s inspirations. In this sense, genres have a very long history. The stories about the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh isn’t an epic Babylonian poem, but a tradition of epic poems about a well-known hero dating back centuries to the Sumerians. (See Andrew George’s version.) The existence of this tradition both facilitates the creation of new stories—it gives the author a framework on which to build—but also constrains the options: it seems unlikely that a Babylonian author would attempt to portray Gilgamesh as a bookish fellow afraid of conflict. Constraints like these affect more than ‘fictional’ stories: Ales Chalupa (2014) described how difficult it is for modern historians to discern what the oracular Pythia at Delphi was really like, as contemporary accounts are “problematic sources which rather than rendering a neutral and disinterested description of Delphic divinatory practices follow conventions typical for the particular literary genre.”

Somewhat more familiar, consider the armchair mystery novel. Even those who aren’t fans of the genre know the basic themes of the narrative: someone has been murdered, the reader will encounter descriptions of facts about that murder, and the story will climax by revealing the identity of the murderer. Most people would probably even be able to recognize some of the taboos: the death cannot have been an accident or suicide; nor can the murderer be the detective investigating the murder, a character who isn’t described before the denouement, the narrator, nor (for goodness’ sake) the butler. Many ‘inside’ the genre have put a great deal of thought into these rules (House 2002). The Detection Club (which included as members the famous mystery authors Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G.K. Chesterton) described in c. 1930 the characteristics of a true mystery novel, including that the author play fair with the audience by not withholding key evidence, and that s/he not rely on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God” to solve the mystery (Brunsdale 2010: 88). Note that the Detection Club didn’t invent the rules so much as recognize and formalize conventions already in place, and that the rules were not taken too seriously: one member, Agatha Christie, is rather (in)famous for breaking the rules (e.g., in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Fans, too, enjoy displaying and debating the rules (see e.g.,

The ‘rules’ of a mystery novel are not the only appealing characteristic. House (2002) describes more implicit assumptions, not often included in formal lists of the rules but certainly understood: that part of the satisfaction of the story is its function as a puzzle (this is what distinguishes a mystery from a spy novel), and that “justice must prevail” (p. 140). W.H. Auden, after describing the essential elements of a detective novel (“the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detective” [1962: 149]), wrote:

“The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure affected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside . . . The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law” (Auden 1962: 158).

Perhaps understanding the appeal of genres requires we distinguish between the particular rules themselves, and the fact that the genre has rules at all.  There may be something about the structure of these stories that is appealing, for example, mystery novels may reassure us through the restoration of innocence; science fiction may help us feel better about change. Separate from this, it appears that the existence of rules—learning them, recognizing them, playing with them—may produce a certain satisfaction all its own.


Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Auden, W.H. (1962). The guilty vicarage. In The dyer’s hand and other essays (pp. 146-158). New York: Random House.

Brunsdale, M. (2010). Icons of mystery and crime detection: From sleuths to superheroes. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

Chalupa, A. (2014). Pythiai and inspired divination in the Delphic Oracle: Can cognitive science provide us with access to “dead minds”? Journal of Cognitive Historiography 1(1): 24-51.

House, K. (2002). Mysteries: Rules of the genre. Available at

Wolfe, G.K. (2011). Evaporating genres: Essays on fantastic literature. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.


One thought on “The Joy of Genre (part one)

  1. Pingback: Rob Zombie | Religion in SF

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