On confusing messes versus neat little boxes

I remember, when I was doing my undergrad in creative writing, doing a class on fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction. It’s not something that is talked about much at university – most literature courses don’t really delve into genre fiction. However, in one of my lectures in Children’s Literature, we discussed Gillian Rubenstein’s Galax-Arena and how it fit into the confusing mess that is fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction.

It is a confusing mess. No matter how you try to define the different genres, and place clear cut lines between them, there are always books that don’t really fit into only one of these genres.(By the way, the term ‘confusing mess’ is said in the most endearing way possible- I like that it’s a mess. It’s much more interesting that way!)

I think that Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines is one of these books. It is supposed to be speculative fiction, I suppose – it tells us what might happen to our society in the future. It’s got science fiction elements – the idea that the technology will be developed to place entire cities onto wheels, for them to roam the earth has definitely got science-fictiony overtones to it. But despite this, when I read it, it feels like fantasy to me – it feels like a whole other world to me, and imaginary one, rather than a peek of what could come in the future. What does this mean? Which category does it fall into? Or does it fall into all three? Does it matter?

We place so much importance on genres. Some people read particular genres exclusively – they only read crime or they only read romance. Some people even think of ‘young adult fiction’ as a genre. I find this weird – placing John Green’s ‘The Fault Is In Our Stars’ and Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Material’ trilogy and Celia Rees’ ‘Witch Child’ all in the same genre doesn’t make sense to me. They could not be more different. Then there are sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, and so on… does it matter? Does the ‘genre’ of a book make much difference to the person reading it? Maybe to some, maybe not to others.

When thinking about my book choices, I suppose that my reading does tend to fall into half a dozen categories – I usually, for example, never read what I think of as ‘real-life’ young adult books, where the teenage characters are growing up and learning about life. However, a friend recommended ‘The Fault Is In Our Stars’ recently and I really enjoyed it. So I’m going to try and not think of genres as barriers, but more as guidelines – and loose ones at that. After all, it doesn’t matter if Mortal Engines is science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction – it doesn’t change the fact that it is a good book. Books don’t always fit in neat little genre boxes. Ideas explode out of them! And ideas don’t always fit in neat little boxes.

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4 comments

  1. Galax-arena! That was a weird and great read….I can’t remember what lead me to that one, but I remember I couldn’t bring myself to read the sequel for some reason. I see what you mean about categorising…I enjoy YA generally, and more specifically in the subgenre of fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi, within the sub sub genre of stories about mental illness…..but perhaps these aren’t genres at all but topics or content markers or…something else all together.

    • I couldn’t bring myself to read the sequel either. Maybe because I had to read the book for uni… It was a very strange book. I like Gillian Rubenstein’s other work, especially when she writes as Lian Hearn. Categorising can be a blessing and a curse, I think – can help you choose a book, but also stop you from choosing a book as well…

  2. Do hope you enjoyed Mortal Engines and its sequels (and maybe the Fever Crumb prequels too!). I agree about the mess of categorisation, and in my review blog I refuse to label or tag books as young adult, for example.

    I prefer to see genres as overlapping circles or intermingling tag clouds: on this basis the Mortal Engines sequence is a bit of fantasy, a hint of post-apocalypse warning, a lot of steampunk, heaps of comic derring-do, a dash of romance and, last but not least, a sweet & sour dish of comedy and tragedy, all contributing to a dish of epic proportions. So it really is uncategorisable, with ‘young adult’ a particularly meaningless pigeonhole to place it in.

  3. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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