Genres, their definitions, and how their interpretations vary across bookworms have been discussed exhaustively in the bookish community.
I admit, it was never a conversation I joined in much because I did not have many thoughts about the subject. To me, a genre was self-explanatory—a science fiction book was a make-believe story about something ~ sciencey ~ and a fantasy book had magic or dragons or knights so it was… fantastical.
It wasn’t until I recently read this passage from a collection of Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction works that I genuinely reflected upon my basic definition of a genre:
I knew that there were spy novels and that there were novels with spies in them, cowboy books and books that took place among cowboys in the American West. But before that moment I didn’t understand how to tell the difference and now I did. If the plot is a machine that lets you get from set piece to set piece, and the set pieces are things that without which the reader or the viewer would feel cheated, then, whatever it is, it’s genre. If the plot exists to get you from one place from lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are things that simply happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.
When every event is part of the plot, if the whole thing is important, if there aren’t any scenes that exist to allow you to take your audience from the next moment that the reader feels that he or she has paid for, then it’s a story, and the genre is irrelevant.
Subject matter does not make genre.
After reading this, I had a light-bulb moment. All those times I felt cheated by a book — the book in its entirety, not just the ending — it was largely due to the fact that it didn’t live up to its genre. More importantly, my definition of genre was not enough. While I thought genre was as simple as its subject matter, that attitude did not cover what I truly expect when I chose a novel based on its genre. (Neil Gaiman’s explanation of what a genre was much more extensive than mine 😂).
Feed by Mira Grant was the most recent example of a novel I felt cheated by. I was excited to read the book because it was labelled as science fiction and horror—there was supposed to be viruses and zombies and jump-scares. And while all the subject matter I had envisioned to be key to the novel’s self-identified genres were present in the story, they weren’t central to the plot. They were devices used to garner a bigger discussion on political issues. They were simply on the way. Even though the story had everything I wanted, it still felt incomplete. A story with zombies doesn’t have the same affect when what was anticipated was a story about zombies.
I base so much of what I read on the genre books are labelled as, so I clearly expect them to fit a certain design of my imagination—even if I never gave a second-thought to what that design is. After realistic consideration, subject matter is not all what makes a genre to me. Genre comprises of stories that hinge on my ideas of what subject matter the genre should entail, and when stories don’t hinge on those topics, that’s when I feel cheated.