(Fair warning, this is far from an original observation:) Genre is such a useless framework on its own. Given that it serves as an universal intermediary between societies and their various art forms, you would expect a lot more from it.
Take the Korean cinematic masterpiece Oldboy. If you were tasked with explaining the experience of watching Oldboy to a stranger who had never seen the film, what would be the practical use of genre in this task?
What genre is Oldboy anyway? The majority of its runtime is spent on character driven drama, but calling it a drama would raise concerns with anyone who has seen the film. Oldboy is renowned for its excellently choreographed action scenes, but the label of “action movie” calls to mind Mission Impossible more so than the hair raising, death defying feats of Dae-Su in Oldboy. Not to the mention the extended sequences of psychological torment which could warrant a thriller or horror label. And what about its carefully structured mystery narrative?
There is no useful way to describe Oldboy or other complex media only using only these kinds of genre classifications. Even if you could accurately communicate all of the genres within a work of art, you would fail to reveal anything about the way those distinct genres are arranged within the piece. This leads to the ultimate failure of genres: the inability to accurate summarise the experience of consuming art. And this is not even dealing with the convoluted world of subgenres.
Examples of this kind can be found all around us: Was Shin Godzilla a satire, disaster flick or a monster movie? The answer is all of the above in this case. And despite the accuracy of these labels, such an eclectic list of genres reveals little about the film’s real content, craft or appeal.
This has gotten me thinking about alternatives to conventional genre classifications and the appropriate uses for these alternatives. The first conclusion I reached is that genres are still on some level a necessary frustration. They are useful as a shortcut; genres allow you to communicate the broadest possible information about the content of a piece of art with the most brevity. No other system can so readily draw distinctions between works in single words like “romance” or “comedy.”
Genres are most useful in the media where genres don’t stand alone, they are instead layered atop the substructure of more useful categorisation systems. To illustrate my point, the most useful genre classifications are those used in painting and other similar visual arts, as well as music. In these paradigms, genre does not merely describe the component parts of the piece as is often true of film or literature. Instead, genres are also divided by more abstract labels which denote specific aesthetic styles and intellectual heritages.
The distinction between a “pop” song and a “rock” song is not merely the technical differences in musical theory, they have completely distinct kinds of sounds which elicit completely different responses from their audiences. The tendency for these experience-driven classifications to enter into the nomenclature of other media is great news when it happens on its own, but actively supporting greater use of them would alleviate many of the most confusing traits of our current genre paradigm.
For example, one of the most clearly defined and useful genres is one which takes clear inspiration from these kinds of categorisation systems; labels like cyberpunk and steampunk emphasise aesthetic considerations over vague observations about narrative structure and they’re the better for it. Calling a story “cyberpunk” instantly creates a vivid image of the kind of experience the audience is likely to have, far more than the disjointed expectations one might have after hearing a story called “sci-fi,” which could cover anything from high concept space faring to bleak near-modern dystonian fiction.
Plenty of terms in these sorts of families go massively underused, and the shame of this is what drove me to wrote this post. There are useful variation terms sitting to the side, abandoned by pop culture despite their suitability in so many cases. For example, “cyberpop” could be used to describe the emerging trend of non-critical, non-dystopian future societies with clear cyberpunk aesthetic inspiration. (An immediate example would be Peni Parker’s role in the much-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.) Or how about using a term like “Steamnoir” to refer to the pop culture staple of mixing steampunk settings with Sherlockian inspired detective fiction.
Just some food for thought.
To my handful of returning readers who may be wondering where I have been since September of 2018:
In as few words as possible, the Kavanaugh crisis was too absurd. I was deeply focused on following each twist and turn of the waking nightmare, but I did not actually want to write or think about it any further than I had to due to the whole situation being so irredeemably stupid. The result was that it killed my desire to blog, use Twitter, or generally interact with the social internet more than necessary for a few months.
In the meantime I wrote a few thousand words of fiction for the first time in years, learned some basic Japanese, reconnected with the wings of my extended family, learned how to play the harmonica, and got a promotion at my day job. In summary, time away from the cretins of the internet is immensely productive and I highly recommend it.
Yet here I am, coming back for more punishment. God help me.