Prescriptive and Descriptive Genres

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions on genre, recently.  As I thought about the many genres and subgenres of speculative fiction – and indeed even outside speculative fiction – I realized that what defines one genre from another is not always consistent.  Some genres have more rules than others, or more specific rules, or rules about different things.  To put it in a simple dichotomy, some genres are more descriptive and some are more prescriptive.

What do I mean by that?  A descriptive genre merely describes what a genre or body of literature looks like.  A prescriptive genre is very codified, and if you fail to abide by that code, you can’t really be said to be writing in that genre.  As I thought about the subject deeper, I concluded that the difference lies in a specific subset of rules: those rules governing the form and structure of a genre.

Descriptive genres are less specific about rules governing form or structure.  They are less formulaic by default.  Instead, the rules governing a descriptive genre are rules of elements.  If certain elements are present in a work of literature, it can be said to belong to the associated genre.  If those elements are absent, it may not be a work of that genre.  These elements may be aspects of setting, character, plot, style and technique and so on.  Fantasy, in the general, categorical sense, is a fairly descriptive genre.  Does the story include elements of magic, mysticism, mythology, the supernatural, or the numinous?  If your work includes these elements of non-real, non-mundane, then it is a work of Fantasy.  Mainstream or Literary fiction is similarly fairly descriptive.  Does the novel employe so-called “literary” techniques (and usually, but not always, does it eschew the non-real elements for a mundane and frequently contemporary setting)?  Then it is a literary novel. 

But many genres are more restrictive and confining than that.  They have more detailed rules about the plot and how the novel is structured.  I call these genres “prescriptive” because they prescribe what you must do in order to be included in the genre.  An author can’t necessarily declar their work an example of a prescriptive genre.  Instead, the work must pass the test to prove itself a member of the genre.  Epic Fantasy, one of my favored genres, is governing by a specific, archetypal plot structure.  The hero begins as relatively naive of the world and the dangers it poses, and lacks any real power to effect change.  But the hero is called to their destiny, goes through a certain number of challenges, and emerges with the gift of new power that allows him or her to be victorious in the end.  This is the structure that sees Frodo Baggins go from a country bumpkin who inherits a comfortable estate to becoming the Ring Bearer and ultimately Frodo of the Nine Fingers.  This is the same structure that takes Luke Skywalker from naive and whiny moisture farmer on the backwater of Tatooine to the destroyer of the Death Star, Jedi Master, and savior of the Jedi Order (yes, Star Wars is Epic Fantasy in Sci Fi drag).  It is a structure that we’ve seen in countless other examples of Epic Fantasy.  Mystery is similarly prescriptive.  The plot begins with a mysterious murder.  The protagonist – either a member of law enforcement, a private detective, or a writer  – then uncovers a series of clues that leads them both to murderer and to motive.

Like any such dichotomy, Prescriptive and Descriptive is not an either/or proposition.  It is a continuum.  And I believe genres can move along this continuum over time.  Take, for example, the curious case of Urban Fantasy.  Once upon a time, Urban Fantasy meant fantasy stories set in a contemporary, urban environment.  It was largely a descriptive genre.  In those days, as I recall, “contemporary fantasy” wasn’t a term that was used much because it was largely covered by Urban Fantasy.  But today, Urban Fantasy is increasingly prescriptive.  Either the protagonist is somehow charged with policing supernatural activity in an otherwise mundane world – Buffy slaying vampires or Dresden solving mysteries with magic – or the protagonist is involved in a relationship with a supernatural entity… or preferably both.  The shift hasn’t become entirely irrevocable, yet, but the genre is settling into this space.  Which has spawned the need for an arch-type, i.e. Contemporary Fantasy, to cover stories with fantastical elements that either don’t follow this formula or which occur in a contemporary setting but not an urban one.  So it used to be that Urban Fantasy was a direct subgenre of Fantasy, but today it is a subgenre of Contemporary Fantasy which itself is a subgenre of Fantasy.

Rules, perhaps, are made to be broken, which makes this discussion of different genres perhaps a little misleading.  Because there isn’t some sort of “Rules Committee” that decides these things.  And yet, authors who violate these principles do so at risk of reader sanction.  Well known authors with strong name-cache can afford to try this.  Younger, unnamed authors may find the market less forgiving.  Because it is in the market that these rules ultimately are forged.

Genre is a difficult and fuzzy thing to pin down in the best of times.  It is like a constant negotiation between authors, agents, editors, publishers, readers, and critics.  Each brings its own preconceptions and misconceptions to the table.  And this is what constitutes the marketplace of ideas that develops the understanding of what a genre is.  In her latest post on genres over on Magical Words, MistyMassey relays the story of Margaret Atwood, who swore in that her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was “Speculative” but not “Science fiction”.  (Atwood has periodically displayed a strange bigotry against the label of “Science Fiction” – a label which I suppose she fears is mutually exclusive with “Literary”.)  Her book won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke award for best British Science Fiction.  Massey tells further of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road which was celebrated in literary circles despite relying heavily on speculative genre fiction themes and tropes.  These are examples of authors that strive to position their works in one category and outside another category  when in fact those works might best be understood as existing in both categories.  And there are readers from either or both of these categories who would happily accept those works into their own genre family.

That last fact is one of the funny things about genre: genre labels are not always mutually exclusive – but the more specific and the more prescriptive a genre gets, the greater the probability of tropes and elements clashing irreconcilably.  Hard Science Fiction is very prescriptive in that the plot must revolve around a specific scientific or technological Macguffin without which the plot would collapse.  And you can’t really have a Hard SF story that is simultaneously an Epic Fantasy.  The rules and conventions of those genres are too specific and contradictory to be inclusive of the other.  But both fall comfortably well within the greater “Speculative Fiction” label. 

Ultimately, an author trying to navigate the treacherous waters of genre has to understand the tastes and preferences of his or her audience if he’s to make the trip safely.  Some audiences have very specific expectations when they come to a new story.  If a story defies those expectations, you will confound and perturb that audience, and they will not reward you with blockbuster success.  Other audiences just want to have a good time, and they’re less picky about the specifics and nuance and rules.  If you can wow them with a  well-written story, regardless of the elements and rules by which you abide or break, you’ll have yourself a winner.


8 thoughts on “Prescriptive and Descriptive Genres

  1. I prefer to think of conventions more as guidelines than rules or laws, heh, though I agree that if your story doesn’t have the most basic time-honored conventions of its primary genre (however you choose to interpret those), then it’ll be tough to convince others that it does, in fact, fly under that banner.

    I think this is also important, what Misty pointed out: “You may know what your genre should be, and you should be familiar enough with the conventions of whatever you’ve chosen to fit into the marketing scheme comfortably, but once the book is out in the world, readers might redefine your work.”

    I’ve brought this up elsewhere before, but Jeff VanderMeer mentioned something similar in one of his interviews saying how he is something different to various groups of readers–a “fantasy writer” in once circle, part of the “literary mainstream” in another, etc. He also said it varied between countries, as well, the labels that were applied to him.

    Pretty crazy!

    • Well, yes, guidelines maybe. But the point remains: bend or break or stray too far from those guidelines, and your audience may have difficulty accepting your attempt to position your work within a certain genre. Different audiences will be more or less flexible about what they will accept into a given body of genre literature – which is basically what I’m talking about here. And all of that is why I describe this as “negotiation” between author and audience.

  2. Yup readers may have difficulty, or an author may end up creating a whole new subgenre inadvertently. I don’t consciously seek to break genre conventions, but it ends up happening. I just write what I want to read. Hopefully (crosses fingers) some people want to read that kind of thing too.

    • I think that’s part of the artistic process. Sometimes you may be very interested in genre conventions as you write, other times the story is leaves you no time to consider. But at some point in the process I think a writer needs to consider the question… because effective marketing will require some understanding of those conventions. My purpose here was only to suggest the idea that some genres are more confining, in terms of their conventions and “rules” than others.

  3. If Star Wars could be epic fantasy, couldn’t hard SF be epic fantasy as well? You could have a relatively naive character perform a series of actions that eventually leads to greater power and have those actions tied to some of the hard SF science to make them work. I think the reason this thought experiment works is that it leaves out many of the additional tropes that need to be addressed.

    However, as a consumer, I’d be hard pressed to be satisfied by Star Wars if I had expected an epic fantasy and more so with this twisted Hard SF/Epic Fantasy.

    • Certainly Star Wars has a lot of the trappings of a sci-fi film: space ships, laser guns, aliens, and interplanetary travel. So if you went into Star Wars expecting a Sci Fi, those visual trappings most likely would have satisfied your expectations. But all of the underlying plot and character tropes and archetypes are mythic and fantastic in nature, and in fact you can transplant the entire story of Star Wars into a pseudo-medieval setting without changing the plot or characters at all, and the story would be recognizeably the same. The tropes are pretty clear in Star Wars: an untested farmboy with a “chosen one” destiny. A magic sword. A wise old wizard to guide the young hero (complete with magic powers). A dark lord. A princess that needs to be rescued. A roguish scoundrel of a sidekick. And so on and so forth. You’d have a hard time finding that sort of collection of tropes in any other example of a true sci-fi story – hard SF or otherwise. But you’d have no problem finding a collection of tropes like that in many epic fantasy stories. That’s why Star Wars can be used in a discussion of epic fantasy tropes: even though it pretends to be a sci fi, it is so steeped in epic fantasy tropes and it is one of the most widely-recognized and familiar examples of those tropes. I agree that some of those tropes can be transferred into a genuine Hard SF setting – with significant modification to make them work as hard SF and technology – but that’s just not part of the standard or archetypal SF storyline. (More to the point of this post, there isn’t really a true standard or archetypal SF story except that, basically, it’s typically not a fantasy storyline.) If you use the archetypes of epic fantasy… you’re going to get a story that feels like epic fantasy.

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