Genre Balkanization


I was exposed to fantasy, science fiction, and horror as a kid. In 1970s Tampa, Florida, local television programming offered up awesome giant monster movies (“Them!”), science fiction movies (“It Came From Outer Space!”), and the occasional sword and sandal film (“Jason and the Argonauts”) on late Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Over time, Hammer horror and other European films made it on, but early on it was mostly black-and-white American cinema. I was already a big comic book reader at the time (Marvel and Warren Publishing magazines), and I saw Star Trek on reruns, but the only fantasy or SF I read was the occasional collected Star Trek shorts.

Honors English changed all that. We moved to a tiny town in the mid-1970s, and one of the required readings was something called “The Hobbit.” I met some nerds while discussing the book, and everything went straight to hell. Lord of the Rings came next, then I discovered Conan at a flea market. Next thing I knew, I was rolling dice and killing orcs in a D&D group, and before long I was mainlining Star Wars–not just the movie, but comic books and novels!

It all became a blur, buying coverless paperbacks in back alleys, filling notebooks with sketches and notes for my future multi-genre epic. I crashed and fell off the face of the planet. They found me in a seedy Tijuana hotel, surrounded by polyhedrals, sketchbooks, and a tattered copy of Dorsai!

I’d hit rock bottom.

I’ve done pretty well since then. Sure, I’ve had the occasional relapse, but in general I can walk away from genre works whenever I want to. For a while.

What I’ve noticed today, though, is there are people who wouldn’t dream of stepping out of their comfort zones to try other genres. The divide has always been there, with science fiction snobs looking down their noses as fantasy readers for several years or the other way around. But by and large, if you read one genre, you read at least a little of the other. Reading Dune without at least sniffing at Earthsea or Elric or Kane seemed unthinkable. Today? People don’t even seem willing to sneak a peek outside their sub-sub-genre. They make a catlike hiss if you talk about BBW Shifter Billionaire Science Fiction instead of BBW Shifter Navy SEAL Science Fiction.

Holy crap!

Although I consider this balkanization dangerous, I also acknowledge it’s probably a logical evolution from things like the Star Wars and Star Trek/Marvel and DC divides, a strange us-vs.-them mentality probably rooted in human tribalism. But I think Amazon’s categorization and our own cultural balkanization also play a role. Where this matters to me is I’m not a joiner or fan. I’m not drawn to a genre or writer or property to the point of exclusion or identification. I have no problem walking away from something I follow when it goes off the rails. I won’t get onboard when the next awesome thing smells like a turd. As a creator, my interests aren’t locked in to just science fiction or fantasy or horror. I went a couple decades reading thrillers at a far greater rate than F/SF/H. But there’s a big problem with that: Writing outside a specific genre or sub-genre costs you readers, today more than ever. There’s no doubt I preferred Howard’s Conan work to his Solomon Kane or Kull or horror or Westerns or planetary romance, but he was such an entertaining writer that I read and enjoyed them all. I could create pen names, but I can barely manage my own name.

So I watch my urban fantasy series (or is it magical realism? contemporary fantasy? folklore? horror?) and my military SF/cyberpunk/transhumanist series and wonder how much damage I’m doing to my sales. When my post-apocalypse series comes out, what does that do? My sword and sorcery works?

Hopefully, I’ll find a core readership unconcerned with the specific genre and drawn in by the characters, stories, and worlds.