The Death of Genre




Time was, you listened to jazz or rock, read mysteries or romances, majored in English lit. or anthropology, craved Chinese or Italian. You stuffed your likes into compartments.

Then came cross-fertilization, influences, blends, hybrids, boundary-breaking ecommerce. Now you can listen to Japanese jazz or Afro-Celtic rock, read a literary mystery that is half cozy and half thriller, eat a kimchi quesadilla or roll sushi ingredients into a burrito.

Genre is dying.

“The idea of identity as a fixed and narrow concept, and of taste as inherently cloistered, feels bizarre, punitive, and regressive,” Amanda Petrusich wrote last month in the New Yorker. “Genre feels increasingly irrelevant to the way we think about, create, and consume art.”

It is entirely relevant, however, to the way we market art. The few remaining bookstores need to figure out where, on what shelf, in what section, a book belongs. Librarians need to catalog that book. Publicists need to hype a new book to readers who already love books like this one. Awards shows need categories.

So even as genre loses sway, it continues to organize our cultural marketplace—and we continue to glue on the wrong labels. Petrusich mentioned Justin Bieber’s distress to have his R&B album nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album—which, sure, was a more prestigious category, but the album was R&B. Tyler, the Creator objected to winning Best Rap Album because “whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a rap or urban category…. Why can’t we just be in pop?”

Why, and how, did genre take shape in the first place? Blame Aristotle, who gave the scientists their taxonomy of genus and species and broke literature into poetry, drama, and prose. From there he outlined subcategories: lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry, the latter including comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and—the start of the blending—tragicomedy.

You will dizzy yourself if you try to find today’s criteria, the organizing principles we use to categorize. Genre can be determined by historical period (regency) or geographic location (westerns); by how tightly it cleaves to established reality (fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, true crime); by what psychological needs it satisfies in us (mystery, romance, thriller); by how it uses language (poetry, essay, novel, play). Cassius Longinus sorted out the methods various writers used to influence their audience’s emotions. Northrop Frye looked at the relationship between the “real” and the “ideal”: Romance was the ideal, irony the real, tragedy the plummet from ideal to real.

When masterpieces rise above or interweave the genres, we call them classics. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a mystery, a tragic romance, a thriller; The Tempest is fantasy; the comedies weave in bits that would work as French farce or vaudevillian schtick; much of the prose is pure poetry. But for readers gobbling up paperbacks at bedtime, “genre” became a flat, predictable formula (boy meets girl, star-crossed lovers are united, the killer is caught, the suspects are gathered in the parlor).

Blasting those formulas was the first death blow. Writers like Michael Chabon played with genre in such powerful ways, the categories lost meaning. And once the word “genre” could no longer be used dismissively, the critics’ fun melted away. Authors began to play, blending and defying the conventions of various genres. Painfully aware how few book and music stores remained, they stopped worrying about category and focused on crashing the popularity lists.

Genre’s demise should pop champagne corks all over the world. Too much has fallen between the compartments and landed in obscurity simply because an artist refused to conform to a formula. But can we wipe out the old categories altogether? Even the savviest curator might flounder. Can technology help us? I once copied out recipes from batter-stained index cards. Now, if I have extra buttermilk or a sack of ripe peaches, I search online for recipes with those ingredients. Spotify finds me all sorts of cool music. Books, though, are problematic: If I ask Google to suggest what I should read next after loving Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone, it will suggest books about doctors, nonfiction by Verghese, and books that take place in Ethiopia. These are not the reasons I loved Cutting for Stone.

The difference? Spotify has algorithms, but it also has human curators for its playlists. And human curators understand subjective qualities—vibe, tone, depth, candor. “Curate” was such a trendy verb a decade ago that I vowed to stop using the word, but now I see why it emerged with such fanfare: Discernment is the skill that will keep the rest of us sane.

After listening to heavenly Irish music in the pubs of St. John, Newfoundland, I walked into a music store and asked for a recommendation: Celtic, but not self-consciously so, ballads, female singer, high clear voice, lilting melodies, the emotion strong but not maudlin, nothing sappy, historically rooted but fresh. Grinning, the guy pulled out five options and thanked me for knowing what I wanted. But to be that persnickety, you have to know exactly what you want ahead of time, and that ruins the chance of surprise. Besides, these days we barely ever shop in person—so now what? Sure, there are ratings, but how can you trust a bunch of strangers to tell you what will feed your soul?

Maybe we could filter by the type and mood and color and the quality of the writing. Easy bedtime read or sentences you want to underline? Then the ingredients (mystery, witty dialogue, a little romance, strong friendships and teamwork, a lot of psychological complexity, meaning, depth). Then what we do not want (one-sentence paragraphs so manipulatively suspenseful they cancel sleep; gore designed to awaken some primordial bloodlust I would rather keep buried). Show some succinct measure of what other readers thought, but do not make us wade through quibbles that could taint our own response. Develop an algorithm skillful enough to note why each of us likes what we like. Add curation, to surprise us with choices we might not otherwise find.

It is complicated, such sorting, and every year there will be more to choose from. But as we figure out a new approach, either softening or expanding the old categories and discarding the bias, we might begin to see how much comedy there is in tragedy, how much tragedy in comedy. Those of us who have shunned science fiction in favor of nonfiction social commentary will see how often they are one and the same. Realizing that what is said and why matters far more than when, where, or how, we might be less likely to snap our mind shut and avoid entire categories. Publicists will have to get more creative, selling something because of how it makes us feel, opens our minds, explores certain ideas. Artists and thinkers will feel freer to roam.

If we pull this off, will we learn to think outside all the other boxes, too—race, class, gender, religion? Because there have always been blends, mixtures, influences, examples that shatter the compartments. We just need more graceful ways to acknowledge them.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.