Genre has become an unfocused, fluid concept in fiction story telling. There are differences of opinion about the origin of the word, how it is used today, and what is means to authors and readers. Writers are told to find their audience based on the genre of the stories they tell, yet many authors and readers don’t agree which genres exist, and which stories are covered by those genres.
The very definition of the term genre generates disagreement. It is either a useful term that describes real differences in types of story telling, or is it an artificial system of classification. Even the etymology of genre can take multiple paths. Genre is derived, through French, to the Latin word genus meaning “kind” of thing, or, perhaps it relates to the Latin gener meaning to generate.
Often, when we refer to genre, we mean conventions which serve to distinguish one story from others, or to group stories together. This use of the term means we are looking at genre conventions. We refer to story settings, characterizations, and story arcs. So, genre can serve to define people’s expectations about the story they will read or view. We think of science fiction as providing expectations of wonder, change, and the unusual. Fantasy we expect to offer us magic and supernatural powers. Mysteries will have crimes, investigators and an arc of discovery.
But, the limits of genre are in contention. What is covered under the term genre, and what is not? YA is sometimes called a genre, yet, a YA story might be science fiction, fantasy, romance, or a mystery. Some seek to use genre to describe emotional response to stories. How the reader feels about science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, romance, comedy should possibly serve to instruct us.
Fairy tales or folk tales may have been the first genre. Now, it is difficult to list all the genres in existence. Many stories defy any attempt to limit them to one genre. I saw the cover of a book which the blurb describes as following the adventures of a Viking, vampire, angel on a Montana Dude ranch.
Ultimately, genre is useful only as long as the creators and consumers of stories are served by it. If an author believes she writes in a particular genre, then perhaps that is all that matters. If a reader can find the stories she wants to read based on genre categories, then that is all that is necessary.