The Trouble with Genre

To kick off today’s post, I would like you to envision something for a moment. Let’s pretend you’re baking a cake in your kitchen. We’re going to assume that it’s a Tiramisu cake because I want to be cheeky and reference a previous post, and we’re also going to assume you’re decked out in your chef’s hat. As you’re busting your ass working over flour-stained countertops, your youngest sibling saunters into the kitchen like a pointy-eared imp who has no business spectating.

So you’re whisking together flour and milk and eggs in a bowl with the wrist of Ares, beating the damn ingredients together like they owe you gambling debt, and there’s your little sibling waiting for the perfect opportunity to break your concentration. And finally the little thing asks, “What kind of cake are you making?”

You look at your sibling with eyes of death. “Tiramisu,” you hastily answer. You don’t have time to answer these questions! The cake isn’t going to bake itself!

“Oh,” your sibling responds, ears drooping. “I don’t like that.” The imp scampers away and you are left discouraged and frustrated.

‘It’s not just tiramisu,’ you think. ‘It’s my tiramisu. My tiramisu has extra cinnamon. I whip it a certain way (quote me on that). I make it fluffier. I even throw cumin in there. My tiramisu isn’t like the rest!’ Or so we think.

All of us bakers (authors) feel we have something that is our own, something that couldn’t possibly be grouped under a single, blanket term. And there lies the problem with genre.

Unless somebody is dead set on writing something like a classic, true-to-form sci-fi or a traditional, homestyle romance, there aren’t a whole lot of authors who can comfortably place their work under a single genre.

I label my novel-in-the-works as being a “western adventure” because I have to label it with something. I have to. Readers and publishers alike expect a foothold, and I am obligated to provide one. But when it comes down to it, creative works simply aren’t that simple.

Let’s take Breaking Bad as an example. If you have yet to watch the show in its entirety, fear not, as there will be no spoilers from me. On the other hand, if you have yet to watch the show in its entirety, you really ought to get that taken care of.

So what genre would you place Breaking Bad in? Wikipedia says that it’s a crime drama. Well, so is Sherlock. So is Person of Interest. So is CSI (you can choose which of the 1500 versions). Breaking Bad, Sherlock, Person of Interest, and CSI are four very different shows on a conceptual level, yet they are grouped under the same umbrella. If you were to tell me that Breaking Bad was a crime drama about a meth-dealing chemistry teacher with lung cancer, I would assume that the show’s conflict centered around the cops and their investigation of the teacher. And boy would I be wrong.

22246-purple_background-Walter_White-Breaking_Bad-Jared_Nickerson-artwork-digital_art-abstract-736x459.png
credit: Jared Nickerson

Sure, technically, Breaking Bad is a crime drama. Walter White enters the world of crime and there is a whole lot of drama revolving around marital conflict and such. But the label sucks the individuality right out of the show. The label is devaluing.

One could consider Breaking Bad a dark comedy. Since its first episode, with all of its absurdity involving tighty-whities, the narrative never fails to put forth more far-fetched situations and ridiculous characters.

One could pin Breaking Bad as a thriller. Who’s to say it’s not? It has every element attributable to a thriller. (“excitement, suspense, a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, and nerve-wracking tension” filmsite.org).

Breaking Bad even dabbles in the supernatural (something about a plane) and is filled with philosophy and artistic/symbolic imagery. So is it an intense crime show or a cerebral character study?

And it’s worth noting that Episode 1 differs from Episode 62 in tone and subject matter entirely! Does the show’s genre fluctuate by season? Is it even allowed to do that?

In the end, can’t we simply conclude that Breaking Bad is a crime drama thriller dark-comedy philosophical character study? Perhaps. But what’s the point of that? (Something about a football-playing king in space comes to mind).

That’s the trouble with genre. It’s just a label. And, as is the case with all labels, they hinge upon our preconceived notions. I’m personally tired of the ol’ formulaic crime show. If Breaking Bad wasn’t forced upon me by enthusiastic friends and family, I would have never watched it because of its label. And that would have been a tragedy.

To the authors, musicians, filmmakers, content-creators reading: What is your frustration regarding genre when it is applied to your work? Sound off in the comments below.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

P.S. Thank you for bearing with me as I work to find a posting schedule that works best!

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11 thoughts on “The Trouble with Genre

  1. Awesome post! I’m the biggest Breaking Bad fan around! I even have Heisenberg stickers on my laptop. I’ve seen the show 6 times in its entirety. You’re so right about labeling it as just a crime show because it’s so much more. Same as how The Godfather is more than just a mafia movie. I’m so glad you appreciate the development of that show the same way I do. The writing is brilliant and I love that Walter White’s character was inspired by Michael Corleone because it’s so obvious from beginning to then end of the show that they are similar characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, 6 times! Much respect to you. *tip of the hat* The writing is indeed brilliant! And the fact that Vince Gilligan translated the words and story to the screen with such style is especially remarkable. No matter where the story went, the style remained polished in the characteristic, Breaking Bad way. The music, the plot, the pace, the EVERYTHING. Let’s face it. We can write pages about how incredible this show is. Thank you for your insight, your like, and your follow! It is much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the best analogy and examples I’ve seen. I’ve had huge struggles with genre, especially with classifying my first book. (My NaNoWriMo book, intended to be simpler so I could write 50K words in a month, is fantasy adventure–easy, breezy.) You really put things into perspective here, especially for readers.

    By the way, I saw all the seasons of Breaking Bad. Well done show.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad the Tiramisu analogy paid off! 😀 Fantasy adventure gives me a great idea of what to expect from that particular book. If only every book was so easy to label.

      Breaking Bad is indeed a well done show!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Funny thing with Breaking Bad is I wasn’t compelled to watch it at all. I saw it for the first time with my son because he wanted to watch it–and I was hooked! Just goes to show you have to keep an open mind and sample.

        Of course, it would have helped if someone told me a lot of BB was chemistry.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t find myself interested in the seedy drug world that is so often portrayed on TV, so Breaking Bad wasn’t something I was compelled to watch until the amount of people recommending it to me was staggering. I gave in and I’m so glad I did. The chemistry element of the show was awesome!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Beyond the Precipice and commented:
    I found this to be the best explanation of The Trouble with Genre and why one size doesn’t fit all. Whether we cook with food or cook with words, the product is as unique as the artist. It’s this uniqueness that not only makes our craft genuine but also interesting and captivating. Our work bears our signature. We–not the genre–define the work, and the work defines us (“Mother’s roast duck is the best”). By stuffing it into a mold (genre), we risk creating a false expectation in the reader, as J.J. Azar shows. But, as he also points out, we have to label our work with something. That said, as readers we have to keep in mind that genre labels are just labels. A good strategy is to find out what a book or show is actually about, or better yet, do a taste test. Sample it.

    Liked by 1 person

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