When Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant was released, it sparked a heated debate about the borders between fantasy and literary fiction and the importance of genre.
Although it was never marketed as a fantasy novel, Ishiguro’s book incited passion from the literary community, especially from those who are fantasy fans.
Science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin said of the novel (although she would later retract it), “This is fantasy, and your refusal to put on the mantle of fantasy is evidence of an author slumming it.”
Readers and writers alike were quick to speak up against the supposed mislabeling of the book’s genre and voice their frustration that Ishiguro wasn’t doing the same. But Ishiguro never thought of his new novel as a work of fantasy.
So why are literary enthusiasts so quick to become defiant and outspoken about a book that isn’t labeled the way they expect? When a book’s genre has little to do with the content between its pages, why does it matter so much to the people who read and write them?
Speaking as an avid reader and would-be fantasy writer, I can understand where people like Le Guin are coming from and what their intentions might be.
In 2013, I wrote another article about genre, but on a smaller scale. I talked about the differences I saw between the science fiction and fantasy genres and voiced my desire to see the two genres more clearly defined. However, revisiting that idea and digging deeper into the impact of genre on the literary industry, I find myself agreeing with Ishiguro.
Ishiguro suggested in a conversation with fellow writer Neil Gaiman that genre boundaries are likely a recent invention of the publishing industry, created in order to categorize the mass of books that have flooded the market. Not so long ago, books like The Lord of the Rings were considered fiction and not fantasy. New genres emerged to reflect the market trends.
Rather than a means to divide the literary world into different groups, with people only reading and writing within a certain collection, genre might be better suited as a way for book buyers and publishers to easily organize their inventory.
We shouldn’t be worried about what genre the books we are reading fall under. Genre—much like my own opinions—is subject to change. Literary genres and sub-genres will rise to power and fade away at any given moment.
Categories like horror, which used to be its own separate section, are not categorized within larger genres. Now horror novels are often grouped with other books in thriller, mystery and even fantasy.
Certain genres have expanded to accept more books, while others have shrunk to nothing. Science fiction likely arose as a sub-genre of fantasy and for this reason still bears elements of the older genre.
If you were to look up “fantasy genre” or any other variation of this idea online, you will find aspects that books in the genre commonly have or elements they might share, but nowhere is it stated what a fantasy novel has to be.
At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter whether a book is considered literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction or anything else. Genre is only likely to help you when you are browsing the shelves of a bookstore.
Genre has little to do with the people who read and write books. Being labeled as one thing and not as another does not affect the story that you have to tell or the words that you will be able to write.
Readers and writers, instead of worrying about whether a book fits the ever-changing guidelines we attribute to genre, let the novels themselves do the talking. We should form our own opinions based on the words on the pages, not the words that categorize them.