Will the rise of e-books kill off genre fiction?

If you’ve spent any time at all hanging out in the online science fiction and fantasy community, you will have noticed that SFF fans are always debating about something. Usually, they’re cycling through the same five topics or so every couple of months.

One of the debates that regularly cycles around again is the impending death of genre, genre hereby meaning science fiction and fantasy, since no one ever worries about the impending death of the romance genre. The thesis is usually that genre fiction will either be absorbed into the so-called mainstream or it will fade away because younger readers just aren’t interested.

Last week, the “death of genre” debate reemerged once again, only this time there was a new spin. For you see, genre fiction, this time even encompassing all genres, will not die due to absorption into the mainstream or lack of interest from younger readers. No, this time around the point was that the rise of e-books and the attendant shift of bookselling onto the internet will gradually kill off the concept of genre. For while genre was crucial in telling physical bookstores where to shelve a book and helping readers to find it, online bookstore are much less dependent on rigid genre classifications.

Charles Stross was the first to make that point on his blog, using one of his own novels that supposedly defies genre classification as an example.

The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin responds that declaring the death of genre is premature, as long as readers need ways to determine what to read, though genre boundaries may shift or become more porous.

I agree that genre boundaries are no longer quite as rigid as they used to be and that new hybrid forms are arising. For example, urban fantasy is usually classified as a subgenre as fantasy, but it also contains many elements of horror, romance, thriller, crime fiction and sometimes other genres.

Nonetheless, the concept of genre is quite safe even in these new e-book days. If anything, many indie authors are less adventurous in terms of challenging genre conventions than their traditionally published colleagues and place more strictures upon themselves than traditional publishing ever did. Indie author hangouts like the Kindleboards frequently turn into the genre police, advising writers to stick to a single popular genre, use multiple pen names for multiple genres and make sure that the cover looks like any other cover in that genre.

Not that the genre police doesn’t have a point on occasion, since there are plenty of indie authors who have no awareness of genre, either their own or others, such as the writer who argued endlessly that the “happily ever after” requirement of the romance genre was too limiting and that his unhappy love story was a romance, too. Or the guy who hyped a supposed “chick lit” book (not his own, just a book he had enjoyed) all over the place, but when I went to check it out, I found a YA novel about a teenaged girl whose mother had died of cancer.

Nonetheless, it is depressing to see how unadventurous many indie authors are. I thought we did this to get away from rigid genre boundaries.

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