Genre, quantification and precision

I was just trying to remember how to forward my land line. I went to the Xfinity website. Before I found the answer, though, I was presented with a survey about how my experience was. Which got me to thinking …

It seems more and more of our experience is being quantified, presumably to make various commercial activities easier for merchants and service providers. The power of virtually infinite computer power and the Internet have helped us make a giant leap in the way we slice, dice and parse our lives.

There is some evidence that this preference for classification is hard-wired … a survival skill. And that Babylonian who marked out the first pictographic writing probably worked for the then-equivalent of Amazon. Certainly Aristotle carried the notion of divisions and subdivisions of practically everything forward.

Which brings me back to genre. It’s a conundrum for a beginning writer: to get through the genresvery narrow eye of the needle that leads to a published work, you need to know your genre and state it in the first line or two of a query to an agent or a publisher. Trouble is, “genre” is a pretty vague notion, the more so because published authors routinely ignore it.

Not too long ago, as my weekly writers’ group worked through my first novel, Fatal Score, one of the members said, “This novel is a bit literary for a thriller.”

“A bit literary” made me think of Amazon’s review questions. Amazon is now asking a series of classifying questions that would warm the cockles of Aristotle’s heart when one reviews a book. (Example: How would you describe the plot of this book? Predictable/Some Twists/Full of Surprises). Maybe we should go to a more precise, numerical score for genres. Perhaps a ‘literary-ness’ dimension. (This would of course be a vertical scale with Literary on top and Commercial on the bottom.) Then a complexity dimension (much like the fog index) with board books at one end and a modern philosophy text at the other. There could be many others.

I can just see the first line of the query:

Fatal Score (88,900 words; 8.4 action/6.7 character/5.1 tension/6.4 litfic/7.4 complexity) is a thriller about big data, the brutal reality of future medical care, and an ordinary guy who makes an extraordinary discovery.






One thought on “Genre, quantification and precision

  1. Here is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s self-mocking introduction to “Rappaccini’s Daughter”:

    We do not remember to have seen any translated specimens of the productions of M. de l’Aubepine—a fact the less to be wondered at, as his very name is unknown to many of his own countrymen as well as to the student of foreign literature. As a writer, he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists (who, under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world) and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude. If not too refined, at all events too remote, too shadowy, and unsubstantial in his modes of development to suit the taste of the latter class, and yet too popular to satisfy the spiritual or metaphysical requisitions of the former, he must necessarily find himself without an audience, except here and there an individual or possibly an isolated clique.


    Just to clarify that he was talking about himself, he goes on to list several of the titles by M. de l’Aubepine, which happen to be French variations of the titles of Hawthorne stories. That question about genre precision and “low vs. high” has probably plagued writers forever. I’m sure that the first hieroglyph and petroglyphs had their share of critics as well.

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