Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cultivars and Genre

Grape vines are classified by the type of fruit they produce and whether they are to be used as wine or tables grapes. So are books sorted by genre, or the type of story they tell. Perhaps the first 'genre' division was between fiction and nonfiction. Plato supposedly divided fiction into three categories, poetry, prose and play (drama). Certainly with the ever increasing number of writings, organization was needed.

In 1876 Amherst College began using their student assistant Melville Dewey's new system of organizing books. His system allowed the library user to find any book quickly and efficiently. He was twenty-one when he started the project. Since then his system has been revamped many times, but all literature is designated under the number 800. American literature in English is assigned the number 810, and American fiction is labeled 813. Does Australian and Canadian fiction come under 823 English fiction?  There didn't seem to be special sections for them.

Bookstores needed a different system because their customers browsed books and wanted to browse in the area of their reading interest. For years I could go into any books store and find prose divided into general fiction, Westerns, romance, mystery, suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. Beginning roughly in the 1970s e-books gradually made an appearance, and since then genre divisions have exploded.

Science fiction and fantasy seem to be the largest cross-over genre, often mixing with suspense, historical, Western, romance and even classical literature, but it is not the only genre to 'cross-over.' In some ways, genre is like a seed.

Did you know that every seed produces a unique plant? You might not be able to see the differences from the parent plant, but it is there. Just like every person is an individual, so is every plant that grows from seed. That's how cultivars are developed. Plant breeders have test gardens for seed produced plants and while the vines grow they look for special characteristics in each plant, growth pattern, resistance to disease, early fruit production, type of fruit produced, unique new characteristic, etc. The vine selected is given a name and put into production, but its progeny won't come from seed. The only way to be sure the cultivar remains the same is through vegetative reproduction. Every plant sold under that name comes from some part of the original plant.

Isn't that how genre works?
Don't most horror stories link in some way to Frankenstein and Count Dracula? Genre divides stories into generalized reader preferences of story type. However, grapes being grapes, and authors being authors, you never know when a grape containing seeds will drop and grow into an entirely new plant. The resulting progeny shares characteristics with its parent, but will be an entirely new type. So, too, do ideas propagate new genre in stories.


Big Mike said...

Boy do you ladies come up with great topics. Way to go, Robyn.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year, (2008 and 2009)