I was thinking yesterday about genres of fiction: romance, horror, mystery, etc. It’s easy to think of genres as being like ice cream flavors – just different varieties of the same thing, no more than a matter of taste. But in fact, genres differ in more fundamental ways.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) look at how various genres stack up.
Romance is the most restrictive of the major genres, enforcing both a plot and a reader emotion. The plot is that two people are attracted to each other, go through a rocky courting process, and finally end up together. The emotion is a happy ending (and a general warm-fuzzy throughout, despite some turbulence). It doesn’t matter how much romance a novel may contain – if it doesn’t have both of those things, the plot and the emotion, then it is by definition not a romance novel.
Mystery is also restrictive, but not as much as romance. Mystery enforces a plot – a crime happens, usually a murder, someone spends the book gathering clues, and finally solves it – but not an emotion. A mystery can feel any way the author likes and still be a mystery.
By contrast, horror enforces an emotion (fear) but not a plot, which I would argue is even less restrictive. You can write about anything you want as long as it produces that feeling.
Science fiction has no restrictions on plot or feeling. A sci fi story can be any type of story at all, as long as it contains the right elements: advanced technology, aliens, futuristic stuff, whatever. If that sounds broad and vague, well, it is. Stories as wildly divergent in tone and structure and theme as Dune and Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all considered sci fi, just because they have the right elements.
Then you’ve got historical fiction, which doesn’t enforce plot, feeling or particular elements, but only setting: it has to evoke a distinct sense of time and place. The Western is a curious animal, a proper subset of historical fiction which likewise has a setting requirement.
Finally, you’ve got fantasy, which vies with mainstream (non-genre?) fiction as the most inclusive branch in existence. Fantasy makes no demands on plot, emotion, particular story elements, or even setting. The only thing fantasy requires – the only thing – is that you think outside the box of what’s physically possible. In effect, the restriction is that you’re not allowed to restrict yourself. (The subgenre of sword-and-sorcery fantasy – which is what many people think about when they hear “fantasy” – is more restrictive.)
Obviously, most of these genres can and do overlap.
You can like or hate any genre you want. That’s fine. But you should understand that saying “I like mysteries” is fundamentally different from saying “I like fantasy.” The former is saying “I like to hear a particular story type retold in a new way.” The latter is saying “Let’s see what kind of crazy this author has cooked up.” The sky is not even close to the limit.
And I do like me some crazy.