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Picking up on a comment by Jonathan McCalmont, jennygadget asks:

What would you consider “core genre?” Both in terms of definition and representative titles?

(the genre of the book in question is fantasy, but really I'm more curious how people define any genre - especially the kinds of stories that are "central" vs. along the edges, so answer as your whims take you)

Does this term even make any sense to you?

It makes sense to me, but I've tended to use it and see it used in an unexamined, casual fashion. If I were going to try to unpack the concept, for myself it would go something like this: when someone says "core genre" I think in the context of the entire science fiction and fantasy field (as Jonathan says, different areas within the field can have their own core and periphery), and I think of work that sits in the overlap of several sets: work that is at least modestly commercially successful; work that uses common tropes (work that people unfamiliar with sf would easily recognise as sf); work that follows common stylistic conventions of sf (i.e. is conservative); work that is popular with heavy consumers of sf. The fewer of these circles a work falls into, the less likely it is to be recognised as "core", which is why the concept is so horrendously resistant to evolution. So the work of a writer like Catherynne Valente is not often seen as "core genre", despite selling to New York Times bestseller levels, despite reaching the Hugo ballot, despite critical acclaim, because it is adventurous in style and content. (But Valente would be right in the core of what we might call "literary fantasy", which draws on different sets.) Not unrelatedly, I might also suggest that another set that contributes to the construction of "core genre" is "work produced by people who look like the people who produce sf"; that is, lack of diversity breeds lack of diversity, and when people from diverse backgrounds do start writing sf, they're likely to write sf that challenges the common tropes and styles of the sf that exists, making it harder for them to be recognised as core.

What "core genre" does not mean to me is "good" or "essential"; it is, or at least aspires to be, a historical/commercial judgement, not an evaluative one, and (at least in theory) a group judgement (what we point to when...), not an individual one. Nor is it a stable, definitive assessment. The identification of a core necessarily creates a periphery (or several different ways of being peripheral), and the perception of a core gives the periphery something to push against, leading to exchange between core and periphery over time ... which you could argue is being played out in recent Hugo shortlists. You could also read my award predictions post as being, in part, based on my assessment of the extent to which -- in January 2012 -- each award looks to core or periphery to find its contenders.

Niall Harrison is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
7 comments on “The Core”

Oops! That comment was mine.

How about one comment of embarrassedness?

tricia sullivan

....laughing at Adam...sorry, that just made my day, it did.

My question is whether "core genre" is a term worth perpetuating. Your formulation makes sense; it helps to explain why very young subgenres like urban fantasy can be broadly treated as "core" by fans and marketers without having a lot of historical traction. But I've seen the term most often used to elide the "core" label with a value judgement--I can't even say a quality judgement, because comments in the world-famous review thread made it clear that for some people, at least, being "core" isn't even a sign of quality, it trumps questions of quality. It's more like an ethical judgement, without definitive ethics. The result is a lot of fuzzy argument that consists mostly of people striking attitudes.
A term that consists of so many shifting, overlapping sets seems doomed, in ordinary conversation, to perpetuate sloppy thinking. F&SF are too large and modular now, if they ever weren't, for that description to be pragmatically useful.

Al R

If you think of a Venn diagram of overlapping genres, then (I'd argue), much of the interesting work of recent years has tended to straddle one or more of these admittedly ill-defined, porous boundaries - eg the New Weird could be seen as operating near the blurry intersection of SF and Fantasy, and making a virtue of that. Core genre works tend not to spill over those boundaries into neighboring sets. That's my not very sophisticated take on it, anyway.

F&SF are too large and modular now, if they ever weren't, for that description to be pragmatically useful.
And yet that very modularity makes me want a core to exist. I agree, the sf field feels like it's an endless proliferation of subgenres sometimes these days, but I don't want to be a fan of epic fantasy, or near-future procedurals, or steampunk, or whatever; I want to be a fan of all of the above. I want there to be a field, generally conceived, with broad-ranging and eclectic taste, not lots of little micro-fields that I can dip in and out of. Now, that's not what "core" denoted in the Thread That Shall Not Be Named; but it's what I want core to mean.
Core genre works tend not to spill over those boundaries into neighboring sets.
Yes, if you start thinking in terms of the distinct core of each different bit of the sf field, I think that makes sense. But I guess I'd just think of those sorts of works as exemplars of their labels -- hard sf, urban fantasy, whatever. I wouldn't think of them as "core genre" because that, in my mind, tries to frame a group of works from across the whole of the sf field. (Of course certain subsets are privileged within that frame, so "core genre" tends to reflect the cores of some subsets of the field more than others...)

In the hope of provoking the "thread of outrage, vitriol, agreement and disagreement" that Adam Roberts was looking forward to...
I think If I was is correct, and were is a hypercorrection. If you are determined to follow the traditional rules for if-clauses, then, as Adam says, you should use the "subjunctive for unfulfilled wish or condition". But here the condition is fulfilled: in fact, the concept is unpacked in the very same sentence.


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