IS STEAMFUNK JUST ‘BLACK’ STEAMPUNK? – The Illusion of Genre & Subgenre

 

Recently, while discussing the business of writing, a fellow writer took a jab at Steamfunk and the writers of it, saying “I’m not really into the whole making my own version of it bit. IF I see one more black Steampunk story that is nothing more than black Victoriana, I’ll scream.”

Mind you, this is from a person who doesn’t write Steampunk and who probably does not read much of it either, based on her comment. While she is an excellent writer, her excellence does not make her qualified to give an intelligent analysis of something she does not do. She was incorrect in her assessment of Steamfunk, thus her ‘screams’ – which are sure to come, as more “black Steampunk” will, indeed, be written – will make her look silly, like a man running around shouting “The world is gonna end December 21st!”…on December 22nd.

And this is the danger of genre and subgenre. A person reads the definitions of the genre and thinks he or she knows what it is. I would argue that if you do not do a thing – and, in the case of a literary subgenre, that would be faithfully reading and / or writing it – you cannot really know it.

“No participation, no right to observation”, as we say in the ‘hood (I don’t know if the affluent area of Hyde Park in Chicago – where I picked up these words of wisdom – qualifies as the hood, but you get the point).

Another saying, I learned in that Hyde Park ‘hood was “Each one, teach one”, thus I will now define genre and subgenre for those who may not know what they are.  

A genre is a classification of artistic works into descriptive categories. A subgenre is a sub-category of a specific genre, and can apply to literature, music, film, theater, video games, or other forms of art. Subgenres break down genres into more specific subjects.

The concept of genre emerged around 300 B.C.E., when Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato organized various written works into three categories. Numerous genres have been added since, and the list of subject matter continues to grow.

Due to the amount of artistic material in the world today, subcategories of major topics make searching material easier. Genres and subgenres are also powerful marketing tools for publishers and distributors of artistic works. When singer Anthony Hamilton first came on the scene in 1996 with his album XTC, he was hailed as a neo-soul artist, because that was the rage at the time, as people sought a return to the days of “real” music. The XTC album found moderate success, however, as people were not too keen on taking a risk on buying neo-soul at the time, nor were record companies keen on putting their marketing dollars behind neo-soul, because it was just that – neo…new.

Literature became one of the first topics to be listed into separate genres and subgenres. Before the subgenre was introduced there were only a select number of categories to choose from, including romance, horror, thriller, science fiction, and mystery.

As writers put their unique spin on the stories within these categories, publishers closely observed what types of stories sold the most and decided they would sell more books if they created a niche that would attract a specific type of reader within those broad genres. Thus, the subgenre was born. Romance stories are now broken down into the subgenres of contemporary, erotic, historical, regency, gothic, paranormal and young adult. Horror fiction adopted categories such as psychological, supernatural, and Lovecraftian. Science fiction is now broken into such subgenres as hard, soft, space opera and, of course, Steampunk (which is also often categorized as a subgenre of Fantasy or as ‘Science Fantasy’).

Film and theater often have similar types of categories as literature because they are both based on written works.

Modern technology has assisted in the growing popularity of subgenres – check out Netflix and you will find several subcategories of film under each of the twenty categories. The subgenre feature is the primary search format that Netflix customers use in order to find movies.

Another problem with genres and subgenres is that they lead to bullying from self proclaimed ‘genre experts’.

Recently, I posted a short story, Lazarus Graves: The Scythe of Death, which was my experimentation with Dieselpunk. A reader told me he loved the story, but I should not say what I wrote is Dieselpunk because it is definitely Pulp Fiction. I answered him the same way I answer anyone who has taken the time to read one of my stories – “Thanks.”

If he says the story is Pulp – which is actually a style, not a genre or subgenre – and he likes it, then the story is Pulp. If a reader tells me he or she likes my Dieselpunk story, then it’s Dieselpunk. I just write what I like to read and let the readers and publishers decide what it is. When I began writing Steamfunk, I just wanted to write a story similar to one of my favorite television shows – Wild, Wild West – with Harriet Tubman as the protagonist. When my publisher said Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman is a great Steampunk story.” I shrugged and responded “Thanks.” Then, I turned to my wife and said “I guess I finally have a name for what I have been writing.”

I have since accepted that I primarily write what is called Steampunk / Steamfunk and Sword & Soul, but I mash-up these genres and others, because I continue to write what I want to read and what I feel others will also enjoy. And I remain bully-proof, by agreeing with all who read my work that the genre is whatever they want, or need, it to be.

Others are not so bully-proof, however. Recently, author Gail Carriger suffered at the e-hands of e-bullies when she dared to call her bestselling series, The Parasol Protectorate, Steampunk. The genre-police felt her work did not qualify as Steampunk and should be classified as “Bustlepunk” – a term used to describe a softer, “girlier” version of Steampunk.

As we say in the ‘hood – “For real?

My advice for writers is – write first; worry later. Do not fixate on what genre or subgenre you are writing. Just tell the story you want to tell to the best of your ability. And while you should not argue with those who try to define your work as this or that subgenre, because they happen to enjoy this or that subgenre and also enjoy your work, you should not allow the genre-police to bully you, either.

Should you adopt a genre or subgenre as your own, then learn all you can about it; practice it; master it…so that you can turn it inside-out, upside-down and sideways if you so desire. I write Steamfunk and Sword & Soul because, for one, there is a deficit of stories told from an African / Black perspective in Steampunk and Sword & Sorcery and secondly, because I like to write without the restrictions of genre. Both of these sub-subgenres are malleable and alive, thus they are being defined as we write stories within their categories. If I want to mash-up Steamfunk and horror, it’s fine.  If I want to have my Sword & Soul hero use an arsenal of Steamfunk gadgets, it’s okay.

As we say in the ‘hood – “It’s cooler than a Polar bear in an igloo, with air conditioning during a snowstorm, baby.”

My advice for readers is – READ! Oh yeah, and stay humble. Do not perceive yourself as the defender of some genre, attacking those whose writing within that genre is not what you view as ‘authentic’. Heed my words – they can save you from a ton of embarrassment and a world of hurt.

Now, in regard to “Black” Steampunk – Steamfunk is not a gimmick – we do not use “Blackness” as a selling point, we just tell great stories, with heroes that we want, and need, to see; heroes that everyone can relate to. It is not “Victoriana” – an outlook and design style from the Victorian era (1837–1901) – and neither is Steampunk (more on that in a future post). Furthermore, Blackness is not homogenous. There is not just one way of being “Black”.

As we say in the ‘hood – “Miss me with that shit.”

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link and Rite of Passage: Initiation. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika and contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. At present, Balogun is directing and fight choreographing the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk –a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the science fiction gangster saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika. He is also co-creator of the soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul RPG. Balogun is Master Instructor of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute and Technical Director of Martial Ministries of America, a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth. He is also a traditional African priest, actor and conflict resolution specialist, who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, his seven daughters and his son.

31 responses »

  1. Milton says:

    Insightful post. I personally believe that genres are more for selling than defining. As you say, write what you want to the best of your ability and worry about the other stuff later. Your comment about defending the ‘purity’ of the genre reminds me of an incident I listened to a while back. A well known jazz artist was being interviewed on a local radio station, and the interviewer went on the attack on the current state of music, especially hip-hop. She asked the jazz artist her opinion on it expecting support. The jazz artist replied that she enjoyed hip hop and that she had a niece who was in a hip-hop group. The jazz artist had actually joined them on stage for a couple of performances. So while readers are coveting their genres and defending their boundaries, writers and artists are just practicing their talent. The genres don’t matter.

  2. I have not run across Steamfunk in my research yet, I am giving a presentation on Steampunk in January, who would be good authors to look up so I can include this in my research? :)

    • Balogun says:

      I am one of those good authors :)! My novel is Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2). I also have several short stories posted on this blog, including Nandi , The Hand of Sa-Seti and Rite of Passage: The Web. Other Steamfunk authors include Valjeanne Jeffers – The Switch & The Switch II; Maurice Broaddus – Pimp My Airship; and Milton Davis – The Delivery.

      Milton and I are also co-editors of the Steamfunk! anthology, which releases in February 2013.

  3. Louise Howard says:

    “If you are being Fascist about Steampunk you automatically become Dieselpunk” – me.

  4. Malon says:

    Good stuff, Balogun. Comprehensive and well written. Also, good to see Hyde Park represented.

    I think, by nature, human beings like to label and categorize. That doesn’t always have good results, but it does help us to perceive the world around us.

    Some people swear up and down Steampunk must have Victorian roots. But like you’re saying here, write what you want to write, and then sort it all out later.

  5. Jeff Platt says:

    Now I am highly interested in reading some of your work. I’m a steampunk maker, and fan, and I agree with you 100% in your philosophy. I like to say, if you like it, then it’s good for you. If you don’t like it, then don’t. I hate all the genre-definers that come in and attempt to bully people because their aesthetic doesn’t perfectly match up how the “expert” wants it to. Who am I to tell someone that their version of Steampunk (or Dieselpunk, or whatever) is wrong, if they are enjoying it??
    Also… and this is just a footnote… do we really need to say there is a “ladies” form of steampunk (bustlepunk?!?!)?? If it’s a form of steampunk, ummm.. then it’s steampunk. Stop trying to reclassify, gender-fy, and all that people! :)

  6. It’s not clear to me that you’ve labeled your sub-genres properly, based on the genres you supplied, so, here’s where you probably say, “Thanks.” I guess it seems to me like you were limiting yourself, which is more what this goes to. Truby says to be successful, we need to combine genres and transcend them, and it seems like you’ve done that with your writing.

    So to you, I say, “Thanks.” ;)

  7. werewolfcowgirl says:

    Steamfunk is such an awesome sounding word I feel like I need to use it in every day conversation. That said if the term is keeping artists and authors and musicians from the Steampunk table I’m not OK with that. Some genre defining is hopefully helpful as artists find a fan base that appreciates what they have been creating all along. That said, why use subgenres to keep anyone out? We need as much variety and diversity within Steampunk/Dieselpunk/Retrofuturism/Fantasy/Sci Fi/Nerd culture/life in general.

    • Balogun says:

      Steamfunk is not used to exclude anyone. It is used to include stories that have not been told by other authors of Steampunk tales. No one is keeping me away from the Steampunk table, nor am I keeping myself away. I am a Steampunk. I am also a Steamfunkateer (one actively engaged in the Steamfunk movement). So, go ahead and use Steamfunk in your everyday convo, werewolfcowgirl, I am sure it will lead to some lively discussions! :D

      • Amanda Bond says:

        ,,,,I think Steamfunkateer is the best word of the year. If you are ever in Las Vegas let me know, I would love to have you give a talk to our local group, do a reading, and introduce us all to Steamfunk.

      • Balogun says:

        Thanks, Amanda! :)
        I have been to Las Vegas a couple of times and love the city. The next time I am there, I will certainly let you know. I look forward to one day meeting you and your group!

  8. werewolfcowgirl says:

    I feel like I need to make Steamfunk an everyday word – it’s an awesome sounding word.

    Some genre definition is needed just so artists can find appropriate audience for the work they are already making and so consumers can find artists who write/create things that that appeal to them. If subgenres are keeping people away that’s not cool – we need diversity of culture and opinion and style in Retrofuturism/Steampunk/Dieselpunk/nerd culture/life.

    I’d rather read an awesome mashup of genres than a mediocre example of someone’s idea of what a genre is.

    Awesome article, sharing it all over my little corner of the web!

  9. Jha says:

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with Black Victoriana? Victoriana is so pasty-faced, the presence of black people and blackness can only improve it. And people who have a problem with blackness as some sort of “gimmick”…. they’re so full of bullshit, since Black culture permeates so much of American pop culture.

    The policing that goes into the process of definition just makes it clear how attached we are to categories and what needs to be changed for true inclusivity.

    Also, Balogun, what’s your email?

  10. Excellent article Brother Balogun! And as usual right on point :)

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  12. [...] including those of our crew – went up in the packed room. She then asked who was familiar with Steampunk. Five hands went [...]

  13. […] publisher of Sword & Soul, Steamfunk and Science Fiction, today announced that submissions are now being taken for the second Steamfunk […]

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