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.
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.”