Genres are the fossils left by movements

During a conversation between The Speculators writing group recently, we came up with this idea.

Genres are the fossils left by movements.

To explain. Movements are conversations between writers, conducted through stories. During the period of movement, writers are talking to each other, exchanging ideas and generally discussing how to move the art of fiction forward. As these conversations develop, the movement develops identifiable motifs. Over time, these motifs solidify in to tropes, which become genres.

Some examples. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling et al shape a movement to reform Hard-SF, which results in the Cyberpunk genre. (And also the Steampunk genre) J.R.R Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and the other Inklings form a movement to bring mythic values back to modern stories, and some decades later the Epic Fantasy genre is the outcome. A motley crew of British and US writers have the ambition to write fantasy and horror with added literary value, and a decade later we have the squid obsessed New Weird.

Genres are the fossils left by movements. True? Untrue? Unfair? Spot-on? is there a movement in the other direction, where writers eat up the fossilised genres to fuel new movements?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

19 thoughts on “Genres are the fossils left by movements

  1. As I was there, I agree.

    I’d suggest that ‘Amazing Stories’ under the editorship of Hugo Gernsback, and ‘Astounding Stories’ under the editorship of John W. Campbell cast a lot of the science-fiction genre in the shape we see it today. It was the dialogue that the writers had with each other and with their editors that produced genre.

    What might science fiction have looked like two equally driven and talented editors had been in charge, but with different ideals?


  2. I thought fossilized movements were called coprolites. Who knew?

    In seriousness, I’m not convinced genres can be seen as fossils as stated. Literary movements (which could in some cases be virtually the work of a single author or two) may produce tropes and even distinctive styles, but within these, newer authors often build on, expand, and in the admittedly more rare but most desirable of cases, transform.

    Fossils do not give birth to new life, new forms. Genres can. Like the forces which have created the fossil record perhaps we’re just being fooled by the slow pace of such change.

    Personally I prefer this latter idea: that writing, genre writing among it, is part of ongoing evolution of literary forms. There is, to misquote Darwin, a grandeur in this view.


    “…whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”


    1. It’s a metaphor, don’t try and read into it and stretch it too far.

      (Although I am about to do just that.)

      As I understand the discussion, and keep in mind I was very tired at the time: the idea is that looking at genre we see a fixed record of what it was. We see the shapes and forms of the different species within a family of stories. The common themes and tropes of a genre. But those shapes and forms are now fixed if all that is done is look backwards. When we identify a story within a genre by its form we are looking at the fossilised remains of stories already written. By comparing stories like for like with others of its type.

      A movement within art is an on going conversation between the participants. It is the exchange of ideas. The fucking and cross-breeding of memes. That is when a movement is alive. That’s when and how the evolution of ideas takes place.

      When you are able to tell a story by designing it intelligently, or not, to match the forms of previously told stories without being forced by selection criteria to add anything new (mutations) then you working with the fossil record. You are probably working within an already existing genre.


  3. This is a bit tautological, isn’t it? You’ve looked at a bunch of subgenres formed by movements and then concluded that all subgenres are the products of movements. There are plenty of counter-examples: paranormal romance or space opera, say.

    There is the question of time too. Cyberpunk was a deliberate, instant creation; Epic Fantasy took thirty years to come along. They have very little in common. (I’m also not convinced that CS Lewis and the rest of the Inklings had much to do with its birth; that is pretty much down The Lord Of The Rings all on its own.)


    1. @Martin – throwing the topic open for conversation, and I wouldn’t claim that all genres fit the statement. Most maybe, but not all. Including both those you mention – Space Opera, a very clear movement around Banks, McLeod etc about the Representation of socialist principles in SF. Paranormal Romance – Laurel K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and the rest are all in Avery genuine dialogue. You may not like what it says, but…

      And on the Inklings, they very clearly were at the heart of Tolkiens idea, and Narnia is really much more like Middle Earth than you admit. Four little people journey from an idealised England out into a world of fantastical creatures and great evil. So which one am I describing?


      1. Including both those you mention ā€“ Space Opera, a very clear movement around Banks, McLeod etc about the Representation of socialist principles in SF.

        Space Opera pre-dates the birth of Banks and MacLeod. If you are talking about New Space Opera then yeah, you could probably call that a movement (albeit a much more informal one than the examples you use in the post). But this is still a counter-example to your position, it proves that space opera wasn’t fossilised; it might have been slightly stale but it was waiting to have new life breathed into it. And then, in turn, New space Opera hasn’t fossilised. You refer to “representation of socialist principles in space” as a core component but this is absent from plenty of examples of the subgenre.

        Paranormal Romance ā€“ Laurel K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and the rest are all in a very genuine dialogue. You may not like what it says, but..

        I think this is even more tenuous as a movement. Is there evidence that they met socially to discus the starting of the genre? I mean Harris is pretty late to the genre, she didn’t start publishing in the genre until a decade after Hamilton. Like most subgenres, rather than being the result of an explicit movement, it is the organic outgrowth of various writers in dialogue of the course of time.

        Four little people journey from an idealised England out into a world of fantastical creatures and great evil. So which one am I describing?

        I think you could make a very good case for them both being Portal Quests (in the Mendelsohn taxonomy) and being responsible for much of the popularisation of that form of fantasy fiction. But is not the same as both being of the Epic Fantasy subgenre.


      2. @Martin – I made a brief response to you Martin, then had a few additional thoughts, so am reposting.

        Space Opera – an example of writers destroying an old genre to fuel a movement surely? Banks et al were playing with the right wing values of so ace opera as part of their socialist agenda.

        Paranormal Romance – there are very clear themes these writers share that makes them a valid movement – strong female protagonists, overt sexuality etc etc. How is that not a movement? Again, it may not be a relevant movement to you or I, but it’s kind of patronising to deny what those writers are doing.

        Epic Fantasy – Lewis and Tolkien were both working with very similar ideas, and its those ideas that spawned Epic Fantasy. Not every writer from a movement has to become canonical to the genre.

        As in previous discussions, your real issue seems to be that the terminology used is a little negative towards genre? What is it about genre you are so keen to defend?


      3. This is getting boring; every time one of your half-baked ideas about literature is exposed to the light it withers but instead of defending or modifying your views you accuse others closed-minded fans. It is a childish debating technique. You aren’t some great shibboleth-slaying iconoclast, you are just some bloke who has thought about the genre but hasn’t thought hard enough.


  4. The other problematic element of identifying genres as the fossil record of literary movements, is the question of time. Genres can rise and fall in popularity. Very few have for example, gone entirely extinct. If a genre is still producing active, innovative work – then I’d argue that the conversation isn’t over yet. How are we to know when the last word on the subject has been spoken?

    Sub-genres which might seem like evolutionary dead ends (death of the New Weird anyone?) may suddenly be found thriving, in some mountainous hilltop-equivalent of a writer. Likewise, they can be resurrected from the grave, in part, or as some monstrous fusion of elements and given new life.

    I’d be hesitant then, to classify even the most stagnant of genres as true fossils, or even of a metaphoric sort.


    “That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die. “


    1. @EM Edwards – I’d argue that the ‘mountainous hilltop’ of a writer is as rare in culture as it is in nature. Writers feed off each other, it’s why movements are so vital. Writers that cut themselves off from other writers cut them self off from their food source. That’s why so many great writers emerge as part if movements.


      1. Yet we see this, repeated.

        A stubborn hold-out who breaths new life – or simply doesn’t know that the tributary which they follow, never makes it to the sea. The transit of ideas can span decades, slowly seeping through the rock like water carving caves out of porous limestone. Without saying that a movement has reached its terminus, it is very difficult to be certain if the conversation is either over or about to head off in a new direction.

        If signs of life remain in the genre, then it’s not really a fossil of the original movement – it may very well contain elements within which are still carrying on the conversation. A writer can think in solitude for long years before joining in the discussion.

        Mixed metaphors aside, what I’m trying to stress is that how can we say that genres are the fossilized remains of literary movements, when elements of that genre, sometimes sub-groups, but most frequently individual writers, working within the textural landscape of that movement and its inheritance, continue to expand, challenge, and perpetuate the movement? It may leave the circle of the original authors who started it, but this doesn’t mean the conversation is over.

        That is one of the beauties of literature. Long dead authors can continue to find their words taken up by new voices, the latter which add their own lines to the long chant that leads us through the dark places.

        Genre seems to me more like the action of a school of fish, grouping around certain habitats made up of shared conventions, memes, styles, and language. The shoal moves and changes direction at times – even spawning small groups who break off from the main, but can be traced back through their lineage.

        Fossils though? In time, I think you’ll be right but it is not only the original movement which would need to be definitely deceased, but those genres which have formed around them. Otherwise, it becomes very hard to distinguish a living movement from its ossified remains.



  5. It’s not a new idea. I remember Gary Wolfe walking about something like this at ICFA a few years ago. But I think it helps to regard it as a process of ossification, rather than a binary of fossil/not-fossil. Also the process tends to be driven by the market, not by writers.

    Here’s a possible model. One or more writers comes up with something that is seen as a new idea (it doesn’t have to be genuinely new, few ideas are, but it has to excite the readers). The publishers then start asking for “more like this”, and eager writers start to provide it. Readers attracted by the original idea want to buy “more like this”. And slowly but surely the writers producing “more like this” become lazier and more formulaic in what they write, and the form becomes a recognizable (sub)genre.

    Of course good writers can revitalize the genre. It doesn’t have to become totally fossilized. And even a dead genre can be revived at some point later. The point about ossification is that it is what happens when the readers, writers and publishers concentrate more on producing/consuming “more like this”, and less on creativity and innovation.


    1. There are no new ideas, just reconstituted fossils.

      ‘More like this.’ is a good description of the force behind ossification, I agree. It’s what the majority of people in the publishing process rely on…editors, agents, retailers…even readers. ‘More like this’ means you have arrived at a successful memeplex, so keep reproducing! But like a species that stops evolving, eventually the ossified genre gets old and slow, and the young up and comers eat it alive, recycle the useful bits and spit out the bones.


  6. Interested and heated discussion. Marvelous.

    Anyway, your direct correlation between movement and genre. Don’t know if you can say it applies in all cases. The Western (a genre still popular in the US I believe) seems to have sprung fully formed without any need of a literary movement. It arose from a historical reality ladled with oodles of myth and taken up by the entertainment industry (wild Bill Hickock’s wild west show, TV serials etc). The literary genre that emerged, I would argue, fed off those influences to a much greater extent than literary sources.


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