Everybody has been so relentlessly sensible and comprehensive that I’d better wedge something in here before I’m limited to me-tooisms. Or maybe I already am.
Even if I weren’t a reviewer and former English teacher, I’d be a labeler–I’m hopelessly analytical, a compulsive taxonomist, a parser of elements, a dropper-into-pigeonholes, and a deviser of names for the items so analyzed, catagorized, parsed, and pigeonholed.
Consensus labels are helpful for readers, writers, and (godknows) reviewers; and the last group can play the game by either extending and refining the consensus labels or by creating nonce terms that describe the kinds of clever variations on themes that writers come up with. For example, I called Susan Matthews’ Colony Fleet a melodrama of manners, “in which behavior and folkways are examined in the context of stressful and dangerous environments.” In retrospect, I think it’s a useful characterization that might be applied to, say, the work of Patrick O’Brian–it says pretty much the same thing as “Jane Austen meets C.S. Forester.” It’s not a term that’s going to make the textbooks, but it certainly describes a repeating phenomemon.
What are now called “mash-ups” (itself a literary-category label) are nothing new–Charles Stross’s Cthulhu-meets-James-Bond tales of the Laundry can trace their ancestry back to Campbell’s Unknown Worlds fantasies, which themselves pointedly installed science-fictional (and other generic) machinery in the chassis of classic supernatural fiction. That’s the way “genre” works: collections of protocols, subassemblies, atmospherics, plot devices, presentational conventions, and other component parts can be configured and reconfigured to suit the artist’s taste, ingenuity, vision, or perception of market opportunity. The result may fit into an existing family of products or require a new name to identify its function, appeal, and target audience. Think about “paranormal romance” or “historical mystery” or “recipe cozy” (I just made that one up) or any of the innumerable ways of arranging and packaging the elements of Story.
I remember a Marty Feldman skit in which a funny little man comes to a ticket agency looking for a show to attend. “Do you have anything with giraffes?” he asks. After a series of similarly oddball specifications, he settles for one that has “naked ladies playing football.” Audiences can have very particular, not to say fetishistic tastes, and working artists clearly are not above taking notice.
I live with a writer, so I get to watch stories germinate and grow. Sometimes the seed sprouts almost on its own and she just waters and pulls weeds and does a little pruning. Other times she is is looking to grow a particular species and exerts a different kind of control. It seems to work the same way in music, though in ensemble playing one tends to start with an established something–a form or a particular tune–before taking off for parts unknown. But even a gifted solo improviser will not generally produce music that doesn’t belong to some family that can be named.