Our Dangerous Fixation With Genres

Revolutionary SnoopyThe writing world is full of factions.

Each of these factions, have their own heroes (or leaders), their own book clubs, their own book dealers, their own sites, their own rules, their own readers, etc.

Sometimes I like to imagine them as armies, each with their own distinct style and strengths and weaponry.

  • The romance army is nothing more than a collection of men with long flowing hair and amazing abs. There is a good chance that their swords might be a phallic thing though, consider yourself warned.
  • The paranormal army is made up of brooding men who may be vampires… or werewolves… or zombies… or ghosts. Whatever the case, they are dreamy.
  • In the YA ranks you will find confused teenagers with an overwhelming sense of destiny. They will be looking for something and once they find it, watch out.
  • Yes, the scifi army is full of little green men, but over the course of the battle we will all learn something about humanity back here at home.
  • And you do not want to see the horror army. Seriously, just turn and run!

The funny thing is that it is more than the publishers and bookstores that have latched on to the use of factions or, more accurately, genres to organize our art. We writers do it as well as so many of us proudly declare which army we fit into. Our people.

Twitter is full of writers that introduce themselves first by name and then by their genre. And the funny thing is when you search through their followers as well as those that they follow, they are also of the same genre. Their army, their rules…

Join us.

While creativity is generated from the side of the brain not including logic, logic still likes to jump in to define the work of that other half.  It is an old practice honestly.  Heck, even the first folio by Shakespeare has his plays organized by “comedies,” “histories,” and “tragedies.”

And while most libraries just rely on the last name and then title to organize a fiction work into its rightful place, you will still find some separation with turnstiles just for certain genres and their paperbacks. Of course, it is bookstores that are the worse.  We all know that.

I wish I could point a finger and say where this fault truly lies for how this became so prevalent today, but it grew organically and each of us in a way played a part. From academia where classes focus on one style of writing or books to publishers to now even writers that see themselves in only one camp.

So why does this bother me so much? And why do I think others need to stop and think about this as well?

Creativity. Inspiration.

The great moments and works in literature all were outside the grain of that period. An author was taking a risk, and in some cases it inspired movements.

Literature is filled with moments like this. From James Joyce and his Ulysses to Jack Kerouac and On the Road, all readers can list the great works that changed the artform we love so much, spurred us forward.

But if so many of us feel at home in a specific genre could those groundbreaking kinds of novels still even emerge today? Is it even possible in today’s atmosphere where the major publishing houses are run more as businesses with expectations governing the choice of a publication over the artistic importance of a work?

Are our new Joyces and Kerouacs simply self-publishing or trying to fit a mold that someone else wants? This idea should terrify all of us, no matter which army we are in.

A Jane Austen DaydreamA few years ago I was busy looking for a publisher for my novel A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM (out now, more info here), and in the search I wandered onto a site for a romance publisher.

Yes, there is love in DAYDREAM, but I would never call it a romance; yet, it couldn’t hurt to visit the site. Sometimes publisher have an interest in publishing something new outside their realm, right? A nice thought but there was a rude awakening waiting for me in their submission page.

The submission page had the basics (how many pages of excerpt, synopsis, etc.), but it didn’t stop there. Oh no, not at all! They broke down in detail characters, plot, and every aspect of how they want a book structured.

Wow.

I like to think of that practice as the equivalent of throwing a painter a canvas with paint-by-numbers already on it. “Just fill it in, we’ll hang it up later, Picasso!”

I wish I could say this publisher was the only one like that, but that wouldn’t be true. It inspired an investigation by me and I found similar detailed requests in other genres as well.

Of course, a publisher has every right to decide what they want, but what made me a little bothered is the idea of how many new writers there are out there that have changed their books to meet these requirements. Because those new writers know, like we all do, that this market is so overly-congested with writers that if they didn’t do it, another writer would step in and do it.

Yet… this practice makes me wonder how many readers are really that happy with “cookie cutter” genre books? I mean, they have to feel like things sound “like the same old song” from book to book? They can’t be blind to it, right?

Which brings me to another important question. By having genres and following rules of them so specifically, are all of us (writers, editors, publishers, and even readers) damaging the very artform we claim to love? Maybe even the genres themselves, since we are stifling their own possible growth?

Mr. BradburyLast Christmas I wanted to give my nephew a copy of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. To say this book is important to me is to make a gross understatement. This is one of the books that inspired me to even chase this dream as a writer.

The book is filled with literary magic. (No, I don’t mean fantasy magic! Jeepers!)

The problem is in my local big-chain bookstore I had a problem even finding it in the store! After visiting a few different sections, I finally found it in scifi with a cover that seemed out of a dream as compared to anything in the book. It was odd; yes, “odd” is the right word to use.

But where would a book like Dandelion Wine belong? YA? Spiritual? Thriller? SciFi? Fantasy? Historical Fiction? Literary Fiction? I could make an argument for any of those genres, but one genre alone doesn’t feel solely right for Ray’s masterpiece.

Which brings me to my greatest fear of all. As the sides in this genre war continue to take root, with their armies turning each of their areas of occupation into more and more a police state (“You are with us, or you are with them!”), will classics like this be lost.

A casualty of war?

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, my new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!…

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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56 responses

  1. I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the issue of genre. I’m a writer of “literary” fiction, meaning that the work is character driven and pays close attention to language. My plots, however, have crossed into mystery, romance and fairy tale. This has caused me no end of grief when entering novel competitions and querying agents. Yet, I can name several fine and quite successful books that marry literary and genre fiction. Umberto Ecco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE and Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN are personal favorites, but there are many, many others. As you said, human beings have an innate drive to categorize. This is fine as long as we remember that WE created these categories, which means WE can define them anyway we like. We can stretch them or narrow them to suit our purposes. In the end, if we do our jobs right, rather than putting off genre lovers, we will draw them in and actually expand the audience for quality fiction. That said, it’s a rough road. It takes a certain degree of stubbornness to stay the course and not mute one’s own voice in an attempt to gain wider acceptance.

    Anyway, thanks for opening this discussion, and I look forward to the launch of A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM. Not even two weeks to go now!

    • Thank you so much for your response (And I do hope you like my book, I can’t wait to see how people react to it). I do hope that the publishers and readers will follow the writers when they go these new paths (Heck, I’ve been off these “paths” since I started writing!), my fear is that as time goes on it will be more and more difficult to do that outside of just self-publishing.

      In a perfect world, story would always be the most important thing for the audience and the writer.

  2. During a draft, genre can be a brutal, resistant set of restrictions. On the other hand, it’s possible to approach genre from purely a marketing position. Rather than feeling constrained, it can be a tool — recognized widely within an already huge industry — to help you find who your readers are, exactly. It can also be a tool that those readers can use to find your book. Once your book is ready for publication, it’s artistic literary merit will have to be somewhat relegated to your own opinion bank. That will be for others to say, not you. You will need to put on the marketer’s hat and see your book in its new form, as a product to be sold. Once this happens, genre becomes the classification system used to put books into niches so readers can discover them. Discovery is what it is all about. We all want to write what’s in our hearts and take our stories where they lead us, but at day’s end, if we want others to read and appreciate them, then we have to get down to the nitty-gritty, find the right shelf to sit our book upon, and make sure the right people see its spine.

      • I always enjoy your posts! Thanks — I still don’t know how to classify my work. I figure that a job for the other guy. Since all my stuff is cross-genre, I just got tired of fighting it.

      • That’s the trick with my new novel A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM. Yes, it is very much in the spirit of one of her literary books, but it is also very experimental because of some of the twists I do in it (Of course, if I have pulled it off it should feel very natural for the novel). So, in a way, I don’t know what genre it fits in.

        The only clear book I have created in a genre is MAXIMILIAN STANDFORTH which I hope to have out next month or a little later. It is very much a period mystery at the start; of course, I only create it as a genre book so I can break the mold through the telling. Hopefully, it won’t anger too many people (but it might).

  3. I guess it’s human nature to try to label or categorize. It’s especially in the nature of the publishing world to genre-ize. I prefer mixed genres. Love to mix my genre metaphors.

  4. I like books of mixed genres, they are richer and more fun. Horror sci-fi western with vampire guests from camelot? Fine by me, as long as you put more than 20 writing hours in it.

    I don’t like blurred lines, though. If I buy a ”suspense political thriller smart spy story” and 350 out of 500 pages have explicit sex scenes, I’ll leave the book on a park bench. I’ll do the same if I buy “kinky girl meets kinkier boy” and the story has lots of pink flowers and bridal manicure.

    The writer should make clear to me if what I’m buying is an adventure, an love story, a political statement or a sex date. All of them can co-exist, of course, but which one is the main ingredient?

  5. The problem with not staying within the lines of genre is marketing. Traditional publishers have always seen it that way when they buy a book but now I’m finding it’s just as difficult crossing genres in the indie world. To get on an Amazon list you have to categorize your book. I’ve been writing and published for 20 years. I’m writing within the romance and mystery genres but now I find I want to mix it all in indie because I can! However, even to advertise, I have to be able to label the book. It’s challenging.

    • I seem to be getting variations of this response from readers. So do we do it for readers do you think? Or is it because we are told that we need to for marketing. And does it limit the work to reach people outside that genre. It is definitely a fascinating debate.

  6. Interesting debate as we are all in some way restricted by the genre argument, from the books we read to the books we write. There is a difficulty though with books that do cross over genres and from the research you mention, it would seem that there are limited traditional publishing routes for these, which I am sure is partly contributing to the boom in self-publishing. My novel which I am self publishing is a bit of a crossover and I am worried that when I come to upload it, I will end up putting it in the wrong category! A bit like being back at school when you couldn’t do History and Geography as they were both in the same box!

  7. I find it disappointing that there is so much support out there online for genre fiction and relatively little for those who write outside of a dominant genre. This is a real challenge for those of us who have independently published books that straddle the line between literary and “mainstream” fiction. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

    • You and I are on the same page about this. Something is being lost by genres, new voices, new ideas. I can’t imagine the classics we all study fitting so perfectly into a genre. This is one of the things that does make me concern for the artform (that and the abundance of sequels for the sake of sequals like I said in a previous post), since we worry more about “sales” than the “art” part of it.

      Okay, I’m starting to sound like the grumpy guy complaining about kids playing on his yard now.

  8. To me, as a reader, a genre is a promise. When I pick up a fantasy novel I expect there will be magic*, swordplay and some mythical creatures. It doesn’t need a prophecy** or dragons. There can be some technology to make it steampunk.

    I’m fine with a Poirotian murder mystery in a fantasy castle. And just for the heck of it, I might write one. It’ll be an interesting challenge to do well and the magic system will have to be very well thought out so it can be understood by the detective; which doesn’t have to be a magician himself.

    I believe over genre-isation is stifling creativity. Fitting into the mould is often boring and predictable. It’s come to the point where I avoid entire shelves*** in book stores because I believe their contents are too predictable.

    * If there isn’t, it has to be explained.
    ** The single most over used cliché, imo.
    *** This means categories.

      • Re footnotes, you’re welcome.

        If you mean why I pass certain bookshelves, I can reply. I do not want to read yet another supernatural almost-but-not-quite-horror love story. Since my chances are slim to none to find actual horror in the shelves that hold supernatural novels I don’t waste my time there.

        I don’t know what the situation is elsewhere, but here supernatural shelves are not split into romance and horror, or they only include the former.

  9. Like everyone’s saying, we naturally like to categorize and draw lines in the sand. It’s normally a very useful thing that helps us to more efficiently match what’s offered with what’s wanted. But I completely agree that if we focus on genre consideration above the story itself, it impedes our freedom of expression and stifles innovation.

    Mixing elements from our culturally pre-defined genres can be enormously rewarding, and I don’t think we should limit ourselves by the expected pigeon holes. The system is too ingrained to circumvent, however, so we must also realize that we’ll have to shoehorn the result into the closest fit and hope that its unique merits will make it a stand-out (ideally a well-received one, but, there’s the risk). When this happens enough, new genres can even form (like the “Paranormal Teen Romance” we see everywhere these days), so the grid may not be so immutable as we think.

    (I’ve known that the big-line romance genre has been largely write-by-numbers for a while now, but I wasn’t aware that that kind of formula was crossing over to others…that is kind of a scary thought!)

    • Scary and true. You can find books to help you write in most genres, and again they are walking you through steps. The hard truth is though for writers that write a pure genre work… Well… I don’t know how much the work truly makes an impact, adding to the river, not making a splash.

      Thanks for writing!

      • Indeed, that’s always the trade-off. Go with the flow and you might get moderate but uneventful success, or risk diverting the stream and wind up on your own in new territory – where you’ll either sink or swim.

        (Sorry, had to keep the water analogy going. (>^-‘)> )

  10. I’m hoping the indie world will help us break the “cookie cutter” genre book mould.

    Perhaps we need to adopt new words to describe books that cross genres. Something like, ‘cross-genre’ perhaps?

    “This is a cross-genre book reaching readers in erotica, paranormal, and religion.” (My goodness, that would be quite a book!)

    I read and review women’s fiction with a strong preference for chick lit because I’m attracted to the quirky humor that comes with a main character whose world is falling apart. The chick lit genre is often punched in the stomach by ‘literary’ industry types either declaring it dead (and yet, if you check sales, it is so clearly NOT dead!) or insisting certain elements and/or stereotypes be present to qualify as chick lit.

    And yet, chick lit descends from Jane Austen. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is chick lit. But then, so is Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Shopaholic Takes Manhattan series…

    BTW, I’d love to get my hands on an ARC of Jane Austen’s Daydream… My book blog can be found here: Chick Lit Chit Chat URL julievalerie – dot -com

  11. Awesome article. I’m of the same thought process in that why does everything have to be separated into nice and neat categories? Let a book be a book. When I started writing, I made the choice to avoid being labeled into a single genre and have written four books in three genres. I never understood the reason behind limiting oneself even if it’s for promotion and sales. I figure if you’re a good writer and people like your books, what does it matter?

    • Without genre label it can make it difficult finding a publisher and also with online book searches and bookstores. It is a tricky thing to manage. Sounds like we are on the same page. It’s got to be about the book, first and foremost.

      Cheers!

  12. I’m with Richard Sutton on this one. I don’t like writing to spec either but I appreciate that sometimes in order to reach the readers you’re writing for, there might have to be a few rules.If I want to sell books, I don’t want to frighten or alienate them by not giving them what THEY want. I’m a romance suspense writer myself, which means that my books have to have a HEA, they need a male and female protaganist who are true to each other (no sex with other people please! the readers don’t like that)-although conflict is great and the more adversities you throw at them the better – and – actually, that’s about it. I certainly don’t ‘write by numbers’ and my publisher gives me a lot of leeway. The challenge is in writing something different, making your characters flawed and human, making the setting and the storyline unique or at least fresh while still keeping within the confines of what you’re writing about. My hero isn’t buff, handsome and built like a Greek God- someone recently commented that they loved the fact that he is more ‘sexy and lanky, with faults’ which I think is great. My heroine isn’t some swooning, ravishing creature with great boobs and cleavage -she’s a woman ten years older than the man who has her own challenges and her own faults. But together -they are definitely a romance in the making.

    If I didn’t want to do this, I’d write something else. So for a change of pace, I wrote a really controversial detective thriller where the heroine is not squeaky clean and neither is the hero – this wouldn’t be billed a romance but an ‘erotic crime thriller’. So I think I can achieve the best of both worlds! Great site Scott, thanks for starting this thought provoking post.

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  14. I have not limited myself to a particular genre. Where’s the fun in writing the same style over and over? Why not experiment with them all? For marketing purposes I can see how categories help but in truth if a story attracts a reader that is all we need to worry about.
    A very interesting subject that I have linked to my blog…

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  16. By way of example, I have long felt that designating Stephen King as the King of “horror” is to miss the wider range of what he does. Most of his books are really about people first, and the oddities in their lives second. While a horror movie may very well focus on the bizarre monster or frightening killer as a plot device first, his books tend to use these unusual happenings as a tool in a much broader toolbox. Several of his books, such as Hearts in Atlantis, the Gunslinger series, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, Cujo, The Green Mile, From a Buick 8, etc. I look at and do not see horror novels. It’s a very odd thing in books that we try to cram complex stories into easy little designations. I think it’s probably necessary, but still quite strange.

  17. Maybe we’re not applying the term “genre” correctly.

    If genre is a commercial designation, then yes, a formulaic approach is inevitable for writers who hope to be picked up by a traditional publishing house. But it also seems to me that there are books being published, both traditionally and independently, that defy formula.

    It seems to me that the choice lies first with the writer and then with the reader. It is hard for me to imagine writing a book that conforms strictly to the formula required by a “commercial” genre. The story must first be true for the writer or the formula will become stale over time.

    Shouldn’t serious story telling be free of formulas regarding plot, theme, and characterization?

  18. One of the many reasons I’m self-publishing. Although the major publishers who do “romance” have expanded to include inspirational romance imprints in recent years, the tight parameters of those new imprints were so formulaic I wanted to vomit. My first novel wouldn’t fit–the stubborn, square-shaped thing!
    Thus, we now have our own publishing label. Crazy steep learning curve but worth it. Plus, self-publishing is just much more possible than it was a few years ago. Yes this makes for some unedited crap thrown out on the market, but over-polished, formulaic crap happens as well. At least we have options.
    Thank you for a very insightful article, Scott!

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