I don’t tell my ‘academic’ colleagues that I write fiction. I don’t talk much about my non-fiction writing to my fiction-writing community. I LOVE e-readers because they don’t reveal whether I’m reading a steamy romance, popular history, angst-ridden literary novel, nineteenth-century article on hospitals, or an idiot’s guide to something technical that even my nine-year-old already knows how to do.
Why do I do this? Why hide my reading and writing habits? Am I ashamed of something? Scared? Yes, of course. But of what?
In switching between genres I’m scared of crossing social boundaries—of entering unknown, perhaps even unfriendly, territory; of not knowing the rules of acceptable behavior; of feeling like an outsider; of being judged, teased, criticized, left out . . . wait, this is starting to sound like conversations I’ve been having with my daughter about playground interactions.
So, does this mean genres are the literary equivalent of cliques? Hmmm. Bear with me for a little while on this.
First off, I’m not saying cliques (or genres) are good or bad in and of themselves. They exist. I’m also not interested in examining the varying characteristics of different literary genres. I do want to examine how we use them, what we potentially get from them, and what we lose by them.
Genres, as literary boundaries, function as community support systems for getting a relevant book into the hands of an interested reader. This categorization sells books (making authors happy), it helps readers find books that appeal to them (making readers happy). Genres are literally a system for locating books in overstuffed libraries and bookstores (on-line and IRL). This is all good. When genres are applied to books, they create order out of chaos.
When they are applied to writers, however, they create a social system not unlike the elementary school playground where there are lines between groups of people. Insiders get a strong sense of security and identity from belonging within a particular social circle (genre). In exchange they have to accept certain rules of acceptable behavior (literary conventions). Outsiders have freedom from those literary restrictions, but miss out on a sense of community.
Authors’ identities can become strongly linked to the perceived status of their chosen genre. The inevitable result seems to be boundary wars. Some authors attack the boundaries; others defend them. In genre wars it is the literary novel vs. the period romance; the serious history vs. the popular history; erotica vs. family drama; the sports tell-all vs. the self-help parenting guide, the popular clique vs. the nerds, the jocks vs. the stoners, etc. . . . You get the idea. This is crazy.
Imagine a paperback copy of Jane Eyre being whomped by a hardcover edition of Pride and Prejudice for adding an element of mysticism at the end of the story and transgressing the existing literary conventions (and crossing the genre boundaries). OK, bad analogy. But books don’t fight, people do. And I want to separate the books from the fighting.
Blurring or crossing the boundary lines provides no solution to the problem of genre, and in fact, it creates other problems. Everyone has probably heard the ancient curse: May you live in interesting times. Here’s my literary curse: May you write a multi-genre book.
To get an agent, or a publisher, or even just to attract readers somewhere along the line you have to give (or someone else will give) your book a genre. If you do it, you are essentially choosing a social group. If someone else does it, you are being assigned to a category–essentially ‘labeled’. One is potentially self-limiting, the other is potentially stultifying. I’ve known more than one author whose book was assigned a genre which they neither agreed with nor identified with.
But trying to avoid genre is equally impossible. When people ask me what I write, and I’m feeling uncertain of where they stand in the genre hierarchy, I often simply answer “Books.” That usually elicits eye-rolls or blank stares. It is also a conversation-killer, which is not a good strategy when practicing to develop the form of public persona that authors these days have to cultivate. It does, however, avoid my genre fears.
Every day I sit at a computer and try to write, to the best of my abilities, the stories both historical and fictional that usurp my brain. I don’t want to describe that process or its consequences in a single categorical word.
I want to live my life free, and out loud. I want to tell my academic friends that I write fiction, and my fiction-writing friends about my non-fiction . . . . But. I. Can’t. Those genres are getting in my way. Maybe, if I am lucky enough to become published, a genre will help sell my book, maybe it won’t. For now, genres are simply making me develop multiple identities.
This rant is also definitely a product of this time of year. The sky has been gray for weeks on end, there’s a bazillion feet of snow on the ground, and the temperature hasn’t gone above freezing since last year. But in the end I wrote this not just because I’m grumpy about living in an icebox, but because I really want to know—am I alone in this or do fellow writers also think about these things? Does it bother you? Do you have strategies for dealing with genre identity problems?