One of the regular commenters on my own weblog asked me recently to write about genre. She wanted to know if an author starts out with a particular genre in mind, and if so, how is such a thing planned? How do you write yourself into a genre?
I’ve been thinking about this for days, and getting crankier by the minute (which has nothing to do with the person who asked the question; she just hit one of my buttons). Genre is not one of my favorite words. Before I go on, a confession: I know what I’m wishing for is impossible.
This is what I want: abolition of the idea and practice of genre in writing and shelving fiction.
Think about this for a moment. You walk into a bookstore because you want the latest Walter Moseley or Eloisa James or A.S. Byatt, and you head straight for the section where you’ve found those authors before: hard-boiled crime, romance, literary fiction, respectively. Once you get there, you pause to have a look at what else is new in that section, and then you pay and leave.
On the way out you may be passing a novel you would fall in love with, but you don’t see it. You’ve got genre blinders on, and it doesn’t occur to you that there might be something worth reading in science fiction or horror or historical fiction. I can almost feel you shifting uncomfortably in your seat. You’re thinking: but I don’t read horror. Horror is for … other people. I read serious fiction. I read fiction with literary merit.
You know it’s true: Many people will simply refuse to browse in the horror section (or crime, or romance etc) because they’ve been told that so-called popular fiction is inherently less valuable, and they don’t want to be seen there. Theoretically, of course, a novel sitting in the horror section could be very serious, and even fulfill some of the self-aggrandizing characteristics of literary fiction. It might have both complex, evolving characterizations and plot.
Genre is a marketing convenience; it is also a straight-jacket for creativity.
The idea of genre is deeply seated in the way we think about and handle fiction. If you wander through the millions (and I mean that literally) of on-line conversations about books, you’ll find that a huge proportion of the discussions — and an even bigger portion of the arguments — have to do with the idea of genre. Which genre is most worthy? Where does this particular novel fit into Genre X? What’s wrong with Genre Y? Why you should concentrate on Genre Z, or avoid it like the plague. A lot of these arguments have to do with power and authority. The proponents of so-called literary fiction like to claim that they are the final, ultimate authority. In fact, literary fiction is just another genre, with an intended, targeted audience and a number of conventions that shift over time. For the last thirty years or so we’ve been in a no-pain-no-gain literary cycle, where the happy ending is seen as Not Being Serious. This has not always been the case.
Genre can be a terrible straight jacket for any writer. Publishing is in crisis, and it’s harder than ever to get a novel into print; from that it follows that it’s very difficult NOT to think about the marketing people, who will have a say — and not a small one — in whether or not your book is bought or booted. And marketing’s primary currency is genre. Given the current culture, most writers do start out with a genre in mind. They’ve been trained to. Jo says: I’m writing science fiction, when in in the first line, Jo is telling a story. Story is the heart of the matter, but we’ve got tangled up in this need to group and categorize and cubbyhole.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that genre has caused me some trouble in my publishing career. More than once I’ve heard (through my agent) that the marketing people “don’t know how to sell” a particular novel. And it’s true, my work often straddles more than one cubbyhole. The Wilderness novels are called ‘romance’ by Bantam, but I have seen them shelved in romance and general fiction both. I’ve heard them called historical fiction, historical romance, action/adventure. I’m happy to be shelved in romance, but romance authors will tell you that I stand on the periphery because the Wilderness series is not primarily about the evolution of a romantic relationship. I am neither fish nor fowl. And of course this influences my position on this subject.
Down with genre, say I. Story First! Who will join me?