[Note: This article was originally posted as a guest blog at Indiependent Books. See it here. Comments welcome.]
I’d like to talk today about genres, but before I do that let me begin with one large caveat: I am very good at doing things the wrong way and getting away with it. For example, I conceived of, wrote, and published a novel in a genre I barely read. (The novel is Immortal which you can buy here.)* One should not attempt to write a genre-busting novel without knowing the genre one is busting, or so I’m told. I’m not saying this to brag; I’m saying this so at the very least you understand that I am an exception to the rule, and I may not know what I’m talking about.
Writer chat Groundhog Day
It’s very possible you don’t spend a lot of time hanging around writers, so let me explain that I’ve never met one that likes the idea of genres. Put simply, being told one’s work fits only within a narrow sub-sub-category is a bit demeaning, because to us our work is “more than just” whatever you want to call it. And that’s true: your literary fiction might also be funny, and my humor book might also have fantasy in it, and her fantasy might be surprisingly highbrow.
Despite this, genre classification– however reductive– isn’t going away any time soon (for solid reasons I’ll explain below), and is important enough to warrant at least one argument a day in a writer’s chat somewhere online. One’s probably happening right now.
I have participated in a fair number of these discussions myself, and have seen the same basic arguments presented many times over. Here are the two polar camps, with allowances for gray areas between them:
- Before writing anything for a specific genre, a writer needs to read that genre, keep up with current trends, be aware of standard story structure, common tropes, and what’s already been done. After all, you can’t well write something original without knowing what constitutes “original.”
- Genres are evil and creatively restrictive, and should have nothing to do with creativity as a process in and of itself. We should do away with them entirely.
I don’t think either of these are entirely correct.
It might help to back up and understand what genres are for:
- they help sell books
- see #1
The only purpose of genre classification is to help group a novel into the proper approximate category so that people who like that category can find it and buy it. This neither a good nor a bad thing, it is simply a fact. And it’s how everything is sold, not just novels. One does not buy yogurt in the cereal aisle, or tractor trailers from the Volvo dealer. We sort, and not just because it’s human nature to do so but because it makes the most sense economically. And when you’re selling something, economic sense is the only kind that matters.
So we can’t do away with them. If someone tried, they would be run out of business by everyone who didn’t, because people like being told where to go to buy what they are looking for with minimum fuss. And if you are now running off a list of “genre” books that were runaway successes, or just the proverbial “I don’t ever read this genre but I liked ___” book you read once understand that:
- all books begin with a core audience of genre readers; if they have a wide enough appeal they grow out of their core group, but that’s where they started.
- if you simply read “good books” regardless of the genre, you’re still using a selection method to find books you like, just not the genre classification most people are using. Pat yourself on the back, but don’t assume most people are using your approach– whatever it may be– to find their reading material.
Not what but when
The real question a writer needs to ask is not what, but when. Your book is going to be identified with a genre eventually, whether you like that or not, but when do you care what that genre is?
My personal opinion is that genre is a function of commerce, while writing is an act of creativity, and you will be better off if you can keep those things separate. (Please redirect your attention to the caveat I began with and measure your grains of salt appropriately.) Don’t worry about studying a specific genre, tracking cliches or tropes or researching what publishers are buying, or what’s popular, or whatever. It’s already hard enough just writing a novel, for goodness sake.
My point is, just write something you would want to read. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
* * *
*I’m still not entirely certain as to exactly what that genre is, even now. When I first wrote it I asked Christopher Moore, author of the only books even remotely like mine (that I had read) what to call it. He said, “nobody knows; just go with contemporary fantasy.” But “fantasy” implies magic and the book doesn’t have any. But it does have vampires, and those fit in that category. They also fit in “urban fantasy”, another genre I’m told I should be identifying my novel with. Still, there’s that word: fantasy. (Plus urban fantasy tends to have a lot more in common with romance novels than with anything Tolkein might have envisioned.) Sci-fi is out because of the aforementioned vampires (plus demons, pixies, and so on) despite the absence of magic. What does that leave? Speculative fiction?