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What’s Genre Good For, Anyway?

Writersdontcry

MixinggenresDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.

Dear Susan,

Here’s my question: how important is it to write in a genre?

Cheers,

Denise

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Hi Denise,

Thanks for the question! And what a simple seeming, and yet really complicated topic. You’d think genre would be one of the blander topics out there, when in reality, it’s actually quite the hotbed of animated and emotional debates. So, instead of just answering your question simply, I’m going to turn this into a bit of a broader discussion of what genre is, what it’s good for, and how I’d recommend interacting with it, when it comes to your own writing. I hope this answers your question!

What Is Genre, Exactly?

It can be tempting to think of genre writing as derivative—almost as a kind of fan fiction, all swirling around “the Greats” like Tolkien who first inspire us to turn our thoughts to elves and orcs. But at its heart, “genre” is just a fancy word for a category of fiction—and while, yes, the influence of the heavy hitters is definitely felt in genre fiction, the heavy hitters of life are felt equally strongly, well, pretty damn well everywhere. What can we say? We’re human! When we see something we just love—or even something that makes us shudder with revulsion—it affects us, in ways big and small.

What’s It Good For, Anyway?

So, what, exactly, does genre have to offer? Because, you know, this wouldn’t even be a question if it didn’t have something to offer. I think genre has a lot to offer, but one of the most obvious things is a “consistent reading experience”—in that, if you pick up a fantasy book, you can expect that it will, for the most part, have more similarities to other fantasy books than to, say, science fiction or autobiographical books. That it will have a certain feel, and satisfy certain needs (not so much that it will have magic wands instead of laser guns—the trappings mean far less than the filling).

Who Needs a Consistent Reading Experience?

True story: you don’t always want the expected. Sometimes you want to try something new. To be surprised. To experience the delightfully unexpected! But think about it like food: sometimes, you’re game to close your eyes, and let someone stuff whatever (largely) edible dinner they’ve arranged into your mouth . . . and sometimes you want Italian. It doesn’t mean you want the exact same linguini with meatballs from the exact same Italian restaurant every night—with exactly the same number of meatballs (of exactly the same radiuses), placed with mathematical precision on exactly the same folds of noodle…. That would be like always reading the same book—just as going to that same Italian restaurant all the time is like always reading the same author. But it does mean that sometimes, you have a hankering for a certain kind of thing. And in those cases? You’d damn well like to have that thing, thank you very much. (Because no matter how good that Surprise-OJ is? It’s still not Milk.)

Genre Helps Discoverability

This hankering for a certain kind of thing, which afflicts books as well as food, makes discoverability key. And that? Is where genre is a Viking. I mean, could you imagine if all food looked exactly the same on the outside? Every piece a spherical white blob with absolutely no identifying marks? And the only thing you know is that some taste like kimchi and others like bananas foster—but there are no ways to know which are which? Yeah. That would give a whole new meaning to the profession of “food tasters.”

How to Pick Your Genre

So, largely, when trying to figure out what genre your flash fiction/short story/novel, don’t go calculating the number of elves in your book and contrasting it to its adherence to a traditional heist-based plot. And certainly don’t think picking a genre is an attempt to completely capture the feel of your book in one, generic word—or worse, to boil your beautiful, complex creation down to its basest genre bones. Because it’s far simpler than that. Picking a genre is about figuring out who your audience is—and how you can signal to them that your book is one they might enjoy. (Though don’t abuse this power! It’s not about telling mystery fans they’d really love your hobgoblin love story because the identity of the lover is totally a mystery worth solving.)

A Book’s Genre Is Its Context

No book exists in a vacuum—they have context, and they will be judged and enjoyed purely in the light of that context. There are some things that simply wouldn’t be possible, in fiction, without that meta-layer of knowledge—like referencing sphinx without having to describe exhaustively what it is. But this also means that whenever you’re being read, like it or not, it’s in relation to the outside world, and to books similar to yours. So, if you use a turn of phrase, or a plot device that evokes Edward and Bella? Suddenly, they will be there in your book, haunting your characters. That’s why it’s so important to know what else is out there, how what you’re doing has been done before (it has; just about everything has), and where the lines are so that when you choose to color outside them, you are doing it intentionally. But the bottom line? Is that you need to know what your genre is—what it represents, what it means to people, and just how far you can push it without pushing people away.

Know Your Genre

It’s also good to figure out why you are writing in your genre. Genre, as most fans know intuitively, is not mere window dressing. It’s not making Mr. Darcy into an elf, and Elizabeth into a budding magician.* It’s what kinds of truths a novel chooses to tackle, and how it chooses to address them. For example, when the hero is a nonhuman character, it’s not just for funsies, or for sexier cover art. It’s usually because it represents something, or allows the author to explore a subject from a different, perhaps more illustrative angle.** And, when successful, it’s (almost) always because those chosen fantastical elements speak to us—and allow us to identify--on a level that we might not otherwise allow ourselves. For example Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer, a book where chickens have suddenly become essentially humans in chicken skin—and are grudgingly given the same rights as all other humans—allows for deft discussion and incredible insight into humanity and society that would not otherwise be possible (or at least, not nearly the same).

* The last thing you want to do is take on the trappings of a genre—and miss the heart of it. Fans can always, always tell.

**And this is another reason why you really want to know what you’re playing with before slapping fantasy (or other genre) trappings all over the place. Some of the toys you’re playing with might have meanings of which you’re not aware, or derive from things with which you really don’t agree, and so you might end up, inadvertently, saying a few things you really oughtn’t.

“Genre” Is Not an Excuse or a Limitation

Genre is not a cheat code. You can’t up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-start your way to success by following the secret rulebook that tells you exactly how to write a [Insert-Genre-Here] book. And just so, the answer as to why you did X or Y in your book should never be “because of the genre.” (And if you find yourself answering that, that’s a great reason to go back and re-examine that thing, and see if there isn’t some better way you can do it!) Genre was never intended to be used as how-to guidelines, or enforced as stringent limitations (sorry, can’t publish your story: needs more elves!). It’s really just to help readers identify books they might like. But, as harsh as that sounds, this is really awesome news. It means that you have a ton of available space to explore with innovative characters, your own unique writing style, and whatever crazy plots you dreamed up but haven’t seen yet.

So, How Important Is It to Write In a Genre, Again?

Somewhat? I don’t think it’s important to write inside a genre the same way it’s important to, say, write in some way in which others can understand what you’ve written (assuming, of course, your intention is to be understood). And I certainly wouldn’t write to a genre, the way one would write to a set of specifications—I’d just tell the story I set out to tell, but then be very sure I examined it so that I knew all of what I was saying. However, I do think it’s important to have a firm understanding and a healthy respect for the genre to which you soon hope to be adding your story, to be able to articulate its audience, and to be aware of where it might fit in amongst all the other awesome books out there.

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