Our Dangerous Fixation With Genres
The 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…
While creativity is generated from the side of the brain not including logic, logic still likes 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?
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 few years ago I was busy looking for a publisher for my novel, A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM (out now, more info here). 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.
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 art-form we claim to love? Maybe even the genres themselves, since we are stifling their own possible growth?
Last 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?
Scott D. Southard is the author of four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via his Amazon author page or on Google eBooks. He is also an editor with rebeccatdickson.com. Got a manuscript that needs a special touch? Contact us and ask for Scott.