The Burden and Necessity of Genre

From The Millions:

When you write a book, there are certain questions you can expect: How long did it take you? Will you write a sequel? And—the inevitable—what is it?

What it is: thousands of hours tapping away on a keyboard between swiping student IDs at the Sarah Lawrence gym, months of crippling doubt, dozens of rewrites, maddening rounds of edits, the culmination of years of dreaming and plotting condensed into a 300-page manuscript with which I’ve imbued the emotional vulnerability of a pubescent diary.

No, they will persist. What is it?

I rehearsed this answer in my query letter, tweaked depending on the interest and need of the agent addressed: Complete at 80,000 words, this

Sometimes it was a literary novel. Sometimes a literary commercial novel. Sometimes a literary novel with commercial appeal. Once, upmarket women’s fiction.

It’s adult literary fiction, I tell people. I think of the many times I’ve been prompted to make such unambiguous designations, usually without issue: I am Female. I am White. But something doesn’t feel right about defining my novel, about giving it a genre (a word that has always conjured for me cover images of bursting corsets and rippled abdominals). Something doesn’t feel right about defining novels at all.

As a bookseller, I compartmentalize novels everyday. If it’s not Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance, then it falls under the catch-all umbrella of Literature. I watch our erudite Upper West Side clientele squint warily at the shelves. The other day, a man held up a novel with a beach on the cover—a cartoon woman sunning herself on a striped towel pictured—and sniffed distastefully. As though a thought bubble appeared above his head, he tossed the novel back on its stack of identical copies in a way that said, You call this literature?

If prompted, I couldn’t say with any tact what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction. Literary fiction values prose over plot, I might say. Commercial fiction is about the story, whereas literary fiction is about the characters. Like an indie flick verses a Hollywood blockbuster, one novel wears a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and the other mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators. A literary agent I once interned for cut to the chase: “We’re looking for new literary voices,” she told me. “Try to find submissions with a mention of an MFA.”

As reluctant as I am to call my novel commercial, to call it “literary” can feel snobbish in its insistence. Who am I to say that I am more Mary Gaitskill than Mary Kay Andrews? Who am I to say what my novel is at all?

That’s the thing I’ve learned: once you release a novel into the world, you relinquish your control over how it is defined. What my “adult literary fiction” novel has become: Coming of Age. Contemporary Women. Romance. Suspense. Genre Fiction. My novel is amorphous, ready to be whatever it needs to be given the audience. What I can’t decide is whether this ability to sit on many different shelves is a benefit or a hindrance.

Claiming multiple genres feels akin to presenting a business card with the title Artist/Writer/Dancer/Freelance DJ—a worse offense, perhaps, than asserting literary value. But in working in a bookstore, in placing books onto their various shelves and thinking, This doesn’t belong here, I’ve come to appreciate what a misnomer and a crutch a genre can be. When I pressed a copy of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan into a customer’s hand and told her, “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction.

Few books are what they initially appear. I almost didn’t pick up Ben Dolick’s The Ghost Notebooks, put off by the word “supernatural” on its back cover and its placement on the Sci-Fi shelf. When a friend gave me the ARC of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature that the bookstore had received, he said, “You read thrillers, right? This sounds like a thriller,” and I almost felt insulted. I put off reading the copy of Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman that my coworker lent me, its promise of a “historical romance “ enough to raise my skepticism. “I promise, it has literary merit,” she told me. It took me a while to admit what I always knew: that to me, “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”

. . . .

The question is whether genres need to be abandoned, or if our definitions of genres need to be expanded. Few novels fit snuggly into one category, though there are no doubt novels that do: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance. It was Octavia Butler and Junot Díaz who allowed me to start to question those classifications in college with Kindred and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, respectively. I hadn’t known that literary novels could have time travel and magic and, knowing this, it didn’t seem fair or even possible that Kindred and Keith Roberts’s The Furies could occupy the same shelf. It only occurred to me then that I’d always thought “literary” also meant taking place in the real world. The Furies is science fiction. Kindred is more complicated than that.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says genre is a marketing tool. If prospective customers don’t understand what the title of a genre means, it’s a less effective marketing tool than it could be.

Genre in a physical bookstore is more difficult because if a book is placed in the wrong genre section, customers who would otherwise be interested in reading it may never see it.

PG doesn’t want to be too geeky, but compared with a search engine, discovery in a bookstore is bronze-age.

4 thoughts on “The Burden and Necessity of Genre”

  1. Genre is not a random label you stick on the book on the way out of the loading dock.

    It is instead an integral part of the creative process that determines and molds the story’s nature. Genre can be intentional and chosen at the beginning (most often, especially for commercial fiction) or (rarely, in good fiction) emergent. (“Oh, my 200k word deep study of human nature came out a comedy. Who knew?”)

    Genre encapsulates intent, content, and form. Who is it for? Why does it exist? Genre points the way as well as bounds the narrative for the author during creation and for the reader upon publication. The author who ignores genre bounds and expectation or gets too cute with them risks marketplace disaster.

    We may have become to the modern bookstore pigeonholes and only see genres as a marketing gimmick (which some labels like YA and MS definitely are) but genre has been around since at least the ancient greeks and has evolved and diversified into a dozen different storytelling fields as writers invent new styles and techniques and explore different aspects of human nature, action, and interaction. Nonetheless, the core genres of adventure, speculation, didaction, and interaction remain, commingling and specializing and diversifying over time. And in the sea of narrative of today’s age of abundance, genre is ever more important to the creative process.

    The OP is correct in the necessity to understand and carefully use the rules and expectations of genre but wrong in calling it a burden. Genre is an aid to the writer to focus the narrative on itd purpose, form, and audience, be it romcom or litfic, caper or fantasy.

    Ignore it at your peril.

  2. “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction.

    LOL. For me, the “literary” part would have had the negative connotation. I don’t like anti-plots, and no amount of pretty words will get me to care if we’re dealing with the Seinfeld of books: a book about nothing. I, too, would go with the bodice ripper first. Although I prefer the romances that involve mystery and adventure.

    I haven’t read “Kindred,” so I haven’t the faintest idea why a time-travel story is somehow not only a time-travel sci-fi. Unfortunately, the OP didn’t explain why. Or what aspects of the other stories made them somehow un-versions of their stated genres.

    @Paul: I have read authors that state readers tend to get quite upset if the book does not match/genre/cover/title.

    Yeah, that makes sense to me. I will admit that tradpub editors make themselves useful by clearly stating the parameters for their particular genre imprints. For some indies this lesson will come via readers. But in books and short story markets there was always this rule: read what we publish, so you can know if your story fits. For indies I’d vary it: read your stated genre, so you can know if your story fits. Could be that you end up creating a new genre, but at least *know* that you’re doing so, and clearly indicate this to readers.

    • I agree on the judgment that pretentious “wannabe litfic” is SF (and Fantasy) best ignored.
      Nonetheless, good literary SF&F exists. What is Tolkien if not litfic? He *intended* it as such; modern narratives in the form of the ancient sagas. And he succeeded. But not by self-proclamation. THE HOBBIT was originally seen as a children’s book.

      The first and most important test of LITERATURE!!! is the test of time.
      Shakespeare became THE BARD centuries after his death. So did most others today seen as classics, like Cervantes, Dickens, and Twain. They wrote spoofs and potboilers and the odd self-help book. Their work endured and became LITERATURE on merit and impact.

      Most modern litfic is decades, if not centuries away from making the grade.

      The genre we normally call litfic for its aspirations, I personally call (politely) General Fiction. It is what is left over after you exclude all the defined genres. Stories of humans living. Sometimes surviving, sometimes not. Less politely: mundane people doing mundane things, with no aspiration to do more or be more. The Seinfeld comparison is apt. (I never bothered with that thing.)

      Some like that, though.
      Fine by me.
      There is room for everybody and the market decides.

      I have, however noticed that the market isn’t terribly welcoming of pretentious wannabes that can’t be bothered to do even the most basic homework for a writer. And that is genre.

  3. Genre helps, sure there are some great books that are deliberately cross genre and generally these days a lot of books have a touch of romance.

    I have read authors that state readers tend to get quite upset if the book does not match/genre/cover/title.

    Personally I would only read literature if locked in a room with nothing to do, but literature is just another genre, if given a choice I would probably read the bodice ripper first.

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