Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What is it about genres?

Image courtesy Maggie Cakes.com
I recently read a post from one of my blog’s followers that simultaneously saddened and angered me. Andrea Looney posted on her blog, The Written Word, some feedback she had received from beta readers and other “supporters” for new writers, about her manuscript.

The main objection, she says is

my voice is too modern for historical fiction. Although I love my book which is about the Salem witch trials, I think I am going to chalk it up to a learning experience. I don't have the voice for historical fiction so don't waste my time writing them.

This kind of comment really gets under my skin. Who is it to say what the “right voice” is for historical fiction, or any other genre, for that matter? And shouldn’t any writer try to develop a unique voice?

How would anyone alive today know what voice is correct for historical fiction? Sorry, your complete DVD collection of Little House on the Prairie does not make you an expert.

About a year ago, I submitted a still-unfinished portion of my book, The Bones of the Earth, to a little competition on Brenda Blake’s YA blog. One reviewer wrote “it doesn’t feel like YA to me.”

That’s the point. I don’t want my writing to read like another author’s style. I want to give readers something new.

Genre fan, tear down this wall!

Image courtesy John Rozum.com
Genre books comprise the biggest selling type of fiction, according to many questionable sources. But that makes sense. Most of the real estate in the big bookstores that’s still available for books and not for CDs, vases or other useless crap is devoted to genres: mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, history, travel, business. And all the shelves are full. Obviously, there’s a demand.

And you can see the same sort of thing in online stores, as well. Even among “mainstream” or “contemporary” fiction, you HAVE to have noticed the trends and the copycats: sexy vampires, self-actualized teen girls who love shopping, their self-actualized older sisters who are building the perfect personality-free boyfriend, self-actualized divorcĂ©es shagging their way around the world.

Following the genre conventions leads to a homogeneous sameness within genres. To some extent, it’s understandable. These books sell, so writers who want to sell books (I’ve heard there are some) write books that follow those conventions, that stay well within those boundaries. Then there are critics and self-described experts who ruthlessly carp about anyone crossing the boundaries or even bending the rules.

As a result, the genre gets narrower and narrower, fracturing into sub-genres and piling the shelves higher and higher with the same old.

To me, some of the most interesting writing is a book that crosses genre boundaries. Steampunk was a good example when it started, but it’s getting straightjacketed with conventions and tropes: airships, cantilevered mechanisms, icy blondes, oak-panelled, smoky clubs.

One of the many goals I had for my novel was to break some rules. Why not set the story in a place that readers probably haven’t read about before? Why not have a hero with a disability? Why not put sex into a story for young adults?

How do you feel about rules, conventions and limitations in your reading? What would you like to see in the next book you read?


  1. "To me, some of the most interesting writing is a book that crosses genre boundaries."
    I agree wholeheartedly. I get bored with the same old same old.

    1. Antoinette Ouellette7:09 PM

      I love all genres and who exactly decided in genres anyway only important in shelving or perhaps research .So go to authors break all bonds ! I'd it's good we will be happy to read it.

  2. I'm interested in what a "too modern voice for historical fiction" even sounds like. I mean, how do you tell? It actually sounds interesting with that spin, and sounds like something that would be great in omniscient POV (which most people don't seem to understand anymore...if they even know what it is. /heart breaks.)

    As writers we're always being told to put our own spin on things...until we do. ;)

  3. Fiction reading is for pleasure. In the same way that all rules of grammar (within reason) may be broken, all genres may interbred. It's all about enjoyment; if the readers like it then they will have the last word - by buying it.

  4. When I started the book, I wanted it to cross boundries, and make her kind of out of place. I have been re-thinking it lately, and though I think I need to fix some of the history, I am going to keep the modern twist and hope I can find an audience for it. Thanks for your support.

  5. That is so so true. As a writer, I always make sure that I write something unique and unforgettable. I don't care if I am not popular, as long as people would be affected by my book, that is all I need. =P

  6. Anonymous7:50 AM

    So long as the writing is good, I'll read most anything. I only glance at Genre to get an idea of the general direction. I don't mind genre crossing at all, indeed, I adore mystery in my anything, romance in my anything, and fantasy in anything. My trouble comes with misnomers, and that might, in the end be why people get so riled up. A mystery which is trying to be a mystery or vice versa annoys me. I get that lots of mysteries have a bit of romance thrown in for variety's sake, but when it disjoints the mystery, I get annoyed, and more likely to put the book down.

    I can't help but put way too much plot into my romance, so while romance plays a huge role in many of my stories, I can't sell them to a romance house. But it does worry me that people won't see the messages in the romance and just accuse me of messing with genre. *shrug* Oh well.

  7. I read a statement from an excellent book on writing that offered this sane view: There are no rules in writing, only conventions. Genres are conventions. They are to assist the reader, not confine the writer. Let's face it, we don't live in genres, crossing all manner of lines every day. A new beta reader might be in order for that gal you mentioned. But on the on the other hand, why would you let one person determine a career decision.

  8. As an author I'm all about coloring outside the lines. This is the 21st century and everything is changing so quickly. Not only do we not have to follow the old school rules, be we get to help create what the new world is going to be about. Look at fashion. All the lines are blurring mixing 40's with 80's with modern. The modern voice and the modern brain are ready to step outside the lines,and for those not ready, they will just have to follow us. This new generation does not like labels and what we do is art. It is supposed to push the boundaries of existing and accepted ways. If a writer writes from the heart and has a good story, then this genre nonsense is irrelevant. We decide in this day and age and with all the technology and resources the artists now have control over their own works. I believe we write from a sacred place that has no genre or rules to follow. If one can't keep up then they should pull out their old tweed and stick to the classics.

  9. I seem to be hearing about more and more people not wanting to get stuck in one genre and cross-over. And as far as rules: I've never colored in the lines and break 'em all the time.

  10. I quite agree. I have written a novel, 'Chasing the Wind', set in the folk scene in the sixties, about a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. In his attempts to win his father's love my hero almost loses the love of others. An agent told me that it was a good read but that it was difficult to 'place' in the market. I've decided to 'place' it in the market myself. I'm e-publishing it next week. I agree with comments above, we have the technology and resources and so now we have control over our own work.

  11. I don't understand the obsession with categorizing and homogenizing genre fiction, when all the best writers broke the rules. JRR Tolkein re-defined elves. Asimov re-defined robots. Dr. Seuss re-defined children's lit. So why would anyone deliberately seek out and stick to the same-old, same-old? If I were a publisher or agent, I would look for the very weirdest and most out-there fiction I could find, if it was well-written and professionally edited.

  12. It's that whole ridiculous boxing in that drives me crazy. You hear it said that you need a fresh voice, or to do something different, and then you get knocked down for daring to go beyond the status quo. It's difficult because the thinking seems to be to make sure you have a genre because just saying "mainstream fiction" won't get you noticed, but what do you do when the focus of your novel is either crossing the genre lines or is trying to make up a new one? I have no answer, except that I am going full throttle making up my genre. It's nostalgic fiction (can the 70s be historical? I think not yet) and rock and roll fiction. Maybe it will catch on.

    Good discussion, Scott!

  13. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Scott. It seems that everyone here agrees with you and you can count me in, too. I've always had trouble staying within guidelines - my creative brain doesn't work that way. I had the same feedback from a handful of publishers and agents that loved it but didn't know how to market it - it's part historical, part contemporary, part mystery, part literary with a dash of occult thrown in for good measure. Once I decided to self-publish, I had a heck of a time deciding which Amazon category to choose (literary). As a reader, I prefer books that don't follow a formula. I like to be surprised.

  14. Love this. I had a difficult time picking my "genre" as well. I've had people from the ages of 8 to 77 tell me they enjoyed it - both men and women. It's set in modern day Georgia, but it deals with beings from other realms. So there's magic, mystery, suspense, romance and adventure in it. It could be YA, could be children, could be adult.