There’s been a lot of chat about genre on the interwebs lately; in particular, people have been discussing the question of whether one should write according to genre – and according to what sells both to readers and to publishers in the first place – or whether it’s okay to write what you want and hold firm to the belief that someone somewhere will recognise the deep-seated brilliance of your creation, genre (and markets) be damned.
This seems a rather multi-layered question and there are so many different answers and aspects to consider.
Genre is confusing
Genre often means more inside the industry than out. Even passionate readers may only be aware of some of the broader categories and this can cause problems, particularly in areas such as speculative fiction, which most readers I speak to think of as “science fiction and fantasy” – assuming they have even heard the alternative term at all.* There is an understanding among readers that the “science fiction and fantasy” section of a bookshop will also include horror, all the vampire and werewolf fiction they desire, urban and paranormal fantasy, supernatural fiction, and anything else that seems a bit “otherworldly”.
That said, there can be confusion over books that, due to their themes or certain narrative devices, fall neatly under “speculative fiction” and thus find themselves duly shelved with other, more obviously fantastical or science fictional titles. This categorisation may not work well for readers who don’t quite know how to relate to what seems to be, for example, a straight-up detective novel with subtle supernatural elements.
It’s hard to know whether this is a problem of marketing or categorisation. Would such a title do better in general fiction? Would the author be better advised not to write the book at all or to adjust the writing to fit genre conventions? This last seems a great disservice to the original story, but what’s more important – the creation or the success? Are there similar problems in the crime genre which also has various subsets?
When contemplating genre, it’s important to consider who you think will be your main readers – but keep in mind you can’t actually control your audience. For example, YA, or young adult, fiction seems to be growing in popularity, but the definitions of “young adult” differ slightly from country to country (and possibly publisher to publisher). Depending on the title, it’s generally accepted that it’s not just “young adults” but also actual adults who will read YA, as well as children, depending on the book. I recently heard an industry expert say that not only does the Australian publishing industry not call this genre “YA”,** but also that he thought it was really sad that so many grown women (in particular) were reading – and becoming obsessed by – YA novels such as Twilight and other popular series because they were intended for children and he felt they should be kept that way.***
This seems like the voice of someone who would certainly like to keep distinct lines between genres, at least when it comes to distinguishing between adult and children’s titles, but honestly it just doesn’t always seem that clear-cut. I have worked on a number of titles for adults that have later been described in reviews as “young adult novels” – to the author’s surprise and, if the cover labelling is anything to go by, presumably the publisher’s as well.
So how do you decide what to write, genre-wise, if you already have a plot and a story in mind? And how does this relate to the common writing advice that’s already bandied about?
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an expert, but surely the genre, and indeed the subject matter, should be something you care about and are interested in?****
Writing is not a quick process and it is certainly not a get-rich-quick career. Why would you saddle yourself with a genre and style in which you have no interest? It would be immeasurably hard to write such a thing as well as something you were passionate about and, assuming you were successful, any publisher would be likely to require you to continue to write in that genre, at least initially – thus you would effectively have written yourself into a corner.
Assuming results in donkeys
Or something. There are certainly some clear-cut lines with genre, but there are also books that have crossed those boundaries. If you make assumptions about the publisher or the market and deliberately rework your ideal book to fit more comfortably into an established genre, you are denying the publisher (and your readers) an opportunity to see beyond that. Sometimes categorising isn’t obvious and sometimes publishers slip genre titles into general fiction or even (shhh) literary fiction. The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example, is a successful novel that has been slotted into “general fiction” in most bookshops, but given the time travel elements is certainly speculative fiction, despite the romance within. Sir Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, often says in interviews that he was under the impression that he was simply writing satire until being categorised as a fantasy writer. Elizabeth George is an established crime writer, but it’s the romantic back story of her characters that gets her readers most up-in-arms.
Trying to adhere too neatly to genre conventions in order to fit can be a mistake. Readers will see straight through it if you aren’t genuine, and it’s important to remember that there’s a reason other books have so easily crossed genre or slipped into “general” or even literary fiction. Russell Davies talks about this in A Writer’s Tale, pointing out that even his comedies have tragic or sad moments and vice versa. His suggestion is that this is what life is like – if the audience is to believe the story, you have to add a dose of reality and that means not being all one thing all the time. This applies to any story if you want it to stop falling flat. It’s where the secondary and tertiary storylines can come in so handily: the romance back story in the crime novel, the tragic spy thriller set in the fantasy novel etc can add depth to a tale that might otherwise feel too two-dimensional if forced to sit wholely trapped within a single convention.
Note, though, that all this still has to be true to you as a writer, to the story you believe in, or it will ring hollow and the reader – not to mention the sharp-eyed editor – will find you out. Genre is about much more than making sure you follow a few conventions. You have build it from the ground up. It will be reflected in the language you use, the world that you build, the characters you choose and their motivations, the plot itself and the interactions between the characters. It will be there in the rules you follow and it will be evident in the rules and conventions you break, the things you don’t show. While it’s true that some genres sell better than others, in the end it comes down to story. A good story told well will always sell better than a humdrum tale told half-heartedly.
What do you think? Should writers “write to fit” or just let the story flow as it will?
There has already been some discussion on this here: Kylie Mason: In Which I use the Words Genre and Convention (following the first Genre Cage Fight at Shearer’s) and here: Zena Shapter: Should Genre Mean Something Special to You Or Not?
*Mostly they haven’t. Hands up those of you in the industry who have heard the old “but all fiction is speculative” line more than five times?
**Which may be news to the authors, editors and publishers I see online regularly discussing the genre using that term.
***Admittedly, said expert visibly cringed when discussing the wave of YA vampire fiction that was in the New York Times bestsellers list at the time and said he didn’t understand any of it, so perhaps not the most unbiased of opinions on that front…
****At this point I find it comforting, salient and, frankly, amusing to turn to Mitchell and Webb to illustrate this point with their series of screenwriter sketches, including this one which proves that you really will do better if you know and care about, for example, spy drama, rather than just making up what you think is required to fit the genre: Mitchell and Webb – Spy Service