On Genre

So I’m writing a book. Rather, I wrote a book. A novel. Years ago – when it had emerged from the hatchery but was still weak and blind and needed basically everything from me – I bashfully called it a “project.” After a few months of nurturing it, I told a few family members about it (don’t hate me, Mom), saying it was a story. That phase didn’t last long. The “novella” epithet was even shorter-lived, and a few months in I had one of those moments that’s like when the pediatrician measures your child at 2 years old and tells you the good or disappointing prediction for adult height. The thing would stretch to “novel” before the idea was done. I kicked back and smiled at what I thought was the last categorization this story would have.

Whether it was laziness or ignorance or just plain wishful thinking – I was flat wrong. Mostly I take books off the “Literature” shelf in the bookstore. It’s a generous label, and I figured readers and editors thought like me. As I’ve been putting ribbons and glitter on the manuscript, I’ve discovered a huge bait for literary agents to even look at the title page is the wrapping itself. The genre.

Genre?” you chuckle. “Well that’s easy! What kind of story is it? Is it for adults? Children? Is it scary?”

Early Readers. Young Adult. Middle Grade. Horror – Occult/Werewolf/Thriller/Slasher/Ghost. Romance – Fantasy/Erotic/Contemporary/Historical/Paranormal. Crime – Hardboiled/Noir/Cozy/Whodunnit. Science Fiction – Apocolyptic/Future Noir/Space Opera/Cyberpunk/Steampunk/Retropunk. Fantasy – Dark/Fable/Science/Sword and Sorcery/Urban.

My fingers are tired, and I haven’t gotten to my genre yet.

The other day I read Cathy Yardly’s analogy between food and genre that was really on point. Saying “I’m in the mood to read” is like saying “I’m in the mood for food.” It’s incorrect, and usually goes more like “I’m in the mood for Thai/burgers/Italian comfort food.” A reader has specific wants – romance, thriller, sci-fi – and genre helps guide us to satisfaction. It helps us define our loves.

True, sometimes we know what we love. More often than that, we know what we hate. For instance, I hate eating at Wendy’s. Once, while driving from NYC to Boston at 11pm, I ordered a chicken sandwich – somewhere between Stafford and Southampton I realized that while the outside was boiling hot and crispy, the inside was nearly raw. In the dark of the front seat I had blindly consumed what my mind and tongue told me was “fast food spicy chicken.”

Kinda the same thing happened with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’d heard it was well-written, and it had a great cover. About one-third in, it dawned on me that – like the Wendy’s sandwich – it required a stronger stomach than I possessed to finish the thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I have a working knowledge of quite a few tropes, and I read across genres, especially recently. Last month I read a film-based manga called Five Cm Per Second, a nonfiction book called The Underground Girls of Kabul, and I’m in the final pages of Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon – a literary lycan thriller. None of these genres are staples of my diet, but they were enjoyable and help me see the boundaries of writing.

But when I think of the ever-deepening nests of genre/sub-genre, I become overwhelmed. Stepping onto the field of genre segregation feels like skipping across a land-mined hopscotch. Even with cross-training, I feel like someone is changing the rules all the time, and since I don’t belong to any particular team I don’t know which squares will blow me up.

A sadly apt diptych of my fantasy and reality shopping

A sadly apt diptych of my fantasy and reality shopping

At times like these my inner anarchist rails against pigeonholing everything into a marketing niche. Who cares if I liked Red Moon? Does that mean I should read another werewolf thriller? Do I need a palate cleanser of Elle Décor? Should I be reading specifically within the genre I’m writing in to stay up to date with the current trends? Does any of this even matter to a reader, or just to business executives? Do my choices reflect the other areas of my life, like when I pull up weather.com and get advertisements targeted at me?

The story is too big for me, the problem too complicated. Eventually to make sense of it all, I had to retread to a genre on the far fringe: the comic! Readers, I invite you to see the pros and cons of genre segregation from two larger than life personalities. Here to make their fine points are:

 

Page 1

Page 1

Page 2

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Page 3 (Artwork by Stephanie Stoecker)

 

 

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9 thoughts on “On Genre

    • Yes! Thank you, Marco! I think the main reason I used to shy from pledging allegiance to a genre was one of clausterphobia – I feel like “genre readers” (people who stay exclusive;) are naturally drawn to the tropes, then sorta pushed into those silos by marketing. It’s hard to break out! I know people who are like that about literary fiction too, and I think (hope) maybe people are sort of over genre ranking, but have unfortunately only gotten more into division and subspecialties.
      In your link I love the “Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing” category! With all the algorithms crawling around, I feel like the next step should be an actual robot to pick my next book. Too retro? maybe always in style, just like Emma…

  1. Stephanie,
    You are oh so right — when talking about my own books to the public, I always try to understand what they “like” to read first, before categorizing my book. That way, my women’s fiction / historical fiction (as I was advised to call it by an agent) can morph to be a romance (there’s a good love story in it), a thriller (after all, what will happen to the heroine, will she find herself or not), or scifi / paranormal (is she really with her true love in a WWI battle when she dreams of him being killed)! And even YA (she has a teenage daughter and there’s only “light” sex). Now, sword and sorcery …. Pass.
    P.S. love your art work!

  2. If we continue with the food analogy, I admit that when I go back to a favorite restaurant, I usually order the old same thing. I burned myself so many times with strange experiments (ex. bishop’s nose pasta) and had to go home and eat a bowl of cereal to fill my empty tummy. So I get why some readers gravitate to a single genre. Too bad. They’re missing a lot of tasty prose.

    • It’s so hard to branch out sometimes, right? Red Moon was such a limb for me – I never read paranormal horror. But I saw Benjamin Percy read here in New Orleans, and that helped.
      That said, I _often_ order the same thing at certain restaurants. When you find something you love, you crave it from time to time. If only I could consume three novels a day too:)

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