What did you say about my genre?

I’ve noticed a certain sensitivity among some authors about the genre in which they write. It’s difficult to say anything critical or to remark on ‘clichés’ that are evident in each without a few authors getting their underwear in a bunch. What’s this about? Have we become so obsessed with ourselves that we can’t handle a little bit of honest criticism or friendly teasing? Even if the criticism leans toward nasty; should it really bother us so much? What does it matter to us as long as we know we’re putting our best work out there?

In general, I’ve found the world of writing and publishing to be a friendly and welcoming community. Writers help each other grow and learn by sharing knowledge and experience. So, it strikes me as odd, and just a little disturbing, that one can criticize another’s writing (which to me is far more personal) with little comment or backlash, but mention their genre as a whole and you’d best take cover. Personally, I don’t care what anyone says about the genre I write in. I do care about what they think of my writing. I barely give a thought to genre while I’m working. I simply want to create a great story that will leave readers wanting more of what I’ve got.

This is why I wonder at the ‘genre snobbery’ that I consistently come across among both readers and writers. Folks, there is room on those bookshelves for everyone, no matter what is said about ‘your’ genre. I read everything and I have favorites in nearly every category of fiction, but I can point out things that bother me about each without it meaning that I’m saying all of the authors in that genre are talentless hacks. I am rather ornery and easily irritated, so if I don’t take offense to a statement about my genre, I think the rest of you can take a step back and chill. Every category has its share of geniuses and those who should never put pen to paper even to write a grocery list, as well as several ‘in betweens’ that leave you feeling okay about what you’ve read, but not blown away. Does that make any sense? Okay, I’ll clarify.

First, let’s give a list of popular genres so that we all know that I know what I mean by genre. **Note: Most of these genres have the subgenres of Adult and YA. They also have subgenres where they’ve crossed with other genres. I’m not going to get ridiculous with defining every single type of fiction in existence along with its subgenre and sub-subgenre. I’m listing the most popular right now. Okay? Good.

1. Action-adventure.

2. Crime fiction

3. Detective

4. Fantasy

5. Horror

6. Mysteries

7. Romance

8. Science fiction

9. Literary

Now, I want to give you an example of the ‘discussions’ that get people all wound up. I have stated before, and very strongly believe, that Romance is one of the most formulaic genres of them all. Is this bad? Not at all. I might say as we’re discussing the issue of formulas and genre; “Right now I’m reading a Romance novel (yeah, get your panties ready) and I enjoy the writing, the author is amazing, but the plot is one I’ve read several times. Insert Character A into Location B and add Conflict C and shake well; happy ending guaranteed. I’ve seen it all before.” You might think I’d yawn and close the book. That’s where you’re wrong. I’m not closing the book. (Actually, I am reading said romance novel at the moment and loving it.)

When I read romance, I know the set up, the way the game works and the players involved and I expect it when I open the book. I read it as an escape, purely for entertainment and my expectations are realistic. BUT, sometimes I begin reading and despite the expected similarities to others I’ve read, I find that the writer can write. Gasp! Then it doesn’t matter what the genre or the formula is. I’m weeping for the heroine, cursing at the villain, and eager to read every single page. I know how it will end, or at least I’m pretty sure Romeo and Juliet will live happily ever after this time, but I am loving the ride that the author is taking me on to get there. So, five stars to that book. I’d read that author again. Nora Roberts has yet to disappoint me. But if I try to point out that Romance is formulaic, I get a bunch of rants about how Romance doesn’t get a fair shot. Of course it does. Hello…highest selling genre? Please, let’s not forget the facts. So, what if it’s formulaic? It’s a formula that works.

Another example? Okay, let’s leave Romance alone. Stephen King is both my hero and my tormenter. For every moment I’ve been awestruck by his writing, he also has given me a sleepless night. I haven’t slept with my closet door open or my feet uncovered since I read my first Stephen King novel. (seriously) One might argue that there is a little predictability to his novels. I say, you’re probably right. I’ve read a book or more from the King that I’m pretty sure looks familiar, but this man can write, so I don’t mind the similarities. I’m still biting my nails, hoping for the hero to overcome. I’m still cringing and setting aside the Doritos because of the brilliant way he describes the most disgusting of bodily functions, or malfunctions, time and time again. He’s a damn fine writer. Does he care if someone says horror is cheap thrills and not real writing? Shit no. Why should he? His sales beg to differ with that someone’s opinion. Horror is another popular and best selling genre. So why do other horror authors get all scratchy and nasty when someone says that they write to a formula? Why do those someone’s assume that because there is a formula, that means the writer has less skill? They do have skills, and there is a formula of sorts. There has to be an element that scares the reader or makes them uncomfortable. It must have a hero, a villain and a conflict. If it doesn’t scare you, if there isn’t some kind of life and death struggle, it isn’t horror. Again, it’s not a big deal. The writer can still be talented, brilliant even. A good writer will take your breath away no matter what they’re writing.

I don’t know if I should get started on literary fiction…Oh what the heck. Might as well run through the list. The term “genre fiction” has often been used as an antonym of literary fiction which is said to have greater artistic merit and higher cultural value. According to this belief, genre fiction (all of it) is thought to be formulaic, commercial, and sensational. The readers of genre fiction are supposed to have less educated taste in literature than readers of literary fiction. (A statement that I strongly disagree with, although my panties are still firmly unbunched at this idea. See how easy it is to remain calm? Deep breath in and chocolate. All better.)

But really, isn’t literary fiction simply another genre? That is, it has guidelines or ‘formulas’ of its own, such as use of an elevated or poetic prose style; or making use of theoretical or philosophical ideas. It also has a niche audience and generic packaging just as ‘genre fiction’ does. The publishing industry itself treats literary fiction as another category. Why, then, don’t the authors do so as well?

I’d even risk the argument that some ‘literary’ classics were originally written as genre novels. Pride and Prejudice is a bit romantic, don’t you think? Crime and Punishment is a tad on the psychological thriller side, perhaps. True, they’re literary by definition of the prose and the ideas, but they cross into the other genres as well. So, are they any better because they’re ‘literary’. No. (If you’ll kindly loosen your cheeks and pull your underwear from your ass, I’m done offending everyone. Here, have a cookie.)

So, when you consider that nearly all of these genres cross into each other quite often, why all the drama? Why does one have to be better than another? A writer is a writer. Why do we have to watch our p’s and q’s when we’re trying to state an opinion or an observation? Can’t we all just get along and accept that not every story is going to appeal to every person? Good writing is good writing. Period. Whether it’s the Lord wooing the stubborn maid who is actually a Lady switched at birth or the tortured poet who longs for normalcy and acceptance in a chaotic world of drugs, alcohol, and rather attractive she-men who he hates himself for admiring. Let’s allow each other the freedom to express our thoughts as readers and writers without going on the defensive and attacking each other. All genres share enough traits and ‘formulas’ that we often use each other to enhance our work. You play in your sandbox, I’ll play in mine. Now and then I’ll let you borrow my shovel if I can borrow your bucket. Sharing. It’s a good thing.

Let’s all be friends.

11 thoughts on “What did you say about my genre?

  1. Renee you're really going for it on this one. Look, I like most genres because I agree that good writing is good writing. Period. Horror, cool. Sci-fi, cool. Literary fiction, cool (even if it usually moves a little slow). Action adventure, alright. I have no qualms. Just recently I found several YA books that I found had great writing and I found enjoyable, something I never thought I'd say. But here goes my point. Most authors–I know I'm going out on a limb here with this generalization–haven't sold enough or haven't had enough affirmation to feel secure when someone lumps them into a category they haven't subscribed to. As you know, I'm writing something new right now and if someone says it's fantasy I'm going to first think they're lumping it up with something from Terry Goodkind, which is fine from a writing standpoint because Goodkind can seriously write. But I don't want someone opening up my story and then seeing that it has nothing at all to do with that genre. To sum up, it's not knocking the other genre; it's guiding the readers eyes for when they lay eyes on it. Sorry for the wordiness. I like to talk sometimes.

  2. UL: I see what you're saying, and I agree somewhat. But, my point here is that there is no one genre that is better than the rest. There isn't one that is worst. There is personal taste. If the writing is excellent, it's going to be excellent whether that writer is horror, fantasy, romance or literary. There is so much crossing over withing genres now that really, they often can't be lumped into one category. My question is, why does it matter? If someone said I wrote something that is fantasy, when in my mind it's clearly suspense, am I going to get upset about it? No, I'd say, "But did you like it?" That's all I care about in the end. Call it what you like, as long as you enjoyed it.Jeanne; No, action/adventure is not thriller. Action/adventure is traditionally aimed at male readers. (though that is not the norm anymore) It usually features a lot of action (of course) and/or violence. The plot often moves around a quest or mission in some exotic locale. ie)jungle, another planet, etc. Thrillers are very similar but do have their own category and several subgenres as they cross over into nearly every other category quite often. The pace must be quick, there has to be a lot of action, and there should be suspense and lots of plot twists. The reader is on the 'edge of their seat' as the story revolves around the good guy/bad guy scenario. I agree, they're pretty much the same. Action/Adventure though does not always require a hero/villain type story, and it doesn't usually have as many plot twists. I didn't add thriller to the list because it is almost always combined with another genre. Crime thriller, sci-fi thriller, crime thriller, etc.

  3. Nice. I am someone who reads everything. When I was younger, it didn't matter how bad the book was; I will still read it. Today, I am more picky. I don't have the time to read everything, so I go for the best, no matter the genre.But I have my favorites for writing and for reading.

  4. I think I understand the problem you're describing. As a writer, I write in the genre I like best. My role models are writers in that genre. If you criticize my writing, I might wonder if I could have written that better. If you criticize my genre, you criticize my taste, my career choice, my life in general. You're telling me my field is not worth the effort. And I'm much more sensitive about that.So, if you're a horror writer who aspires to write like Stephen King, criticism of Mr. King or horror fiction will be hard to tolerate.The other issue with genre is that individual books are sometimes hard to place, but readers select by genre. I write romantic suspense (what used to be called "gothic romance"). It doesn't quite fit in the "romance" category. Romances don't usually involve serial killers and bodies in the basement. My husband calls my books "thrillers," but they don't fit there either, and they're pretty awkward fits for "mystery," too. I have to hope they're close enough to some formula or other that readers know that my major characters are going to survive and get a happy romantic ending.

  5. I feel as if a book is good, who cares what genre it is in. That's basically what I figure when I read. Some books I read for substance and others I read for fun. Great article!

  6. I've noticed that a lot of this genre stereotyping is done by advertising people, who think that YA paranormal romance is what sells, so your literary gem featuring a tormented ghost and three Mongolian yak herders, all in their eighties, is going to end up next to Stephenie Meyer, if they have their way. Also, in a genre where there are an awful lot of writers producing work, there are going to be a lot of writers producing bad work.Critic A picks up book by author B, finds it is seriously bad, and slams the whole genre as a result.A litle like the snobbery about self-publishing.Nice blog, Renee.

  7. Julie: Awesome points. I agree with you, although I hadn't considered that writers/readers feel a criticism about genre is an 'insult' on personal taste. I still feel it's a bad case of oversensitivity, but it makes sense when you put it that way. I feel as though I no longer have a 'genre' that my writing is easily placed in. The only consistent 'formula' to my writing is that it is dark and intended to make the reader 'uncomfortable', but it is not horror anymore. One has strong elements of romance, another is more on the literary side, and the WIP I'm currently working on is so far more thriller. This is why I wonder at the need to 'place' an author. I guess it matters when it comes to placing those books on shelves. I'm guilty of going to genre sections to find my books, so is the rest of the world. Paul: A LOT like the snobbery about self-publishing. Excellent points as well Mr. Mitton. Rita and Paige: Thanks. I read everything too. I get recommendations on so many different genres and I've read some that are amazing in genres I'd never considered appealing before. I used to avoid Science Fiction, thinking it wasn't my cup of tea. Then I read Carlos's books and I'm addicted, they're nothing like what I thought Sci-fi was about. I think everyone should be open to reading simply for the writing. Those who stick to a genre are missing out on some seriously amazing authors.

  8. I agree every genre (including literary) does have a formula. I read fantasy, romance, mystery and sci-fi for the elements that label them into those genres, but I enjoy the book only if it is well-written.Bad is bad, in whatever genre it may be.

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