The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

A plague of genres

“It is not your business to determine how good [your work] is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”  – Martha Graham

Years ago, many of the books that are now placed into genres were classified as “general fiction,” while the books that were placed into genres were often considered to be overtly commercial.

Things have changed. Now, publishers and readers expect most of the books they read to be classified by genre. Genres aren’t just respectable, they’re mandatory. The good thing is, genres embrace a lot of wonderful writing.  The bad thing is, the existence of genres makes things difficult for writers whose work cannot be easily classified into a genre or that contains plots and themes typical of multiple genres.

Genres help publishers and bookstores sell books. They help readers find the kinds of books they like to read.

Now we have this

Now we have this

At the same time, genres can also scare readers a way when a book is classified into a genre that those readers never read. Once you say a book is historical romance, you not only attract those who love that, but send away those who don’t like historical novels or romances. If the book fits the genre, then perhaps the genre helps more than it hurts. If it doesn’t fit the genre, the readers who would otherwise like to read it will never consider it.

I’m as likely to read Basil Johnston as Stephen King, Jeanette Winterson as Harlan Ellison, Barbara Kingsolver as Patricia McKillip, Andrew Vachss as Parke Godwin—in short, my criteria is that the book must be good; what publisher’s slot it fits into makes absolutely no difference to me.”  ― Charles de Lint

There are no rules (yeah, right)

If I hadn’t become an avid reader and an aspiring writer at an early age, my high school and college English literature classes would have scared me away from both. I didn’t like the regimented way those classes were taught and consider the teachers and lesson plans and state testing rules that support such methods to be one of the primary reasons we see horrible reading statistics for people once they leave school.

To counteract this, many writing coaches these days are fond of saying “there are no rules.” (I happen to believe that.) Aspiring writers are urged to let the story—or, perhaps, the story’s characters—spin out what happens in a natural way rather than boxing up the creative process with rules.

Unfortunately, there are rules, and they are imposed on us—in part—by the plague of genres. Each genre has rules. If you break them, the magazine editor, publisher or agent who sees the story will reject it. I once submitted a short story to a magazine. They rejected it with a handwritten note that informed me, “We love your writing but the women in our stories aren’t allowed to think XYZ.”

I disliked the concept of genres before I saw that rejection slip. I despised the concept ever after because I thought it placed too many restrictions on plots, characters, themes and writing styles while spoon feeding readers who really needed to learn how to feed themselves, much less claim their lives had been ruined because a writer who didn’t know the rules didn’t end his/her romance novel happily ever after.

Those who support genres often dodge the rules problem by saying those of us who don’t like genres are snobbish. That’s possible, but it’s usually not true. We just don’t like the rules and the great harm they do to the writing process.

I am one of those who fully expects today’s genres to be broken down into more and more sub-genres, each with its rules, laws, precepts, character traits, etc. I can visualize genres in which dogs are not permitted to have fleas and cats aren’t allowed to purr.

Soon, we'll have this

Soon, we’ll have this

Yes, Virginia, there are publishing realities, but we have, I think, taken the genre thing a bit too far. This forces writers to play to the audience and to shape their art into a growing list of prospective reader demographics. Soon, perhaps, novels and short stories will be supplied by computers. By then, it will be too late to stop the plague of genres. We’ll all be addicted.



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3 thoughts on “A plague of genres

  1. Smoky Zeidel on said:

    Genres are there because of the computer age. People want to plug into a search engine X, Y, and Z, and expect to find books that are X, Y, and Z. That’s why they’re there. Like it, hate it, it’s a fact. My stuff doesn’t easily compartmentalize into specific genres either, so I feel your pain.

  2. Pingback: Book Bits: ‘Harvest,’ Amazon Bestsellers, Amity Gaige, Room to Read, ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ | The Sun Singer's Travels

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