Does Genre work for you, or do you work for Genre?



A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
style – type – kind – sort – manner – genus

First off, I’m not arguing against genres.

But when I imagine the evolution of the genre, without doing any research mind you, I imagine a new writer wrote something and described it like something that sold well. The publisher said “Hmm, well people liked that so there is probably a market for things like that.”

Over time the genre forms of say . . . fantasy. What that means is anyone’s guess, but at its heart is the fantastical. Things that are not possible under a naturalistic point of view. Of course, science fiction is then fantasy. I suppose it is–OSC has been described as writing fantasy using science. I mean come’on he has story in which really smart people wishing can create objects or even people, and computers might body snatch a cloned sister?

But the point is really the flavor. All of these style labels overlap. What is Star Wars? Well there are ships and lasers and shields and droids, that sounds like sci-fi. Star Trek is like that, and it’s sci-fi. But wait, there’s the force. That’s kind of mystical so does the mysticality trump the droid armies and force it into fantasy?

But wait there’s more! What about Han, Leia, and arguably Luke’s love triangle. I mean Empire Strikes Back has some serious smooching and dialogue to go with it; I can’t remember a single kiss in Star Trek that seemed romantic, so is this romance now?

Throw in Jar Jar Binks, and we’re in Alice territory.

You could make the case for anyone of these, kind of like Shawn of the Dead; “It’s a romantic comedy . . . with zombies.” In the end, the author (maybe the publisher?) decides where the story belongs based on marketability. “Smells like romance, let’s put it there!”

The genre does not own the story it just happens to have strong enough of a particular element that we suspect people who like that genre will also like this. But it seems like over time, we have allowed the genre to write the story.

I worked with a guy named Casey. We both had interests in writing so we’d banter story ideas about. He brought up the idea of a fantasy story with a guy and a magic animal like a wolf or something to fit his personality. Now, if you know me better than he did at the time, I hate conventions. It’s like I hear “I have a fantasy story that involves an elf, a man, and dwarf . . . blah blah blah blah blah . . . ”

Don’t get me wrong, original stories, good stories can come that way, but after walking down a book aisle or scrolling through an online fantasy forum and seeing the same basic idea reprocessed over and over, I just can’t take it personnally. If that happens to be your forte, how about finding some way to change it?

I suggested, how about the magic animal companion be a magic cow. He was nonplussed. Obviously, a cool wandering warrior wants a warrior animal not a bloated dairy producer. But to me that’s the beauty of it! Do something different. Imagine the complications? Guy gets into a fight, a wolf could attack; what’s he going to do with a cow? Maybe, it looks well . . . like a cow, so the attackers ignore it. Suddenly the “dumb brute” is knocking people into the mud with its hips and accidentally stomping on their spines. Maybe he loses the cow and has to run away? Maybe he has to go rescue it because it is after all magical and must have something desirable. Maybe its smart and it has to escape, but not before setting fire to the enemies stables? I mean imagine the mischief a cow could do right under someone’s nose because everyone looks right past it. It could wreak wholly unexpected havoc!

Or you could just do a wolf because that’s never been done. Eye roll. Sorry Casey.

But at the same time, it would be tough to sell a warrior and his magic cow to a fantasy publisher or even audience. I know that. So instead we make it a wolf. And thus a really great story becomes not only contrived but expected.

A day or so ago, I was told that something in my story would be okay if I was writing an epic (which I am, but they didn’t know that). Another thing would be okay, in literary works but not in genre. My immediate thought: why is my work automatically not literary because it has a sci-fi setting? And if it is genre, where is it written that my exploration of that genre cannot have that element? Again, the genre which is supposed to make it easy to find similar things is now dictating the constraints of my story.

“Well, if you want to be marketable you’re going to have to bend!”

But here’s the thing . . . the genre works because someone wrote something good and then a second someone wrote something like it, and a third someone wanted to buy those things. So in the beginning of a genre someone had to say I like this story, maybe someone else will too? So why is it that only a genre that exists can define what might be liked? I say if I like a story I’ve written, odds are there is a genre for that if only it is my own genre and nothing else. Where do you think “New Adult” came from?

On a side note, when I see the genre New Adult, I think “Please don’t make me grow up!” Let’s establish right now when I should be able to start expecting adult thinking from a person?

Sorry side note.

Is it good to try and sculpt a story to fit a genre? Consider the classics? Tolkien is the proverbial father of the modern fantasy and yet the same genre people will tell us, his story could not be published today and there are thousand things wrong with it; starting with the shire and hobbits. Today, Tolkien would be told; start the story either in Rivendell or Gondor, make the elves or the humans the heroes and use the hobbits just for comic relief.

The Old Man and the Sea? I’ve never read it but the book sounds as boring as the movie (granted I watched it when I was like nine). Hardly a page turner, besides you’d need a new genre, something like “The Really Old Adult”, marketed to the avid read on death’s door who find being really old really exciting, because there’s no way that anyone who is not in an age group can imagine what it would be like to be there. Roll eye, number two.

How about Moby Dick, way too long and slow going.

Dracula? The narration is too removed, and its too preachy, it should be told like The Hunger Games. Or maybe we could make the title character sparkle.

I could go on, but the point is these are the classics, the ones that set the stage don’t even fit in their own genre, but they have stood the test of time and they all do it wrong. Can you name their contemporaries who did it right? Can you name a fantasy story that came out in the same time frame that was “better written”? It’s like the Oscars. It’s a Wonderful Life did not win an Oscar as far as I can remember, but how many Oscar winners can you remember from the same time frame?

Taking it even wider than genre vs “literary”, I would even argue that the conventions we have constructed to make things marketable in fact keep them from being classic. Can you name any book that was very conventional that you can remember? Notice none of those classics are action-packed pager turners where something ‘exciting’ hooks you in the first  page. I’d argue its the voice of the author that keeps you coming back page after page, and that very voice is muffled by the constraint of conventions applied from the outside. Instead of learning to make wine, we’re told everyone wants pop. Maybe they want wine and they just need someone to make it again?

Over to you, readers and writers?


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6 Responses to Does Genre work for you, or do you work for Genre?

  1. Micah says:

    I think your right, writers shouldn’t just be trying to fit into a specific genre or style. I just have a problem with being able to break any convention of a genre as you choose. People need to know how they ought to read something. If a piece writing changes from sci-fi to horror to whatever from one chapter to the next, they won’t be able to anticipate. If they can’t anticipate then they can’t have their expectations broken or reformed because they will stop trying to predict the story. The story will bore or confuse them. A good writer ought to be able to step out of the genre norms in a logical and gradual manner. I know by the title of Old man and the sea that it is set by the ocean and I have certain expectations that modify the way I read it. I thought it was a really good book by the way, but I never saw the movie all the way through.

    • jsclark says:

      I agree, genres and conventional expectations are good for sculpting expectations and you shouldn’t randomly/without warning break them. I hated this story I read titled The Time Machine and was about 300 pages in when I gave up that the story would actually have a time machine and fulfill the promise from the cover. But my expectation was crafted by the cover. I think you can break any conventional expectation so long as you assume the reader going in, assumes the opposite. Take Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, conventionally a story about Abraham Lincoln will be historical, but by tagging on ‘vampire hunter’ the author has warned the audience that this is not going to be historical, but historical based fiction. The author must fulfill their promise to the reader, but I do not believe the author has to fulfill the genre’s promise.

  2. Casey says:

    In Baldurs Gate one of the characters was ranger whose animal companion was a hamster named Boo. “Go for the eyes Boo! YAAAAA!”
    In my defense, it was a Tiger, not a wolf. That story was a sci-fi disguised as a fantasy, set on earth a few thousand years after a global cataclysm that all but ended the human race. While I did go through a period of experimenting with the idea of it being a supernatural “spirit of the wild” (the idea being that with civilization gone old powers came back into the world), what I settled on was their bond existing not through magic, but through nanobots that passed to the man when he ate the fruit of a sentient organic computer in the guise of an enormous tree (a remnant of an experiment in terraforming other worlds for colonization, and the only thing currently keeping the earth habitable), which then passed to the tiger when it attacked him and ingested some of his blood. Of course from the point of view of a semi-nomadic clansman it would seem like magic. And now I’ve divulged the secret I never even intended to reveal in the narrative. Well, perhaps surreptitiously. Still sound cliche?=)
    Personally I’m a fan of mashing up genres.


    I think this may be one of the reasons that A Song of Ice and Fire works so well. It’s counted as fantasy, yet for most of the story there is no magic, no elves or orcs or fairies. Instead the story is largely based around political scheming, flawed characters (most of them quite likeable despite this), and the beloved characters you assume be the heroes (based upon traditional fantasy conventions) dying horribly or going over to the dark side. That and George Martin is an astounding writer who rides the lightning of Mark Twains proverbial “right word”. The story fits into the genre nicely with its dragons and knights and the Stark children all having pet dire wolves with the dire wolf being the sigil of their house. But it also eschews many of its fundamental tenets, the gallant knights have worse than skeletons in their closets, the lecherous drunken dwarf (as in little person, not a beard wearing, gold mining four foot tall Scotsman) might just be the one to save the world, and raising a dragon as if it were your own child won’t stop it from eating children.

    Genre and its conventions work in that they give the reader familiar territory, a comfortable place to start from and a set of general rules for how a given world more or less works. But, no, genre is not a story and should not be allowed to define it. It is the stage for the players to stand on, the hand painted backdrops that give context to the scene.
    I’ve read, or rather, tried to read a few stories that while yes, they still fit into a genre, they defied all that genres conventions. The result being that the world was a strange and alien place with no familiar landmarks. The story was lost in the unfamiliar valleys and trackless upside-down forests of that place. Imagine if you wake up one morning and your wife starts telling you a story from her childhood, when you suddenly realize that she’s standing on the ceiling and has grown a tail. Your house has grown legs in the night and decided that it wants to go on a vacation to Florida, and the earth has been turned inside out. While you could probably relate to her story, you’d be a bit distracted by the landscape.

    A good story provides not only a pretty setting with characters who are believable in that setting. Better yet, they are relateable in their personalities, with merits and convictions, flaws and vices (This is why I can relate more to . Great stories have all this, yet go a step further and set aside genre as anything but a backdrop and actually tell a story which, while it may be fiction, still holds truths about it’s ultimate subject, humanity.

    • jsclark says:

      Haha! Well if our conversation had involved less cliche elements, I wouldn’t have a personal story to throw in there. I’m not advocating an abolishment of expectation (why would you pick up a book that had no expectation?), but a mechanical constraint is what I’m against. If we accept it than every genre story will simply be a regurgitation of the first one, and every new story will require a new genre. It’s the mindset that leads to “I see your story is apocolyptic, but I can’t buy the way you destroyed the world is ridiculous, unlike undead cannibals who can only be killed with a head shot.” I think if it feels like a genre it is, but as long as it feels like that it is then free to break any or all other expectations. Someone should not feel constrained to remove what is unique about their story to fit with expectation. It’s like refusing to fall in love with a woman because you expected a blond and she’s a brunette.

  3. Carolyn Beale Shotsky says:

    When my story line takes a really wild turn that surprises even me, then I know that it is driven by God. I do not question it. God is delighted by our uniqueness. Just do it!

    • jsclark says:

      Well said! The surprises are the best part. I love being surprised, and I really do feel like God teaches me more in those moments then when I “have it figured out”.

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