Genre: The Tragedy

This is another post from ye-olden-days (ie 2013) and was written with a very specific purpose after some rather negative reviews on my first novel Godhead. It is especially appropriate after sharing this contemporary rant Talkin’ About Tolkien.)

Genre: I loved it once. The word, the very concept, that delightful French-style curl on the ‘-r’ that makes it less of a word and more of a noise. But I’ve come to a recent realisation, one that makes me sad and angry and a little bit giddy, all at the same time.

Genre’s a bitch.

I first started to come to terms with this back in college. I’d grown up with genre; I knew my sci-fi from my fantasy, my horror from my thriller and even if I wasn’t able to put those differences into words, I knew it deep down in my soul. I was lucky enough to have a damn good English teacher in secondary school (well, teachers, though I did have the same one for four out of six years); he never said as much, but I know he loved and admired genre too.

So when I got to college, I expected to have more of it; we even had a specific course looking at theatre by genre, period and theme (it was called Theatre: Genre, Period and Theme. I’m impressed that I remember that 12 years later.) I could be misremembering, but there were definitely some confused faces around the room over the course of each class; genre wasn’t something that everyone was as comfortable with as I was.

That said, it was first year in the arts block, and we all know what people say about arts students…

Genre was something of a Holy Grail to me back in those days; it got mentioned in a lot of essays. Sometimes I was making the argument that “well, this is X genre, so of course we can expect this to happen in the narrative.”

And then I started challenging things, blurring the line: some of my favourite research and essays argued against genre, making out that Charles Dickens was re-writing fairytales or that certain Greek tragedies were actually comedies. I was deconstructing left, right and centre and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with talking genre for its own sake any longer. The concept of genre was withering and dying and everything crossed over.

Everything.

Maybe it says more about me than genre, but that’s the point my relationship with genre really started to change: I didn’t want to read or see “pure” genre any more. Mostly because I didn’t believe a pure genre exists; I still don’t.

It’s terribly postmodern of me, I know. And I know that there are a million arguments otherwise. But as a writer (and more importantly, a reader) turning my back on the concept of genre has helped me to broaden my horizons in a way I never thought possible; I’ve read and enjoyed books (and movies) that I’d never have thought of watching, and I’ve written scenes that I never thought would come out of my own brain.

See, too much of the entertainment industry is defined by genre. And there are very good business reasons for that: publishing houses operate a business, and I’m not naive enough to think that money doesn’t drive the market.

But that doesn’t define a genre, and it certainly shouldn’t define stories or the characters that live in them: it should be the other way around entirely. And if that leaves us with a new genre that consists of one work…all the better for it.

For me, genre isn’t the Holy Grail that it once was: it’s a tiny feature, something that helps to categorise what you’re writing. Or reading. Or watching. It’s nothing more than that. So why limit yourself?

Let’s face it: the industry is changing. Self-publishing, e-readers and social media are giving readers and writers more power. There’s a broader choice than ever before. So why is genre still treated like a dirty (or hallowed) word?

Genre and I aren’t friends any more. A big part of our falling out came when I started writing Godhead. It started as a contemporary fantasy, but that felt like a dirty word, the quaint black sheep that the rest of the industry indulged with a pitying smile. But I felt that any discussion about genre undersold everything that I put into Godheadgenre ignored all the research I did on Greek mythology, the personal experiences that helped to shape scenes or characters in the book.

As a writer, I know I have to play the game; I have to tick some boxes and I’m not going to overhaul the industry single-handedly. Because the industry isn’t built by writers, or even by agents or publishers: we’re just the bricks and pebbledashing. It’s the readers that form the concrete and the foundations.

So, dear reader…why do you play that game? Seriously. Readers can start some of the biggest crises of a writer’s life, and all because they force that sense of genre onto something.

It’s readers, not writers, who populate their blog (or your Goodreads profile) by saying that they “only read straight Christian YA paranormal romance.” (No kidding, I came across this a few weeks ago. I may have the adjectives in the wrong order, but they were all there.)

I can’t help but feel that such a reader is limiting their experience; they aren’t actively reading.

That means, the people who are building this industry, the people in control of it, are the ones that aren’t even participating in it.

There’s a lesson here that we can all learn, whether a reader or a writer or somewhere in between. Embrace your genre, but don’t let it define you.

It’s human nature that we learn when we’re challenged; we appreciate the things we like when we have something to compare them to. And nowhere should we see that more than in the world of literature.

It’s our world, and we should build it our way. If you’re a writer, try something new: you don’t have to publish it, but spread your wings and experiment. If you’re a reader, make a point of picking up something new and different every few books.

And if you’re a genre, I’m sorry that our relationship went south: it’s not you, it’s me.


Also published on Medium.