Friday, April 22, 2011

Are We Defined By Our Genre?

I’m going to level with you. I’ve been guilty of genre-snubbing. You’re lounging at your favorite coffee hub with Portnoy’s Complaint in hand and the guy next to you is reading the latest Janet Evanovich. Naturally, you cast aspirations. You’re a writer. Maybe you consign your guilty feelings into a sestina or a napkin doodle. Then you scope the place to find somebody who is reading something meatier and you plan to sit next to him or her.

This seems childish, but many times this is the kind of knee-jerk reaction you get when you tell people you like Plots With Guns, Zombie Gone Wild, The Great American Sexcapade or Hills Weary of Pink Elephants. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that literary fiction is “Art” and everything else is “Entertainment”. Good writing is still good writing. Let’s not forget fiction is a form of entertainment, at its best enlightenment.

Okay some genre fiction is commercial, bland, and formulaic, but a lot of highbrow literary fiction is meandering and dull. Let’s be honest it takes guts to write a book and it takes more guts to wear a label that may typecast you. It could make or break you and if it makes you it can be hard to break from your genre mold. And top of that, your readers will expect you to stick to your guns so to speak. We can’t seem to think of Stephen King as anything but the master of horror. But, then what do you consider The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption? And couldn’t you argue that Kafka’s Metamorphosis shows that indeed sci-fi belongs to the family of literature?

John Banville, the Man Booker Prize-winning author, writes crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black. It isn’t so uncommon. He’s tapping into a different audience and sometimes he lets some of his fans cross over to the dark side. One of my personal favorite writers Haruki Murakami has written a number of books in the noirish style, but really he goes all over the place. I heard Aimee Bender recently say that Murukami’s After Dark spins the Sleeping Beauty fairytale on its head.

A compelling story is still what hooks the reader. If anything at all, genres help to narrow focus. You have one set of expectations when you step into a romance versus a space capsule adventure. Personally, I’m always on the lookout for a writer who can stuff more than one genre into his goody bag. I like surprises and stumbling upon sentences that humble me as a writer. What can I say, the craft is a chameleon.


  1. Very well-put, John. A well-written piece still pulls you in, regardless of the genre. For instance, I caught myself reading historic fiction if only because the writing on one particular book was so well-done that I couldn't help but go for more of that author's works...even though as a whole, I eschew hist-fic.

    And yes, versatility counts for a lot - always!

  2. I agree with both you and Katherine. If a story is interesting enough, and if the writing captures me, I'll read the book no matter what the genre is.