The Death Of Genre: Drifting Toward A Post-Genre Future

*hands you a brick of C4*

It’s time to blow up genre. It’s time to explosively obliterate the very idea of separating our fiction into these neat little categories — these tropes and plots, these shelves and slots.

Genre of late has been a thing largely used to determine a book’s place at the point of sale — a bookstore, quite understandably, only has finite space. (Well, I’m told that the bookstore known as Herman’s Infinite Accumulation in Duluth figured out a way to rend a vent in the fabric of time and space and thus host all the books all the time, but Herman reportedly stole ducats from the Hyperborean Cat Mafia and he and his store ended up being eaten by moon sharks.) A bookstore cannot hold all the books, and so one must apply a meaningful organization to what lurks there. But the Internet has changed all that.

The Internet is, of course, theoretically infinite. Its shelves are fucking endless.

Once, an author had to ask — “Well, where the hell will my book end up?” A bookstore with clearly limited shelf-space was not so keen on buying a book that had no easy place on those limited shelves. So, genre — a thing that affects the point-of-sale retailer — was a necessary concern of the writer long before the point-of-sale. Genre therefore begins to codify the types of fiction we read: it creates pre-defined plots, character arcs, it relies on a series of shared and continued tropes. Genre at the inception of the story and at the point of shelving and sale then becomes a thing that helps to train both reader and writer.

Genre is comfort, after all. You know what you’re writing. You know what you’re reading.

Comfort in codification. But fiction often works best when there exists some measure of discomfort.

And again, there’s that nagging cloud of gnats hovering around all our heads…

The Internet.

We are readers and writers who grew up on multiple genres and multiple formats. We don’t just read deep in a single genre. Our reading tastes are a shotgun spray, not a sniper’s bullet — space opera to superheroes, horror to thriller, splatterpunk and steampunk and cyberpunk and monkeypunk, epic fantasy to urban fantasy, erotica to spec-fic to spy novels to comic books to movies to pornography to cat videos to whatever.

Our heads are full of this crazy shit.

The Internet brings all that together. In one place. And it fosters the power of remix culture — we like to take all the things we’ve absorbed and glom them together to see the pop culture Voltron we create. We’re the ones pouring maple syrup on bacon (to quote Adam Christopher a little), bringing together the sweet and the savory. We like to read and write the intellectual equivalent of fusion cuisine.

But genre is law. And the law doesn’t really make room for that, does it?

You mash-up two or three disparate genres in a single book, where the fuck does your book go? How do you tell an agent what to do with it? How does the agent tell a publisher, and how does a publisher tell a bookstore? (And here the secret is that bookstores are actually the ones doing the dictating, meaning that the power still lies with a dwindling supply chain and distribution system.)

If you’re an author mashing up genres outside a single book — you write one fantasy novel then move to something more toward “literary horror” — the story goes that you run the risk of alienating fans. That they’ll find your book on the shelf and read both and they wanted one thing from you and didn’t get the same thing every time and so they’ll come to your house and cry, “I WILL AUTOGRAPH YOUR DOOM” before plunging a fountain pen in your neck and signing their name on your corpse.

But the bookstore shelves? Not so populous anymore. And even when they do exist, the Internet is always in the background, able to support that theoretical infinite which then backs up the physical shelf-space.

Plus? Readers are growing savvier. And writers want to play in other playgrounds.

That’s a theme I noticed, by the way, at Worldcon — not just in our New Pulp panel, but in discussions with writers throughout. Genre can be a comfortable starting point — but it can be a bit of a prison, too. We want off our leash. We want to write what we want to write, and we trust that the readers will be with us (and whether that’s a naive trust or an earned and confirmed one, I don’t know).

So, I propose, it’s time to make genre go boom.

We assassinate the current codification of genre.

We liberate the writer and the reader.

VIVA LA REVOLUCION.

Or something.

The question now becomes: just what the fuck does this all mean?

More Granularity

Instead of obliterating genre in its entirety, consider the notion of committing to it in a deeper, crazier way — see, right now, genre is not particularly granular. We have a handful of very big boxes (fantasy, sci-fi, literary, whatever), and inside those boxes one set of smaller boxes (epic fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.), but then no more boxes within those. And once you’re in a big box, you very rarely get to have a project that can be slotted into another — “science fantasy” is a thing we talk about, but it’s not really a shelf designation. So, get rid of the boxes. Eradicate large categories.

Instead, dice up the elements of our fiction even more finely — mince those motherfuckers. Think of fiction as having aspects or elements (and those of you who game in the RPG sense will see the value of this) — a piece of fiction might have a “time travel” aspect, a “tragedy” aspect, a “detective” aspect. One novel might be “serial killer / robot / erotic love triangle.” Another might be, “dinosaur / noir / bioethics.”

What this ideally allows for is a greater breadth of what we find “interesting.” At a place like Amazon, filter and discoverability is utter fuckporridge — and this is bad for writers and readers. Think instead of a Pandora-like app that searches your e-book library and uses these very axes and aspects to help you discover new authors and stories. I want that! And I think we need it, too.

Less Granularity

An obvious thing was pointed out to me at Worldcon but I hadn’t really realized it before — Young Adult / Teens is frequently uncategorized. And, likely without coincidence, YA tends to be some of the bravest, weirdest fiction out there right now. You go to the shelf inside the bookstore and it’s just a big mash-up of books and genres. (Okay, B&N actually separates them out a bit — Teens to Teens Paranormal Romance to Teens Fantasy / Adventure.) But often, YA is just YA. An age range without genre limitations.

These teens are going to be the same eventual non-teens (aka “adults,” if such a distinction even matters anymore) — and if they’re not pinned down by genre conventions and they grow up with fewer expectation for genre, isn’t it time to start configuring our shelves for them and not for everyone else?

Author-As-Genre

The “New Pulp” panel at Worldcon was fascinating because it was essentially the three of us (Stephen Blackmoore, Adam Christopher, and some bearded bespectacled shitbird) trying to figure out what the shit we were talking about and why we were even there. At first that seemed terrifying but as we orbited the topic and closed in on an answer it became clear how powerful it was to not have a certain answer to this uncertain question. Through the panel one of the distinctions we seemed to come to was that we, as authors with great heads full of stories from all corners, wanted to write what the fuck we wanted to write.

And so it emerged that “author-as-own-genre” seemed a very lovely thing, indeed. After all, Stephen King writes “horror” only to those who don’t know any better. He writes a bit of everything, all told — fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, literary. He is himself a great big mash-up of influences and possibilities and you don’t go to a Stephen King novel looking so much for horror as you do looking for, well, a Stephen King novel. King’s novels contain all the trappings of King himself — his voice, his auteur aspects, his storytelling hooks.

To me, that’s a win for the author first and foremost — to be able to write not to genre conventions but rather to your own personal conventions is a very good thing. It becomes “double-plus-good” for the readers because we, the writers, are writing work that speaks to and engages us as creators, ideally meaning we’re writing more to our own strengths and thus producing more kick-ass stories.

Okay, Fine, Fine, Genre Isn’t All Bad

Listen, I’m not saying genre distinctions don’t have value. They do. You like X, so you go to X shelf. Sometimes that comfort is a good thing. We want readers to be comfortable.

But we also don’t want endless regurgitative human centipede storytelling. Genre and its rigorous classification is why we have epic fantasy that reads the same every time, or why we have urban fantasy stories and book covers that are so reiterative it starts to feel like a joke. We are not served well in storytelling by saying This is X and That is Y if all that does is give us the samey-samey time and again. Some of the greatest authors — whether we’re talking Gaiman or King or Mister R. R. Martin — exist because they carve open their own portals into different genres.

So, I’m not seriously suggesting that we obliterate genre as a “thing” — first, it’d never work, and second, yes, they have value. But I am encouraging a widening of that definition and a greater look at how a more diverse and deviant genre classification can allow us to deliver a more meaningful class of filter and discoverability for authors and the readers who read ‘em. That’s a win for everybody.

Thoughts? Discuss.

Or I’ll Taser you in the mouth.

51 comments

  • I like the idea of not being tied to genres. I once had a friend ask me what genre I think my first published work would be. And I couldn’t decide because that idea of being labeled freaked me out. I think there are elements to many different genres in my writing. Is it predominately one thing? Yeah, probably. But I’d rather not just be labeled. I’d prefer to make my own label, like you said regarding Stephen King.

    So I’ll be right behind you with some C-4 which tends to have an almost scent, in case you didn’t know.

    #cultofwendig

  • Yes! Here comes my Panda/Urban Fantasy/Cyberpunk fic! The world won’t know what hit them!

    I agree and disagree. With the increased creativity (or at least the creativity that was already there, simply unleashed) of authors and fans, genre is getting stretch, pulled, ripped, and shredded. On the other hand, many times I DO just want a good sci-fi novel (read: Heinlein).

    It WOULD be interesting, though, to just see ALL the fiction in a bookstore organized as one fiction section. Although then I think people would lose their minds. “My Fifty Shades of Grey is next to Warhammer!” Awright!

    • @Christopher –

      Thing is, evolving genre distinctions in some way doesn’t prevent Heinlein-like works. It just opens the floor wider for other stuff. I mean, after all, Heinlein’s work and the sci-fi of that era were once part of an evolving and “new” genre distinction — with shifts in readership and purchasing (think dime-store novels, pulp books, comics, all the way to the “now” of e-books and other digital releases), genre can grow and chance. Seems like we need a way to accommodate new (that doesn’t limit the old).

      – c.

  • As a Genre Writer who loathes sticking to one genre, I completely agree. It may sound conceited (and I know it sounds like punny rubbish) but I often describe my books as individual worlds in the ever-expanding McHughniverse. It’s impossible to lump any of my books into one category, as they contain elements of different genres–like life itself. Romance, horror, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, bizarro, transcendentalist circus porn: these are genres that fill my life, and so, they fill my books as well. Unfortunately, it makes marketing a bitch.

    My bestselling novel, “Rabbits in the Garden” is by no means a Young Adult Mystery and yet, it is marketed as such, leading to bad reviews by readers who wanted (Now, I know this is shocking…) a Young Adult Mystery. It is not their fault for wanting a different book any more than it is my fault for not delivering on a book I had no intention of writing.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how to make it clearer to the reader. It would be hard sell to call “Rabbits in the Garden” a MindFuck Thriller Love Story–Now with Talking Corpses!

    Genre distinctions do try to hold me back, especially when I’m constantly told that genre-jumping is no way to solidify “my brand.” I say Fuck the brand. The McHughniverse is vast and teeming with possibility. I’d rather have my fans on the edges of their seats, wondering what kind of book I’m going to write next (Bizarro Sci-Fi, ahem) than have them sigh, “Oh good, ANOTHER kung-fu romance about squidpeople.” (Although, that would make a rather cool series…)

    I’m my own genre. What’s the fun in being stuck in a box with eternal limitations? Shit, I played in boxes when I was kid because they could be spaceships, jails, racecars, even monster bellies. Four sides, a top, and a bottom are boring. Give me a wormhole. Give me a hidden forest. Give me anything but conventional fiction.

  • King’s a good example. Obviously, there are things he’s written that are horror. But…I never necessarily viewed him that way. My more adult reading went like this: John Cheever short stories > John Irving’s World According to Garp > Stephen King’s Different Seasons. Cheever didn’t have fantastic elements, but the way Irving plays with coincidence becomes almost paranormal in an odd way. Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany seem more strange than King’s “The Body,” “Apt Pupil,” or “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The strange birth in “The Breathing Method” — while more extreme — wasn’t too much different than the circumstances of Garp’s birth. Obviously, King has done much more with paranormal elements, but I always saw him as just another East Coast writer — not the master of horror.

    I came to your writing through Irregular Creatures. To me, the stories are just stories — no more or no less than those of other writers I like. Sure, there are fantastic elements in some of the stories, but I’ll recommend Dog-Man and Cat-Bird to anyone, no matter what they read. People who used to laugh at me for reading comic books now line up before midnight to see comic book movies the moment they open the doors. In my own writing, even the more “serious” stuff, there’s always an element of something strange in the background.

    Pick up a Jeffrey Ford novel and tell me that the lines of genre and serious fiction aren’t blurred. Same thing with a lot of Lansdale’s stuff.

    I know a lot of people say it’s a good time to be a writer, and I agree with that. But it’s also a damn-fine time to be a reader because more and more people seem to be noticing that story matters, regardless of how they’re told or what genre they’d normally be branded.

  • As you point out, the great benefit of genre is that if a reader likes this thing and wants to read other things like this thing, then she can go to the shelf in the bookstore (“bookstore”) labeled “This Thing.” Over time, all of the things on the “This Thing” shelf start to look alike, and our reader gets bored and abandons us crying in the gutter in the rain.

    Getting people to try new things once they’ve become accustomed to liking “This Thing,” though, is problematic, of course, because most new things are going to give the reader the same enjoyment that “This Thing” did when it was new and fresh before it became tired and old.

    While the old classifications are becoming more and more irrelevant, there still needs to be some sort of classification system that allows our beloved reader (whom we love in a completely non-creepy, un-stalkery way) to figure out what book (“book”) she wants to read next.

    The thing about classifications is that unless someone sits down and defines what certain words mean, they could mean anything. I think I read somewhere sometime that a word that could mean anything means nothing. That’s sort of what the book vendors did — they created classifications that had specific meanings, at least for a while.

    So, who has the authority to create a new classification system that would be open enough to not be too restrictive while at the same time be restrictive enough to be meaningful?

    Don’t look at me. I’m just here for the doughnuts.

    • Seems to me some of this comes out of what we think of readers.

      On the one hand, YA proves that readers — particularly young readers — are savvy and uninterested (or unaware of) the more rigorous classifications.

      On the other hand, 50 Shades of Whatever maybe says something entirely different. Maybe. Maybe I’m being harsh there — maybe even that is a good example of sort of blown-open expectations, a novel with aspects of “erotica” and “fan-fiction” that normally wouldn’t have found a shelf at the store but ends up getting published because the Internet Made It So.

      – c.

  • I think we will probably go in the direction of more granularity, but within the more granular subsets there will still be supersets with very, very strong genre tropes. It will look like Mystery:Space Bunnies:Wingfic but if it ends up not conforming to the expectations of all of these tropes, it will get yelled at and/or ignored, except for the six people who are willing to treat author-as-brand.

    This is from experience.

    If something is really, honestly good, it might break out of this. But though that six people might become six hundred, it’s not going to change the minds of the haters.

    Mainly I’m basing this off of fanfiction, where genres are still alive and well (and progenating), especially romance, and if you even put one foot out of line with the romance genre, there’s going to be trouble.

    The trouble’s worth it. But, you know, don’t expect to be Stephen King right off the bat.

  • As a genre bender I whole heartedly agree. As a reader, I prefer backcover copy to genre to help me pick my books. Though in a search engine (should Amazon or B&N ever develop one that works) genre listings would be helpful to narrow things down.

  • Think instead of a Pandora-like app that searches your e-book library and uses these very axes and aspects to help you discover new authors and stories. I want that! And I think we need it, too.

    I bet right now, deep in the basement of Amazon, they’ve got some programmer chained to a computer trying to make a viable version of this very thing. If not, a programmer is being gassed and dragged down to a workstation as we speak.

  • I agree with Jessica McHugh in that genre shapes reader expectation, and if a book is marketed as one thing and is in fact another, it can be a brilliant masterpiece but the reader won’t have a fully satisfactory experience and it’ll reflect on his judgement of the quality of said book. And books can’t be marketed (yet) without a reference to genre, because genre offers a way to sharpen the focus of the marketing efforts.

    Author-as-a-genre sounds awesome. But it’s only possible for authors of multiple books with the common element of that author’s voice (see your example of Stephen King). Authors with only 1,2,3 books to their name, or authors who write in vastly different voices and styles depending on the story, can’t become a genre.

    It’s important to think out of genre when we write, but the existence of genre in the other aspects of the business is quite beneficial and won’t go away anytime soon.

  • You know, separating fiction into genres is actually a very recent phenomenon. It’s all part of the marketing scheme of big publishers. I’ve friends in the industry who have confirmed this, but I first noticed it when I was reading the intro to an anthology by W. Somerset Maugham. The anthology, titled TELLERS OF TALES: 100 SHORT STORIES FROM THE UNITED STATES, ENGLAND, FRANCE, RUSSIA AND GERMANY, was originally published in 1939. The intro is about 26 pages long, so I’m not going to search for the bit I had read that brought this to mind. The important thing, however, is what I said at the beginning: Genre is a very recent phenomenon.

    Genre did not exist when Jules Verne wrote his fantastic tales of men going to the moon, or of men going to the center of the earth. Genre did not exist when Kafka had a man wake up to find that he has transformed into an insect. Genre did not exist when Oscar Wilde wrote of a man who did not age because of a “magicked” portrait of himself. Fantastic fiction has always flourished, with or without genre.

    The idea of separating fiction into “genres” certainly did not exist in 1939 when Maugham compiled that anthology.

  • Breaking genre molds can be a sneaky thing too. I got disillusioned with high fantasy years ago because it was stale. But I got pulled back in recently by a couple of solid recomendations and found it’s changed even if it looks the same on the surface. Maybe not so much genre mashups as genre crossbreeding. Broken Blade by Kelley McCullough and the Well of Sorrow series by Ben Tate had thriller aspects thrown in with them Completely caught me off guard but I loved it. It was like James Bond mixing it up with elves.

    I think in one way it’s a matter of survival. The same old same old might work for someone who’s been publishing for twenty years, but then that turns into “author as a genre” kind of thing. If I grab the new David Weber space opera, its because I’ve been reading about Honor Harrington since I was 12. There’s no room for someone else to break into the Davinf Weber space opera genre

  • Blah. Seriously need to stop commenting from my phone and use a real computer instead of fat fingering the Submit key when I want to go back and correct spelling.

    So I was almost at my conclusion.

    There’s no room in the David Weber space opera genre unless your name is David Weber. However it gets found, I get a sense that without punching out your own unique space, no one is going to offer any shelf to you. There might not be room for more space opera, but I sure hope there’s room for Mike’s Space Pirate Opera. (Seriously, gonna punch some room up for that).

    In the end tho, I think we can all take comfort in the fact that people will always find room for Awesome, no matter the content. So I guess we’ll all just have to be awesome.

    Done for real. Actuallt intending on pressing Submit.

  • I gravitate towards particular “genres” but I absolutely fall in love with style, and crossing genres is vital to that, I think – it’s sort of mixed-media pop art next to a dusty still life in oils plopped into one of those gilt Baroque frames. I don’t think shelving (categorizing) by genre is consistent or reliable – a lot of literature shelved under general fiction skirts the line separating it from other very specific genres and sub-genres. But we love labels, don’t we? I personally rely more on recommendations by people whose taste mirrors mine or who I trust when they say “DUDE! This book…it’s just…I can’t even…*HERE*! Read it!!” Because I do that to people all the time, myself. :) I think Amazon recommendations is a great thing that could be made much more intuitive, though (yes, a little more like Pandora). I agree that Amazon does have some serious limitations but it is how I discovered Gail Carriger and A. Lee Martinez, so something on some level kind of works. They just need to…tweak it.

  • While this is a sensible argument, it seems to me to speak mostly to the author’s wants and needs and not to the reader’s.

    Author-as-genre is a definite fact, but readers found Mr. King in the Horror section and then he branched and they came with him; readers found Mr. Gaiman in the comic book section and then he branched and they came with him. Ditto Clive Barker, ditto Dennis Lehane (except they didn’t go with him, which is too bad), ditto Robert McCammon (he of much and sadly reduced fan following; that man can write!), ditto etc., ditto etc.

    A counter-example: China Mieville is a big name in fantasy because he’s an incredibly inventive imagination (and a heck of a writer), but he started strange and got stranger; is he a big name in literature in the way that Stephen King or Neil Gaiman are? Not to my knowledge.

    As readers, I think we’re conditioned (or maybe just born) to expect to be able to put things in boxes. We’re willing to grow with authors, and we’re willing to jump in once an author has gotten good and famous . . . but I don’t know that we’re willing to look outside the boxes when we first meet an author. Most readers like the boxes, and move outside them only when cajoled or eased out.

    Too, there’s the individual book level. I was recently reading a book that was billed as suspense. And it was suspenseful and worked just fine for me until the 75% mark, when it turned supernatural/religious. It was *okay*, but I’m probably not going to pick up another book by the author because I don’t know that I can trust the author to tell the story I wanted to read at that time. Which is anecdotal, and evidence for “write better” rather than “write in my boxes” (because suspense and supernatural are definitely in my boxes), but it still probably factors in somehow…

    • @Jon:

      This is definitely to the writer’s needs, but here’s how it works for the reader, too –

      You mention McCammon. Well, because he wanted to write something other than horror but couldn’t due to publisher pressure, he eventually retired from writing and withdrew from that space, denying us as readers the chance to see what else he would and could do in terms of storytelling — so, readers of his had something stolen from them. (Er, like me.) Now, sure, he came back eventually with a smaller press (whew), but that’s a thing that affects the reader.

      I like to think readers are savvier than folks expect. And if this kind of genre evolution helps (again) filter and discoverability, then that’s a huuuuuge win.

      – c.

  • This depends on the reader and audience demand. As much as people hate change some are going to resist. I think of the old guys who read only westerns, or the harlequin addicted among us.

  • “But fiction often works best when there exists some measure of discomfort.”

    See, my issue with this post is you are presuming a specific type of reader. It so happens that I am that type of reader, which is lovely, but my mom is not (much as I’ve tried). For my mom there exists the concept of “It was too weird for me.” But she is still an avid reader. And then there are the thousands of readers out there devoted to comfort reads, and these people are reading a book a day. This is not to say the books they read don’t have value or uniqueness, because they do, but they also sit very solidly within genre conventions (which are actually quite broad), and woe to those who break them. And I mean really; I have seen the tornadoes of feces that come after.

    This is not to say that genre crossovers can’t be done, because they can, and very successfully. But generally it’s with a very mainstream hand (sure he can travel through time, but what the book is actually about is fertility issues) or by the big name well-established, because when your covers are little more than your name in really big letters, you can do whatever the hell you want. (In the same way we’re fine if a friend calls us a jackass but a stranger who does so will get a boot to the head.)

    I also think it’s best to talk about genre-breaking only after you are well-versed with genres, which in my experience, many new writers are not. For example, I get many a query where the writer has trouble classifying their work. Which, fine, okay, but in the list of genres they have, invariably they call it a romance simply because there is a romance in the book. Which shows they know jackalopeshit about the romance genre, and so if the book is then marketed as such, they will disappoint readers. In the same way I’d be disappointed if ROOM was marketed as sci-fi.

    I do love genre-breaking books. I like the new and weird and wonderful, and I’m happy to live in a time where those kind of books are everywhere. But I hold no illusions that the majority of books should be like that, because, at least if best seller lists are any indication, mainstream readers aren’t like that. They like their sci-fi light, their mysteries solvable, their BDSM erotica tame. When books break out, it’s usually not because they broke genres but because they bended them, challenged them just a bit, while still being very aware of their boundaries.

    • @Amy –

      You’re totally right about that, I am presuming a type of reader. But I think that type of reader is growing more, and the “old guard” is shrinking — I mean, the older women in my family (mom, aunt) are very much the comfort brand one-type-of-book reader (though there just the same I’d say they’re less about genre and more about writers — they follow specific bestselling writers very closely).

      But as it is with people, they’re not going to be around for the next generations of author. A shame, but a reality — the reality is, the YA readers are our next “wave” of readers, and they’re looking at a playing field where more things are possible in a less genre-specific book ecosystem.

      And I think bestseller lists have a share of weird and wonderful. Hunger Games was pretty uncomfortable. 50 Shades of Grey is a disruption (for good or evil, you decide). Gone Girl isn’t genre-bending, but it’s an uncomfortable book.

      Sure, I think bestsellers are overall dominated by the safe play, but that’s a) less true these days and b) those bestselling authors are selling a lot less than they used to. Further, “safe” books tend to get more play and more support in terms of publishers and bookstores — meaning, it’s not always about the safe reader so much as it is about the safe marketing and safe business side of things. Disruption is scary to a business, and book publishing is a business.

      My point is, it feels like we have an opportunity for change, evolution, adjustment — I’m obviously not serious about eradicating genre entirely, I think it’s still a good foundation. But we need simultaneously both more and less of it.

      Or something.

      – c.

  • I’m commenting because I don’t like being tasered in the mouth.

    You know, I’d love to see genre fiction blow up, even though I know it’s not gonna happen. But I don’t read “genre fiction” really. I like authors who forge their own genres, but you’re never gonna see me idly browsing the “Paranormal Romance” or “Urban Fantasy” sections; if I’m in sci-fi or fantasy, I’m looking for the transcendent, the masters of the genre.. the people who write books that don’t read like a Formula For Success In (fill in your genre of choice here).

    I do have a publisher friend who publishes what she calls “fantastika” fiction–mish-mash of sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, YA. She’s releasing some pretty superior work, and while they’re not all the same kind of books, they all fit together in a nice collection.. sort of the “author-as-genre” section, but publisher-as-genre.

  • Hi Chuck!
    I love this. It reminds me of music. That’s why some bands only produce one hit wonders! Everything afterward sounds the same.
    The book I am writing could be found in about 5 sections in ye old bookstore.

    I hope you are seeing some new readers! I see Ted came by! **waves to Ted**
    I gave your blog a plug over on the Wild Ride. Enjoy!

  • You raise some really good points about genre here. The YA point was especially revelatory, as well as your point about “author as genre.” I am a huge fan of different authors, but just because I love Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov doesn’t mean I will randomly walk into the science fiction section of a store and pick a book off the shelf. Same goes for my enjoyment of any other genres. I’ve always read by author, and if an author hooks me I’m willing to keep coming back, no matter what elements they are using in their stories. (No one says Shakespeare was a fantasy author just because there’s a sorcerer in The Tempest.) I’ve always seen genre as a seasoning in the soup of story, to be applied as liberally or conservatively as necessary.

    I have a question concerning genre though: do you think it is necessary for a writer to be well versed in the tropes of a particular genre (or multiple genres if you are the peanut butter and bacon sort of storyteller) in order to write a successful story?

  • I find genres most useful for finding authors new to me – when books are grouped in genres, one can simply look at what is nearby on the shelf (or, online, look at the listing), but when they’re not, e.g. the dreaded (by me) “general fiction” section, it just takes ages to find stuff I might like. So, for me, genres are a short-cut.

    Then again, I’m quite happy to trust an author and follow them through multiple genres but I may be odd for that.

  • Initially, I loved the idea of plotting books on axes for romance/time travel/bioethics… then I flashed on the beginning of Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams is demonstrating why you can’t graph a poem to discover its greatness. Not an exact analogy, but now I feel a bit unclean about it, just the same.

    There are readers who want genre, and authors happy to serve it up. That’s cool.

    Then there are wanderers who put tracks and squiggles all over their own maps. There are readers who want to see the maps. That’s cool, too.

    As a reader, I’m happy to surf from Column A to Column B at will. I think the shelving/marketing/publishing problem is resolving rapidly with help from the interwebs, both the links between the servers and the more direct links between the readers and writers that online spaces encourage. Genre will always exist, because some folks will always need boxes for some reasons some of the time.

    I don’t believe this new evolution will stop, though, because a significant segment of people are participating in it and believe in it. Nor should it stop. I see peaceful coexistence coming to stories everywhere.

    As a writer, I find this idea of genre loss fantastic because I know I was a bit approach-avoidance about even querying anything I had written, just in case an agent somehow decided to take me on and then somehow I had to write only that kind of thing over and over. I know this is a problem many people would love to have, but I just couldn’t settle myself to writing just this one kind of thing, forever and ever, or being given the Walk of Shame out of the writing world. But maybe that’s just my hangup.

    I’m only posting because being Tasered anywhere hurts and the fifth cardinal rule is “Not the face!”

  • My goal as an author has always been to do the King or Gaiman method, and that is to write whatever the hell I want and convince people to follow ME instead of the genre. While I do tend to write in more speculative genres, I can’t classify myself as specifically horror or science fiction or fantasy, often even within the same work.

    I think this is where publishing with a smaller publisher (or, okay, self-publishing) does come in handy, because it allows for more innovation and experimentation. However, there are still pitfalls with how you are asked to classify your own book within Amazon’s (or any other) marketplace. I guess this is where tags become especially handy.

  • Hi Chuck! Thanks for this. I’m totally new at writing but mature as they say ;) ha ha. So I just wrote my first novel with drama, and a bit of angst(lots in a light way) and romance and a bit of education thrown in. I don’t want it to be romance genre…so what is it? Lit fiction, pure n simple or just go by my name, what the hell, why not ha ha!?! Hope you can reply and thanks in advance! It will go out to all the e-reads in about a month or so and available in paper by order. I want feedback and to improve and do not want to be compartmentalized. Bye.

  • I ONLY read genre fiction. There, I said/wrote it. I refuse to read any literary fiction and nothing drives me out of a bookstore faster than for it to have no genre designation at all. I read a lot of YA so I understand your point but I consider YA as a genre unto itself.

    I have different expectations going into different genres. For example, a Romance will always end with a happily-ever-after or at least a happy-for-now. Protagonists of YA books don’t die (they may be dead at the beginning though). Mess with any of that and I won’t read anything else by that author ever again.

    If all genre designations are removed, we readers would have to rely on the cover art to tell us what the book is about (if we are moved enough by the spine of a book to look at the cover in the first place). Is that a better way?

  • First thought: THE PAST — When I worked at Borders Books, a fairly cranky man came in, looking for a particular book. He was angry far beyond what most people would think was warranted when I told him we didn’t have the book, saying, “How can you not have this book in stock?” He wasn’t looking for a popular book, or even a book I’d ever heard of. When I told him, “We only have finite space. We can’t carry every book,” he snapped, “What the hell does that mean?”

    Second thought: THE FUTURE — Hell yes! Enough of this genre separation! People have been moving in and out of genres and mashing things up for a long, long time. It’s about damn time we actually recognized that fully and stopped trying to box things up. I’ve been a big fan of the all-over-the-place-ness of YA fic for a while now and would love to see adult fic go the same way.

    Thank you, Chuck, for putting this all out there.

  • I think we are all lucky to be living in the internet age, for many reasons. We can create and learn from each other in ways that never existed before. We can communicate and discuss the ideas that generate from within us, and really try to make connections with other market segments.

    It’s great!

  • Sorry, just can’t get over “fuckporridge”. Have to go away and mutter it over and over until the word loses its power…..

    Fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge,fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge,fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge,fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge, fuckporridge,………………………….

  • “And, likely without coincidence, YA tends to be some of the bravest, weirdest fiction out there right now.”

    Holy eff, THIS. I am almost 26 years old, and what is still my favorite thing to read? YA fiction. (Okay, and gay erotic romance, because dammit, I am an ADULT.) I gravitate to the YA shelves at bookstores and at the library, because it is a treasure trove of great reads. I hate going to adult fiction and trying to pick and choose among the individual genres, because I honestly have NO IDEA what genre(s) I enjoy. I was trying to identify my go-to shelves maybe a couple of months ago, because people around me seem to be able to do that, and I couldn’t do it. Adult fiction stifles me, and I break out in hives just THINKING about trying to navigate it, so I rely on my monthly reading group and the new releases shelf at my local library (because it pares ALL THE BOOKS down to JUST ENOUGH of the books to not get overwhelmed, AND BECAUSE IT DOESN’T SEPARATE THEM BY GENRE ZOMG YOU’RE RIGHT) to turn me on to some good adult fiction reads. Which means a lot of brilliant authors are definitely getting overlooked by me through absolutely no fault of their own.

  • Genre has always gone “boom.” By its very nature, genre changes with time.

    New subgenres are created, and reader expectations change with more traditional genre.

    Look at what has happened to fantasy in the last thirty years. Contemporary fantasy has morphed into existence then split off into urban fantasy. Epic fantasy has become far less epic and more personal.

    Romance has morphed more than any other genre moving from the dreaded “bodice rippers” and Mills and Boon romances of the early days to a market filled with everything from erotica to no-sex romances as well as romance-morphed versions of every other genre including science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and Inspirational/religious. Heck, most don’t end in marriage anymore, just a hope of a relationship that will last.

    What I hear from readers, particularly of mainstream and literary fiction, is that the lack of genre classification in bookstores and online has made it much harder to find the kinds of books they like to read, and thanks to the incredible increase in the number of books published thanks to self-publishing and the release of out-of-print backlist via ebooks and POD, these readers are extremely frustrated by the lack of classification.

    So, thank you very much for the idea, but it would be crazy to drop the nice cozy popular genre designations we have right now which allow readers to find us with ease.

    I’m one of those fools who write a number of genres, and it isn’t a choice to make lightly if you want to build a career. Every time I write a different genre I have to start all over again building a fan base because readers simply don’t follow me from space opera to romantic suspense to paranormal romance. Backlist, where most of the money is made, doesn’t really exist for me . If I had it to do over again, I’d have picked one genre and stayed with it.

  • Thanks for the C4; I’m happy to not blow up genre, but blow up the limiting thinking about it. Genre just helps us describe the “type” of book. Doesn’t matter if it has several descriptions. A man can be intelligent. He can be happy-go-lucky. He can be a cock waffle. But he doesn’t have to be just one of those things. He can be all.

    I believe that author as a genre is really where we’re headed. With all the resources as writers we have today, that’s easier than it was say even a decade ago.

    I asked Hubby to start writing the “Pandora-like app that searches your e-book library and uses these very axes and aspects to help you discover new authors and stories” app.

    Also you should likely get @MykeCole on board with this Blowing Up stuff. He’s got real-world experience and I think he’s about to bust open the romance genre. See here:
    http://buzzymag.com/myke-cole-interview-author-of-shadow-ops-control-point/

  • I think readers are more open minded than people give them credit for these days. I have always viewed Genre as a marketing tool for publishers and less an index tool for readers. A key point of the NYT article on paid reviews was that readers don’t care about the content of the book, only that other people like it. That purchasing bias shows the general populace doesn’t pay much attention to Genre. Yet, publishers are vertically oriented along genre lines via their numerous imprints.

    Calling for the destruction or at least weakening of Genre is really calling for the re-organization of publishing as an industry.

  • I had many things to say about this. I love the idea of blowing genre out of the water. I love a good story, I don’t care what the genre is. The more genre-and-convention bending the better for me. And I’m sure I’m not alone, a conviction that is borne out by some in this comment thread.

    But coming from romancelandia, I was wondering how the romance fans feel about this. Many romance readers love the genre precisely because of the conventions. Then I got to thinking about it and I came across something that seemed to confirm that, so I ended up doing a whole blog post of my own about it. It’s here, http://imeldaevans.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/genre-and-expectations/ if anyone’s interested. I’d be very interested to have your thoughts, if you have a moment to come over.

  • Amen! I believe some sort of classification should exist, but for no other reason than to point the shopper in the right direction in the bookstore. The idea that literary agents think writers should know their genre before they even begin telling their story, blows my mind. They have SO many genres, one for every work of fiction on the planet, yet they big booksellers refuse to consider New Adult viable. What’s up with that?

  • Amazing article – and very insightful. Well put!
    I seriously think that we need to do a website/kickstarter for a Pandora-like Book Decision engine. I’ve seen book recommending engines out there but it is based upon limited input(s).

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