G is for Genre

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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I never could read science fiction. I was just uninterested in it. And you know, I don’t like to read novels where the hero just goes beyond what I think could exist. And it doesn’t interest me because I’m not learning anything about something I’ll actually have to deal with.
James D. Watson
There’s a saying I’ve been taught since I moved to the American midwest: “some people’s kids.” You look out at someone doing something terrifically stupid or upsetting, and you sigh, and you say, “some people’s kids.” And everyone nods knowingly. And here’s where it gets wonderful: as far as I can tell, other than rehashing the story over the dinner table, the event is forgotten after that. Some people’s kids. What’re you going to do. Anyone want to go get ice cream?
Frankly, it would be great if we could apply this as a standard to the literary industry, where there seems to be some sort of universal license, as displayed in the quote above, to be a massive asshat about what kinds of books are Real Books, and what kinds of books have Value, and what kinds of books are Emotionally Compelling. We talk smack about adults who read YA, about any sort of genre fiction, about literary fiction writers being snobby and self-published authors being sloppy. In the end, we’ve managed to waste a while bunch of time…and make some writers and readers feel terrible about themselves.
For. No. Reason.
Originally, this post was about learning what’s in and out of style in your genre and why, being familiar with tropes, and learning to work with what your audience expects. To paraphrase Larry Brooks of “Story Engineering” (a book I heartily recommend, but maybe look at the reviews so you know what you’re in for before you read it), what is overdone and boring in one genre may be groundbreaking in another. I wanted to teach you to work with what you’ve got.

And then I got sidetracked. Which happens incredibly often. Ah, well.

Instead, this post became about something very dear to my heart: writing the book that’s in your head, that you are passionate about, that shows the characters you love. Damn the torpedoes genre naysayers, full speed ahead. To illustrate, I want you to try an experiment. Think of a book or movie that filled you with emotion, go look it up on a review site, and skip straight to the 1* reviews. You’ll see “boring,” you’ll see, “lacking characterization.” You’ll see reviews by people who were seventy kinds of un-wowed by this book, and some by people who hated it with a burning, fiery passion.

The reason I say to try this experiment is that it’s far easier with someone else’s work. You know how you felt when you read that book (or saw that movie). It’s non-negotiable; it just is. The experiment is still going, though: now I need you to realize that not only were there people who did not feel the same as you, there are people out there who think that the entire genre of this book or film adds nothing to the human experience.

They are clearly wrong. So we can leave that in the dust and move on.

So I’m going to lay out some truths for you, and these are truths I want you to cling to when people talk crap about your chosen genre – because they inevitably will, and somewhere in the raw-feelings wasteland of having published a book, you’ll stumble across this diatribe and soak it all up and get magnificently angry while kind of wondering if everyone else believes it. (Spoiler alert: they don’t.)

  • Sad-spectrum feelings and serious feelings are not the only important feelings in the human experience. Write a happy story if you want to. It does not lack merit.
  • There is no genre that has a monopoly on all the available reader feelings. Anyone who says that a particular genre can’t elicit serious feelings is wrong, full stop (and not so great at philosophy or logic, either). Your choice of genre says absolutely nothing about your skill as a writer. Your choice of genre does not lack merit.
  • It is almost inevitable that your book will share qualities with other books, and I only say “almost” for the sake of statistical accuracy. Your book will share qualities with other books. You will hit tropes. This does not mean you have nothing new to say. This does not mean you have not said it well. Similarity does not mean your book lacks merit.
  • If your book gets popular enough, there will be people who talk smack about whether or not your book is really whatever genre you’ve billed it as, and whether your fans areĀ real [genre x] fans. Have some tea and ignore it. This does not mean that your book lacks merit. Some people’s kids, right?
  • Oddly, if your book gets popular, there will be a lot of people who find this a reverse-indicator of quality. I suggest reading Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” for an informed and unapologetic look at why books get popular, and then shake your head at the idea that people who read books are not good arbiters of what makes a good book. Popularity or lack thereof correlates with merit, but is not an indicator that your book either has merit, or lacks it.

So I will leave you with this wonderful quote from Madeleine L’Engle, and go back to writing. Happy reading, happy writing, and ignore the haters!

Madeleine Quote

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