Genre Quibbles

Not long ago I found a post on George RR Martin Defends Genre on the Reading is My Superpower blog. My review of Robert Masello’s Bestiary this morning made me think of it.

First, here are a few brief thoughts of my own regarding genre so you’ll have some context:

  • Genre can be a handy convention for matching books to readers. If you know you prefer fantasy or romance, genre is what lets you go to a particular part of the store and know you’re likely to find books you’ll enjoy there.
  • Genre, to me, has only minor implications regarding quality, and those are not causative. By that I mean there’s no inherent reason for, say, a romance or a fantasy novel to be in any way inferior to something described as ‘literary.’ Any qualitative limitations are a result of two things in my mind: the market, and the evolution of the genre. If a genre is young and undeveloped, then the taste for it won’t have evolved yet, and the knowledge of how to write it well won’t have evolved yet. Also, if there’s a huge demand for novels of a particular genre then they tend to get rushed out to press, often with less thought to quality overall.
  • Genre is a slippery thing. It has no exact definitions; everyone will set the boundaries of what constitutes a romance or a thriller a little differently. I like this—after all, the only way to work with exact definitions is to work with very formulaic material. The fact that genre is so slippery just means to me that genre writers are branching past the early formulas that got put in place to define their genres.
  • There are certain expectations, however, regarding genre once you start a work. I’m not speaking of formulas such as the ones I referred to in the last point. I’m speaking of the expectation that, for example, you won’t suddenly and unexpectedly change genres in the middle of a book with no warning. Your perfectly normal mystery won’t become a paranormal thriller three hundred pages in, and so on.

That last point is the one I want to talk about this morning. In Bestiary, Masello didn’t seem to have a good handle on his genre. The book was kind of paranormal, and kind of not, and kind of thriller, and kind of not, and it bounced back and forth between these things in confusing and inelegant ways. There are authors who can make the sudden genre-shifting revelation work, but they’re few and far between, and it isn’t a wise thing to try if you can avoid it. In this case there was very little reason for confusing the genre—it didn’t add to the book at all and certainly subtracted from it—so the author would have been better off, in my opinion, keeping a more consistent genre-feel.

Today, pick up a genre novel you’ve read recently (or go read one) and pay attention to how the author conveys the genre throughout the book. How does he give you a sense for the genre right off the bat? How does he bolster that feel throughout the book? How does he make the various plots and characters feel appropriate to it?

Never let anyone tell you that this has to boil down to some sort of formula. However, you do need to work to consistently convey your world and its feel throughout your story. That’s a much larger thing than simply genre, but genre is an integral and important part of it.


‘True ease in writing
comes from art not chance.’
—Alexander Pope

Posted in Writing
4 comments on “Genre Quibbles
  1. annie says:

    Nice post! I think you make some great points–

  2. heather says:

    annie: Thanks! The excellent conversation over at your blog got me thinking, and Bestiary neatly ended up illustrating some of my thoughts.

  3. bettie says:

    Great post, and so well said!

    “Genre can be a handy convention for matching books to readers.”

    Your post got me thinking about shelving, genre and marketing, and how genre is nothing more than a marketing tool–albeit one which we as readers and consumers have accepted as gospel.

  4. heather says:

    bettie: Absolutely agreed! I do find genre useful in terms of hunting down books I’m more likely to enjoy, but sometimes we really need to take a step back and remember that we’re allowing the marketing people to define these words for us, and that sometimes this shapes our thinking in unexpected ways. The most obvious example, for me, is the horror genre. Publishers are so desperate to avoid the ‘stigma’ that comes with horror, or any possibility of being associated with the slasher or gross-out sub-genre, that they deliberately try to package plenty of stuff that could easily be labeled as horror as anything but. And as a result, more and more people believe that anything labeled horror must contain buckets of blood. I personally find this kind of frustrating, because one of my favorite genres is the much more psychological or atmospheric horror genre. It’s tough to find (and tough to sell) because of what is, essentially, a largely marketing-created terminology confusion!

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