WARNING: Rant Ahead — Liz’s Thoughts on “Genre”

First of all, WordPress informed me yesterday that it was my one-year anniversary with this site. Woohoo. I’ve managed to annoy people with words for a whole 365 days now. Here’s to 365 more!

Okay. On to the nitty gritty.

Yesterday morning I read my friend Katie’s blog post about genre and her thoughts on the issue of non-fiction vs. fiction vs. horror vs. fantasy vs. whateverthefuck marketing label publishing companies slap on your books. In her opinion, literature is divided into two sections: non-fiction and fiction. I find this an interesting standpoint, since I usually view it as more of a literary/genre binary, but knowing that she has a degree in History helps make sense of this for me, and this is a totally valid way of looking at it. Her points about the reader’s agency in determining genre and about corporations’ distinct need to label things got me thinking about the age-old Great Debate between camps of literature.

In my field, coughgradschoolpretentioncough, “genre” is a sticky subject as well in the sense that nobody can really make up their minds what that word actually means. Usually, when it comes to different types of literature, the words that get bandied around are “literary” and “genre.” “Literary” fiction includes realistic fiction that details real people solving real-life problems, with lots of metaphors and other blahblahblah. Check out what Wikipedia says:

Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.

Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”. In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.”

“Genre” fiction, on the other hand, is generally accepted as things that are not that. As in: fantasy, horror, paranormal romance, bigfoot erotica, etc. etc. are not considered “literary.”

Michael Kardos of the Huffington Post puts it in a confusing, colorful graph. Read more here.
Michael Kardos of the Huffington Post puts it in a confusing, colorful graph. Read more here.

All of this would be fine and good, but there is an inherent battle, for lack of a better word, between these two types of fiction in the eyes of a lot of writers, publishers, and bloggers. I feel like it’s getting better, somewhat, than it used to be, but suffice it to say that if I submitted part of my fantasy novel with an application to some writing programs in the United States, I wouldn’t be accepted.

In all honesty the Wikipedia entry above hits the nail on the head for me. There is a ton of ambiguity here. For one thing, what the hell does “literary merit” even mean? I’ve been studying English seriously for six years and I’m still flabbergasted that some books “mean” more than others do. Also, I have read plenty of fantasy novels that are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” It almost sounds like a joke to me that so-called genre fiction can’t do the same things that so-called literary fiction can.

I know I sound jaded and angry. I think it’s because of the perceived non-inclusion as “good literature” that genre work experiences as a result of this maddening label.  However. My thought on the matter is this: it shouldn’t matter whether you’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Just write it.

In her post, Katie makes the point that genre is subjective; in other words, the reader is really the person that makes a book what it is:

To me, genre is owned by the readers. First, and foremost, the author needs to decide what his/her vision for the book is.  The author has an idea of what they want the genre to be, a bookstore uses that to shelve it in a broader location and then it is the reader who ultimately decides where it fits in their life.

What a great thing to say! She gets it: at the end of the day, no one (read: no reader) cares what genre your book is. Just write it.

This week in my workshop one of my classmates was debating whether his piece that he wrote was non-fiction or fiction. My professor very succinctly said, “It doesn’t matter. Just write the story and it’ll decide for itself.”

The only time genre becomes an issue is when the writing is done and now it’s time to market the thing. The publishing industry likes to section literature off into nice neat little boxes, and maybe that’s why the literary/genre divide is so huge. I think, however, that that is a post for another day.

For now, here’s the tl;dr of what I’m saying: the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, whether or not it has been manufactured by the publishing industry, is a crock. What is known as “genre” fiction is just as culturally important — maybe more so, sometimes — and can be just as complex. Plus there’s magic and stuff. Or spaceships. People want to read what they want to read, and so writers should write whatever the fuck they want to write.

So get to it.

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8 thoughts on “WARNING: Rant Ahead — Liz’s Thoughts on “Genre”

  1. I am absolutely in love with this post. So very much. I like reading it from a writer’s perspective. Mine was just based off someone who 1)lives in the world of history where for the most part things are pretty much 1+1=event and 2) someone who is tired of having to fit my books into the industries boxes. This is so good. You’re brilliant. 🙂

    1. Thank you. 🙂 Yeah it was interesting to see the non-fiction/fiction umbrellas taking the highest level for you — our different perceptions just reinforce your point, really, that readers make of things whatever they want.

      1. That’s very true. That was the main reason why I put that caveat at the beginning of my blog haha. I have no training in this but for me it’s fairly cut and dry in the broader reaches of literature. The rest of it is up to readers. 🙂 I love this blog! I’m hoping Jordan will read it since he class is about this right now!

  2. Hi Liz; I love your passion. Once, I thought I was a writer. Without classes or guidance, I leaned on what I read, mostly fantasy. I was drawn to the extended series, rather than “formula” books. Joy and eagerness filled me when I typed and typed and typed. Sometimes people read it, sometimes they didn’t.

    Kristen Lamb’s blog, and the New Hampshire Writer’s Group kept mentioning the book, “Saving The Cat” by Blake Snyder. He spends time talking about genre, and lists ten types. Guess what? They aren’t the ten people usually think of — you won’t find romance or horror or fantasy listed. His most telling point for staying inside one of the genres was this…most people simply will do not have the energy or interest to break out of a genre. If I want people to read my stuff (which no one does anyway) I should make it as easy for them as I can.

    I am sorry this became such a long comment. Thank you for making me think, Silent

    1. Silent, thanks so much for your kind words. I hope you still call yourself a writer and keep at it. I’ve never had any stories published but here I am anyway. Your comment about Blake Snyder’s point is interesting to me. I may have to check that book out. Thanks again!

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