I could’ve just as easily called this post: Why Genre Matters, and Why It Shouldn’t Have To. But that feels a bit tongue-twisty, and mind-bendy, for this early in the morning.
Anyway. So, here we go: When you tell someone you like to read, or you announce you’re a writer, the next question is inevitably — Which genre? Which genre do you read or write? And, yes, there has to be a classification, a distinction — Mystery? Romance? Thriller? Historical? Fantasy? Science fiction? Biographies? People are persnickety about it.
Here’s the part where it gets a little confusing (in an existential crisis way): I don’t necessarily disagree with the finnickyness — and yet I do. Because I think it does — and at the same time doesn’t — matter what genre(s) you read and write. As a writer, if you’ve declared a genre for your work, it should fall into the guidelines of that category, at least for the most part. And I’m not talking tropes or cliches; I’m all for originality, so I think crafting a ghost story or a chick lit with fresh characters and an unexpected ending is excellent. But readers are also looking for certain things from genre works, and they will reward authors (financially, by buying their books, and with praise) for delivering that.
However, as an author myself who likes to stretch the boundaries of the genre I have loved my whole life and do write in, I will put forth that being able to cross the category divides is a good thing. My YA fantasy series has garnered some high praise from middle-aged (and above) adults who may not be well-versed in speculative fiction. In my view, this is an absolute plus. When I started on Volume 1, I wasn’t intending to create a novel that would immediately be granted status among the classics of epic fantasy; I simply wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell.
And, yes, it was one hundred and ten percent going to have pixies and talking cats and references to Doctor Who in it.
Some readers take issue with that.
SFF authors meet them everywhere we go — those few that literally turn up their noses when we answer the genre question. As if speculative fiction isn’t as worthy as other types of novels. There are a bunch of excuses — we’re avoiding reality by delving into myths and legends and implausible theories; we’re only in it for the money, and we aren’t crafting anything that will be taken seriously a decade from now; we need to bite the bullet and grow up already.
Well, let’s see: Who wants to be in touch with the current reality? Turn on the evening news for 5 minutes and you’ll be wishing you were on a rocket to Neptune in the year 2100. Or that dinosaurs would come back and just obliterate entire societies. When we write about what could be, not simply what is, we’re doing our part to make the world better for our children.
And what money? How many of us are Neil Gaiman and Maggie Stiefvater? Neil Gaiman and Maggie Stiefvater. There are reasons Tolkien and CS Lewis held down professorships, and classic sci-fi authors were also journalists or teachers or worked in some other field. Making a ton of cash as a SFF writer is a new thing, and still quite rare. If we wanted an instant bestseller, we’d choose a different plot, characters, and themes. Nope, we do this because it’s where our hearts are.
And growing up is overrated. Everybody knows it; they just won’t admit it yet. What period of life do adults get all nostalgic about? The grueling early days of being at the bottom rung of their career ladder? No! Their childhood! The carefree afternoons frolicking in meadows barefoot. This is precisely why Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts are places people in their 30s and 40s still love to visit. (So much for the “what you published will be forgotten in a decade” bit.)
So, why isn’t spec fic as “important” as other types of literature?
It is as important. Full stop.
How do we change the minds of those readers who claim differently?
Get them to actually read SFF. Take them out of their comfort zone. Stretch their limits.
They might, in fact, like it.
The same people who insist on drilling into their children: “You won’t know unless you try,” really need to abide by this themselves.
On the other side of the coin, SFF readers (and some writers) could stand to be a little less snobbish about other genres. How can they be sure that “traditional mystery” is a bore without having skimmed a single page of it? Or that they’ll despise the characters in that historical romance they never checked out of the library? Yes, we all have personal taste, and there’s nothing wrong with that — key point: nothing wrong. If you want to draw more unconventional SFF readers to your own work, try branching out yourself.
In the end, genres do exist with good reason; but we really shouldn’t be judging each other as people based on what we like to read.
And since we unfortunately already do this, how about we stop?
6 thoughts on “Stretching Your Wings: The Importance of Readers (and Writers) Trying New Things”
I just published a post about genre this morning- though tackling a slightly different aspect of it- so this is on my mind.
It’s definitely important to know what to expect going into a book. As much as I wish otherwise, expectations really do play into how you enjoy a story (at least, they do for me). But it’s also super good to mix genres in a story, and to read outside of a narrow type of story.
Have you read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? The way I think of it is if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens teamed up to write fantasy. I love that book, but I know if I was expecting a straight fantasy, I’d be annoyed with all the tangents and ‘parlor talk,’ even though I really enjoy Austen and Dickens on their own, when I’m expecting them.
And there is so much value in reading outside of a set genre! And there really is no point in judging people’s preferred genres- good and bad literature exists in all types of stories. This is a much needed post.
(PS I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet, but I really like your new header! It’s so pretty, and I love the colors)
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Thank you about the header! Yes, isn’t it beautiful?! It was a cover mock-up designed for me ages back, and I really wanted to find a way to use it.
I did read Strange and Norrell, and I found it at the same time interesting and tedious. I did totally understand the atmosphere she was going for (how you’ve described it is pretty spot on), but for me it was hard to get through. Just because I never cared for the Regency/Gothic style of writing. But I think it was a brave endeavor on her part, as an author, so I’d still recommend it to others.
For the most part, I prefer fantasy over all other genres. But I also am more into Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, authors that never took the “rules” of fantasy writing too seriously, and sci-fi isn’t my favorite but I love Douglas Adams. I’ve read some really awful novels in other genres, and some really good contemporaries and historical fiction. So I feel it is important for everybody who likes to read to get out of their comfort zone every now and then.
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To speculate means to think, to use your brain. The alternative to speculative fiction would logically be brain dead fiction. The self-appointed authorities on literature don’t seem to understand that. They also don’t seem to understand that when you turn up your nose you don’t see where you’re going.
I’ve realized this as far back as I can remember and read mostly speculative fiction. Even as a child I loved Jules Verne.
Speculative fiction is “what-if” fiction. It explores the consequences of one or more assumptions or axioms. I’ve had my own prejudices about genres. I thought that sf was more “respectable” than fantasy because its assumptions were realistic (What if spaceflight was possible? It could be possible, it would be possible, it became possible), whereas the assumptions for fantasy were contrafactual (What if dragons were real? But they’re not!), so in my youth I read mostly sf and very little fantasy. Nowadays I’m more open minded and read mostly fantasy, some sf and a sprinkling of other genres (mystery, historical fiction, classics etc), The mechanism of understanding the relation between assumptions and their consequences doesn’t depend on the nature of the assumptions, and anyway, fantasy is more fun.
So in conclusion, writers and readers of speculative fiction need not feel inferior because of their preferred genres. Those genres are in fact superior to literature that just describes a situation without any reference to context.
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ugh so much agreement! There’s a lot of elitism that goes on in the book world, and it’s absolute nonsense. Just let people write and read what they want to?! It’s like the classics vs modern literature, and adult vs YA (or children’s)…someone’s always out there saying what’s considered more WORTHY. There’s something wonderful to be gotten from aLL types of books but at the end of the day, we just should stop judging what makes other people happy, right?!
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I definitely think people are too finicky about genre. Like you, I think that categories and genres can really help readers find what they want to read. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t have to be the be all and end all and plenty of books bridge genre divides- and that’s a good thing! And unfortunately so many people can be dismissive of certain genres- which can be frustrating. So agree with you that lots of people would like it if they give it half a chance! And couldn’t agree more that there’s no need to judge people for their choice of genre.
Amazing post! Great discussion to have!
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