Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why Genre Definitions Can Be Limiting

gen·re –noun 1. a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.

One of the very first things we get asked as writers is "what genre is your story?" And I can probably guarantee that everyone reading this blog has, at least once, stared at the asker like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. In my case it's been a few times, but that's beside the point -- this being that writers are expected to be able to clearly define what genre their story falls under at any given time.Which is all well and good, except genre can more readily be translated to mean "what section of the bookstore will I find your story in?"

I take issue with the genre question in a lot of instances, particularly when there's so many things that can go on in a really well done book. Take the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling as an example. On its surface, the stories appear that they're going to be limited to Young Adult Fantasy due to the age of the character and the specific story elements within the first book. These being that Harry is sent to a school where he learns how to become a Wizard. However, the Harry Potter stories transcended the elements that would have otherwise limited it to that particular subset of the bookstore.

Now, I can imagine what you're going to say -- "But having a clearly defined genre is good for writers and for readers. It means that writers know what to write and readers know what they're going to read."

I'm not so sure that readers know what they're going to read when they pick up their next book. Sure, they might assume they do because they're shopping in the Mystery section or the Fantasy section or the Romance section, but that doesn't mean they're not going to find a story in those areas that doesn't pull them somewhere else.

Let's look at Soulless by Gail Carriger as another example. Within that story, we see strong appeal for the reader of Paranormal Romance right off the bat. However, there's also a strong appeal for the reader of Steampunk because of the way that Carriger created her world. If memory serves, I ended up finding this book not in the Romance section of the bookstore but in the Science Fiction one. And I find myself wondering if two booksellers would shelve Carriger's novel in two different places -- would one put in Romance and another in Science Fiction? What about shelving it in Mystery? It does have some strong mystery elements within the plot. Where would you shelve it?

My (rather rambling) point is that genre definitions can hinder us as writers and us as readers. If we decide we're writing an Epic Fantasy, for example, then we have to follow specific guidelines that people expect from an Epic Fantasy -- wizards, quests, heroes, love interests, etc. If we decide we're writing a Romance, well then there's the requirement that it must end in a Happily Ever After for the primary couple of the story.*

And those are just a few of the limitations I can think of that the concept of genre imposes on us as writers. What other restraints do you see?

*Granted, I don't know a whole heck of a lot about the Romance genre's expectations. That's just the one that popped into my head first.

NOTE: I don't advocate for getting rid of genres. I think they can simplify expectations and the creation of stories by a whole heck of a lot. They're still limiting though.


Rick Daley said...

Genres are blurring, and the increase in ebooks and changing consumer buying habits will continue to blur those lines. Genres are great for dividing up shelves in a bookstore...but when you search Amazon, do you pay attention to them? With the Internet, you can tag something multiple ways, and keywords in descriptive text help locate something better than a simple genre tag.

Bookstores are not going away, but the competition with ebooks and online ordering of print books is changing the way books are bought and sold.

dolorah said...

"what section of the bookstore will I find your story in?"

Stephen King's "Lizzy's Story" is an example of crossing genre lines: it is a horror, but evolves around a romance, with a good mystery obtained in an alternate world.

Excellent story BTW. I like shopping online b/c if you put in the title of a book, it will come up in several genre's; but in a bookstore it is only on one shelf under a specific label. (Unless you're lucky enough to have your novel displayed at the front of the store all by itself.)