Say Goodbye to Your Straightjac-… erm, Genre

One of my all time musical heroes is Mike Patton. I’ll never forget an interview of his where the interviewer (either genuinely confused about his subject, or willfully dismissive of the fact that he had one of the most eclectic performers in rock history sitting in front of him) asked Mike to specify his genre.

Mike looked at the interviewer with utter contempt, and responded: “That’s your job.”

Amen, brother Mike.

Artists (good ones, anyway) do not consciously seek to fall into a classification. They simply create. They leave others to the job of classifying things.

Asking artists to classify themselves is ludicrous. It’s asking an artist to be a librarian.

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Genre is a really, really silly thing when you think about it. (And I’m not the only one that has.) (Here’s another.)

First, genres, as the very word implies, are generalizations, which means they’re never exactly true. They do not clarify, and almost always need clarification. Genres require qualifiers the instant you use them. The second you identify an artist as belonging to a genre, (e.g., “Stephen King is a horror writer”) you are forced to specify the ways in which the artist is not of his genre, (e.g., “but he has a more literary, nostalgic feel”.) Genres are always the precursor to a “but” or an “except” or an “although”. This is to be expected. After all, any time we try to impose arbitrary categories on reluctant facts (a favorite pastime of our species) we are forced into greater specificity. So, we invent categories called sub-genres, thinking this will clarify matters.

So from Wikipedia, we see that “Mystery”, for example, breaks down into:

  • Hard-Boiled    
  • Detective      
  • Crime      
  • Police Procedural    
  • Legal Thriller    
  • Medical Thriller

Of course, this is a practice with no end.

Like the Alchemists, we discover that we can always sub-divide. We can add sub-sub-genres. We can add further qualifiers like “neo” and “quasi” and “classical”. We can add hyphens and slashes and ram two, three and four genres together into the same word. We can further categorize by nation if we want to. Or era. (“One of the finest examples of Post-Cold-War-Meditteranean-Neo-Noir-Slipstream-Urban-Detective-Vampire-Thrillers around!”)

We can subdivide until the end of our days and there will always be greater levels of specificity.

But why do this? What is the incessant need to label things?

“Well, labels are a convenient shorthand”, we tell ourselves. But if my “shorthand” requires sixteen hyphens and a very specific, five minute long explanation of what I mean by each term, then how convenient or shorthand is it? In ordinary conversation (i.e., outside a university lecture) these kinds of generalizations are virtually useless. Except, as we’ll discuss here in a minute, to tell me what part of the bookstore to go buy things from. But in conversation, what is the point? Why can I not just talk meaningfully about what is unique to this author or this book? Why do I need to classify it? Aren’t the specifics what we’re interested in anyways?

I think the urge to label things comes from the view that if we have grouped it, we have understood it. And this, of course, is the bread and butter of the aforementioned university lecturer, who is eager to imprint his “understanding”, i.e., his set of labels, on the young mind. Of course, the view is absurd. As our understanding of a thing changes, so do our classifications. Anomalies are precisely those things which do not “fit” our classifications. They are swept under the proverbial rug. The act of classifying then, is more akin to tidying up after one’s pet theory.

Second, genres, like most labels, are enormous wastes of time and brain power. A bit like going to the beach and spending your entire day grouping rocks into similar colors. What do you have to show for it at end of the day, except for… pretty piles of rocks? Meanwhile, you missed all the fun at the beach.

(Okay, I suppose some people might go to the beach to pile rocks. After all people spend enormous amounts of time categorizing things. And getting angry over the mis-categorization of things. For proof of this, I dare you to go on a music site like last.fm and leave a comment like “Journey was the greatest Grunge band of their time!” and just see what ensues. Don’t mention me when the torch and pitchfork-wielding villagers show up at your door.)

My question is, don’t we have more interesting things to do in the short time we are allowed? More interesting topics to discuss than how to categorize things? Why waste the interview time getting an author to stammer through his ten-hyphen label for himself? That is time that could have been discussing his process and work habits, or his ideas or the intricacies of the plot or the characters, but you spent it discussing… labels?

Third, genre, to the degree it is actually present in a story, makes us aware of the storytelling. Good stories are a way of transporting readers to other realities. But when we are aware of the craft, when we see behind the curtains and see that its just a guy with pulleys and ropes and microphones, the illusion is spoiled. When we see something falling within a “genre”, we are aware, at least on some level, that we are not in a different reality at all, but the same one that several other writers have tried to take us to, using the same bag of illusions. To the degree that “genre” means “sameness” with other authors, it means they are using the same family of tricks. So, what is the difference then, between “genre” and “cliché”? Why, as a reader, would I want to be tricked in the same old way? Why, as a writer, would I want to be identified as just another of a family who use the same clichés?

There is little purpose I can see for genre, certainly not for writers. Maybe to show off the set of labels you earned as part of your literature degree, but sorry, if you happen to be talking to me at the time it will set my Pretentious Bullshit Radar right off.

As it pertains to the written word, genre is the job of book critics, publishers and bookstore clerks. It helps them compare works, market them, and shelve them.

In other words, genre is for those in the business of selling you books.

That’s about it.

Genre = Self-Imposed “Have-To’s”

The real tragedy of genres though, is when writers buy into the have-to’s. Some fledgling writers really struggle with this.

I was one of them.

When I began writing my novel I spent weeks and weeks fretting over the supposed “rules” of the fantasy genre. I grew up loving fantasy but I knew I didn’t want to write the same re-hashed Tolkien story that generations of authors since seem to churn out. Honestly how many times can I read the story of the Wise Old Mentor pushing the Reluctant Farm Boy out onto his quest to face the Enemy, before I get a little suspicious? George Lucas can talk all he wants about Joseph Campbell and Archetypes. I call them clichés. (And no, changing the “trolls” to “trollocs” is not going to make me forget I’m reading the same damn thing!)

Yet, though I knew I was sick of the same old story, I still spent long hours and weeks struggling with issues like: What kind of creatures and races will there be? What will be their various histories and how many hundreds or thousands of years should I go back? What does the map of the world look like? What nations are struggling against one another? What kind of weaponry is used? What is the role of magic in his world?

In other words, I was world-building, instead of writing.

World-building has a seductive lure for the fledgling fantasy author. After all, in this world, you are God. You make the rules. You set the ball in motion with a flick of your finger. You also waste your time, destroy what may have been a good book, and bore your audience to tears with minutiae.

The problem is, once you create that fancy map, you think it belongs in the front of the book. (Go to the bookstore and try to find a fantasy book that doesn’t have one pasted there. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) You create the various races and their politics and history and you think eighty pages of it belongs in your book, whether the plot and characters require it or not. And here is the real kicker: you utterly drown your characters and scenes in trivia.

I have thrown at least one book across a room that did this. The story was moving along at a good clip, I was starting to sympathize with the plight of the characters and enjoy their interaction, when BAMMO!! Welcome to sixty pages on the six thousand year history of elves!! Aren’t you excited?

Look, I’m just going to say this right out: do not do this! The rest of that poor, crumpled book may have been great. I’ll never know. I know you love all of the interesting details you’ve worked out for your world. If you want me to love them too, then show me, through the story, how they pertain to characters I care about. But stopping your story midstream to give us a history or a poetry lesson? (Tolkien himself was guilty. I give you the pace-killing Rivendell. But Tolkien was a history and linguistics professor dabbling in fiction writing… that doesn’t mean you have to keep on making his same mistake over and over!) Killing your story so you can show us your world is like letting your child run across a busy street while you show us the features of his safety seat. If you really want people to delight in your world-building skills, go be a game designer. I came for a story.

(Oh, and one more thing: Elves? Really?? Come on, people!!)

Have-To’s vs. Can-Do’s

Creating pages of history and creatures and maps are all things beginning fantasy writers think they have to do. The beginning mystery author probably thinks they have to have a misunderstood genius detective and a crime-related puzzle that the bumbling authorities can’t figure out. The war and espionage author thinks he must have pages of technical specs on the latest military hardware we haven’t even heard of. And we all know, because we are all too familiar with the answer, what a beginning horror writer’s big have-to question is: ghost, demon, werewolf or vampire?

I’m not saying there aren’t any great genius detective stories and great vampire stories. Nor am I saying that these cannot be inventively re-told. They can. But don’t tell us those tales because you think you have to, because you believe you are “writing within a genre”.

If you are, I’m here to tell you you’re struggling with a straight-jacket that isn’t tied.

As a reader, I’m not interested in where you think you have to take me to satisfy some unwritten rules. I’m interested in where you can take me.

F*** the rules.

For my own novel, I do not know of a single one of my world-building considerations that I didn’t end up forgetting, trashing, or defying. In every single case, the story was better for it.

I tore my big, fancy map off the wall and threw it out. (And instead of confusing my readers with an extensive, omniscient-perspective geography lesson, described only the features of the land that my characters were seeing or were up against, as required by their motion through it. Why ask your readers care about things your characters don’t?).

I resolved that the characters would not be various races (after all, why?), but human. (Which gave the story a new thread of tension: some of the characters seem to possess super-human abilities. Are they human? Or do they just seem so? Have we merely misinterpreted ordinary feats as extraordinary? Are they as frightening and powerful as they seem? Or are we merely the victims of elaborate illusions? Or the character’s delusions?)

What kind of weapon will my hero wield? (Answer: how about none! Gasp! Unheard of in the fantasy genre! How can the protagonist not wield something against the Enemy! Trust me, this makes him more of a bad-ass. How could it not?)

Also on the topic of weaponry, there is the inevitable question of modernity: don’t firearms make sword and sorcery obsolete? Assuming that the gunslinger gets the drop on the wizard, and his gun doesn’t get turned into a bouquet of flowers, couldn’t Gandalf be handily defeated, by say, John McClane? My answer to this problem was that in three distinct timelines in the story there is either no such thing as firearms, primitive firearms, or completely modern firearms. This created a delightful tension of its own, as the characters in each case (and the reader) are caught off guard and have to deal with it.

Who is the Powerful Enemy my hero is going to have to go face and defeat? (Answer: how about he is running from the enemy? In fact, even trying to kill himself in preference to facing the enemy! And what about facing the enemy could be so bad that suicide would be preferable? Hmm. In fact, how about we’re not sure if the enemy really is the enemy?… That he may be trying to save the hero from himself… Hmm!!)

What sort of magic will there be? (How about everyone who thinks he is witnessing magic in the story is laughed at as some kind lunatic, as they would be in life? Again, an interesting thread of tension: the reader doesn’t know what to believe, and so turns the page to find out.)

In other words, from rough beginnings in the trenches of genre, I tore out, erased and excised any semblance of a “fantasy” story, and emerged into the light. I’m proud to say it is not a genre novel at all. It is a story. With no straight-jackets.

I mention all this, not as some proof  that “my book is better than any genre book”. What I mean to point out is the process: rejecting the trappings of genre can and will make your story more interesting.

Think back on the stories you love. The really few special ones. Don’t they also have the quality, not of following rules, but of laying down new ones for others to imitate and follow? Don’t they play on your expectations and then completely blow them away?

If you’re a fledgling author I want to save you two very precious commodities, the two that always seem to be in shortest supply: time and mental power. If you are spending your time worried about what the six different races will be and their various internal conflicts and the year by year chronology for the past six thousand years and drawing maps of places your characters will never see, you are wasting both. You don’t have to! Just tell us a story with interesting characters, and if it is well-told and honest, the background details will paint themselves.

And they will be more interesting.

What you think you “have to” do in story is a small, quivering nothing compared to what you “can do”.

But RW, My Readers Are INTO Those Things! 

Okay, this is valid. Some readers want to be seduced by yet another sexy vampire. Some readers want the endless specs of military hardware and catalogs of weaponry. Some readers thrill to read another sixty page history of the elves. They love that map pasted in the beginning! In other words, they are into all the clichés of their respective genres.

True.

Furthermore, authors who deliver these genre trappings have lucrative, steady careers, don’t they?

Yes, they do.

And if you are happy providing them, then power to you.

But I would argue that this kind of reader desire is exactly analogous to going to see a movie. We bring our expectations to the theater with us. We go to see a movie we know is going to be a tear-jerker because we want our tears jerked. We go to see a big-budget action flick because we want to be visually dazzled by special effects and hair-raising stunts. We go to see horror movies because we want our pants (or, more likely, our date’s pants) to be scared off. In other words, readers seeking genre fiction are seeking the outward trappings which they know, through repeated experience, will produce a certain emotional reaction.

However, the movies that stick with us, the one’s where we leave the theater energized, awed, thrilled, wiping tears, laughing or tittering nervously at what may be around the next corner, are not the ones that just gave us the kind of movie we expected. For those, the experience is over as soon as the credits roll. The ones that get inside us and stay there are the ones that also created an unexpected care and love for the characters, and kept us on the edges of seats guessing what would happen next. They drew us into the reality of the fictional world without our being aware we were watching a film.

In other words, they were also good stories!

Consider the difference between the teen horror flick of the week and Silence of the Lambs. In all likelihood, a given scene in the teen horror flick can produce many of the same emotional responses, terror at what may lay around the next turn, etc. But it cannot create the feeling of caring deeply what happens to Clarice Starling while she is terrified. We care because we know that she’s had to be tough from an early age when her father passed away; that she has had to fight to prove herself in the condescending, male-dominated world of law enforcement; because we have come to see her as vulnerable and weak at times; because she finds herself in a desperate situation, seemingly over her head. In short, we care because the storyteller has done his job and made us care, in addition to providing the requisite thrills. We all feel like Clarice at times. Our experience then, has nothing to do with sitting in a theater, watching a film, with somebody irrelevant on the screen in a scary situation. We ourselves, are IN the scary situation.

This is storytelling.

Sure, you can just titillate the audience in exactly the way they are expecting. But if a film like this just had the thrills, without the inventive, twisting plot, without the feeling that you, yourself, were emotionally invested in the outcome, it would be a fleeting, forgettable experience. You would be aware you were being emotionally manipulated the whole time (i.e., aware of the storytelling tricks that are being used on you) and you would leave the theater saying “Yeah, it was alright. Couple good scenes.” And you would promptly forget about the film. You wouldn’t internalize it.

I would argue that by focusing on the trappings of your genre, instead of telling a good story, you are focusing on the things which, yes, will give the reader what he expects in terms of an emotional response. You are providing familiar waters for them to wade into. But they will read your story and promptly forget it for all time.

Sure, there are authors that deliberately write within a genre. Some of them are even good. You could, if you wanted to, be one of these, giving the readers the genre trappings they expect and probably scratch out a pretty decent career for yourself. No argument. But I would hazard a guess that the special stories, the authors that really got under your skin and ignited something in the back of your eyeballs (you know the ones I mean) ignored, re-invented or outright flouted, genre.

Why not focus instead on crafting great characters and telling a great story? You don’t have to have your characters hanging in white space with no background, of course. But why not let the background details paint themselves, as necessary for moving their story forward? Direct your reader’s attention to turning the pages of a well-told tale, and let the details be so integrated and realistic that they do not even notice or question them, for they are not being told a story at all. They are in the story. Do this and your reader will reach the last page hungry for more, and never forget it.

So, as a writer you have this choice: do you want to provide something familiar? Or do you want to take us some place we will never forget?

 

A Further Note for Readers

I’ve been talking about writers unnecessarily restricting themselves, but it strikes me that this whole discussion applies to your choices as a reader, too. Are you unnecessarily restricting yourself to a genre? What if you regarded authors simply as individual authors? What would happen to your reading habits? I would guess that overall you would read better books, because you wouldn’t be fencing yourself into reading mediocre works simply because they fell within a genre. You would be less dismissive of authors outside your genre and so open yourself to new and magical discoveries.

If you agree with me that genres are not created by the artists themselves, but by people who have an interest in selling you books based on superficial similarities, then by buying and reading within a genre, aren’t you are essentially falling prey to marketing? How does that make you feel? Aren’t you smarter and more discerning in your reading choices than that? Are you going to buy and read something simply because of the way it has been branded, packaged and shelved?

Again, as a reader, shake off that loose straightjacket! You don’t have to read “types” of authors, simply because they are being sold to you that way. Genres are arbitrary categories that really do little for you, except hold your reading choices back.

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So, as always, I invite your comments. What are your thoughts on genre? Do you agree genres are silly, superficial categories? Are you a genre author? Do you enjoy reading within a genre? If so, are you open to discovering new authors outside your genre? Most especially I would love to hear from new writers (since this is who the post is really aimed at). Has this opened up possibilities for what you are working on? Have you been struggling fruitlessly with the trappings of your genre and now see that the struggle is needless?

Of course, there is a terrible punch line to all this.

The first time you submit to an agent or an editor, guess what they are going to want to know first?

“What genre is it?”

 

 

 

photo by: Ian Wilson

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