Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.

9 thoughts on “Does the Genre Really Matter?

  1. Jeyna Grace says:

    Genres shouldn’t be necessary. It does turn away audience as much as it brings audience in.

  2. mthomaswhite says:

    Genres don’t necessarily exist for the good story. If every story was amazing and crossed interests to appeal to massive audiences, then there would be no reason for genres. Unfortunately, most books are geared towards a niche audience. This can be a deliberate action on a writer’s part or because a terrible writer has found an audience that will pay for what he or she scribbles into semi-coherent sentences. Genres help us to avoid possibly horrible reading experiences by guiding us to stories we are already predisposed to enjoy. While the genre system has it benefits, the disadvantages are almost as staggering as the piles of horrible reads that pretend to be quality literature. The biggest disadvantage is the blinders you mentioned, something I am guilty of wearing! Because of these blinders, we miss quality stories that could change our lives! Sadly, the normal reader will never know that he or she is being blinded. The normal reader merely wishes to be entertained for a few short moments. It is for them that genre system exists. You see something more in a story. You see the world it creates, and you love it for that creation no matter the targeted audience. You love a story for the sake of a story. If I had a glass, I would raise it in your honor; for, you have discovered what the masses shall never see. Put simply, genres contain a good story, and a good story goes beyond a simple book. It becomes literature that breathes.

  3. meximerican says:

    And I thought I was being a bad writer for not knowing/wanting a specific genre for my story!
    I agree with you guys!

  4. releaf1954 says:

    I read all kinds of fiction. It is always the story that matters, not the genre. I do want happy endings, though. I’m too old to waste my time on depressing stories. I don’t expect a good story to be all light and sparkles, but if an author puts me through sad and scary stuff, there had better be something inspiring or uplifting at the end. I can’t forgive Stephen King for Pet Sematary. I will never get those hours back.

  5. […] what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help […]

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