Does Your Novel's Genre Matter? Or, Why the Genre vs. LitFic Wars Need to Die
I’ve been seeing A LOT of stuff recently on genre. Things like: Where do the boundaries begin and end? What makes something "new adult" versus "young adult"? Are you missing out on readers by only marketing your book in a certain genre? There are good reasons for genre, and bad reasons for genre. And I’m sick of them both. And it’s all kind of making me go insane.
On the one hand, genre can help readers find books they like. It allows authors and publishers to market books to an ideal target audience. It’s what helps books find their readers.
But on the other hand, how many readers are missing out on great books they would LOVE just because somebody in the marketing department didn’t check “yes” in the little genre box they preferred? How many readers didn’t read books because they “didn’t like” a certain genre? How many readers NEVER branch out of their comfort zone?
What if a love story pops up in your literary fiction novel? Or a dragon appears? Is that what makes it a "genre" novel versus a "literary fiction" novel?
And WHY WHY WHY is there some stupid war between literary fiction and genre?! Can't I just write a freaking Real+Good Book?!
CONFESSION: I'M A BOOK-SNOB
I try not to be, and I’m certainly branching out of my comfort zone, but there are some genres that I’m just not attracted to. I'm a literary fiction writer, and so I read literary fiction. I'm not inclined to pick up a young adult book or a new adult book. I'm not really into horror or romance. I can't remember the last time I read a fantasy (even though that was my favorite growing up).
It's not that I don't like those things in a story. I just think they're not going to be the story I want to read. And this isn't fair to those authors, or those books, but… I know what I like and it’s certainly not everything.
FOR EXAMPLE: If you're writing the next great zombie romance where the wedding is crashed by alien dragons, that's wonderful. There are readers out there who will love it as much as you do. If you market it as LitFic, I might pick it up (you'd have to work pretty hard to make all those things connect in a meaningful way, but I'm sure it's possible). If you market it as zombie romance, I'm going to stay away. I won't be one of your readers.
Perhaps you did successfully make a story that I would like and I'm missing out. Or, perhaps you wrote it as a classic romance with the necessary components that define it as romance, and so it really wouldn't be my thing. Then your categorization would be appropriate.
WHAT MAKES A "LITFIC" ZOMBIE ROMANCE WITH ALIENS DIFFERENT THAN A "GENRE" ZOMBIE ROMANCE WITH ALIENS?
What ends up happening is the way the story is told is different. The writer could choose to focus on the plot (and risk being predictable) or focus on the characters (and risk moving too slowly). The writer could choose to entertain the reader (and risk being taken at face-value) or choose to convey big themes (and risk being condescending). The way many people would describe this is the writer could choose to write "genre" or "LitFic".
To boil it down to the very very basics, a genre version of this story would focus its attention on the plot and entertainment, while a literary fiction version of this story would focus its attention on the characters and big themes. A Real+Good Story should have all of these elements, but the attention to each shifts depending if it's written for a genre or a literary fiction audience.
WAIT, WHAT IS LITFIC AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM GENRE?
Here we go with this conversation. It's a never-ending topic that you will find SO MANY THOUGHTS about all over the internet.
DEFINING LITERARY FICTION is a topic that has plagued writers for-freaking-ever. Technically, a lot of diverse books spanning many topics and many approaches can fit into this category. It's kind of a "catch-all" for books that are deemed to be of merit and don't fit neatly into any other category alone. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is literary fiction, as is Bram Stoker's Dracula, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, as is Ian McEwan's Atonement, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. You can fit a wide variety of things under this massive umbrella. (And you'll also notice that every one of these texts fits under a genre umbrella as well).
- Traits of a Literary Fiction Novel: The things they have in common are they often (but again, not always) have complex symbols, BIG and ominous themes, and they're often artistic (whatever the hell that means). They are often more character-devoted rather than plot-intensive. They focus on emotions rather than action. They strive to reach a higher meaning, a bigger and more abstract truth about the world we live in. They strive to be complex, emotionally resonant, and timeless.
- Wikipedia says, "Literary fiction, also known as serious fiction, is a term principally used for fictional works that hold literary merit, that is to say, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary or political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition."
- Where You'll Find Them: This is what is taught in academia. These are the novels that are up for the Pushcart and the Nobel Literature and the Genius Grant and the O'Henry and the Best American.
- Criticism: They're also accused of being too artsy and boring. Sometimes they move too slow. Sometimes they're too dense, too "smart," and are difficult to read.
DEFINING GENRE is somewhat more straight-forward. You can tell if a novel is a romance or a mystery based on what happens in the story and how the story is told.
- Traits of a Genre Novel: Genre, stereotypically (and key word being: stereotypically), strives to entertain the reader. A lot of plot events happen that move the story forward and they're at the forefront of the story. It's not as much about the "who" of the story, but the "what" of the story. They might have predictable plots (romance: boy meets girl, longs for girl, finally gets to be with girl; or, mystery: a murder happens, they look for who-did-it, then they find who-did-it). They must be engaging through interesting characters or worlds or voices for a reader to continue reading because the reader likely already knows what's going to happen in the end, roughly.
- Wikipedia says, "Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre. Genre fiction is often controversially dismissed by literary critics as being pure escapism, clichéd, and of poor quality prose."
- Where You'll Find Them: These novels are often turned into movies. They often sell better and the writers make a lot more money.
- Criticism: They're accused of being too predictable, clichéd and not worthy of merit. They are accused of being entertainment-exclusive, a means to escape reality. They are accused of being basic, face-value.
There is an unfair binary that separates the two. And there's a war over which is better.
BUT, THAT'S JUST NOT TRUE. THERE'S A GRAY AREA HERE.
Not all literary fiction is great. Not all genre is great. Some literary fiction novels make a lot of money. Some genre fiction novels don't make any. Some literary fiction is extremely plot-heavy. Some genre fiction is extremely character-centric.
They are unfairly stereotyped. And there is SO MUCH GRAY AREA.
FOR EXAMPLE: Harry Potter. It has wizards and magic, and therefore should be fantasy. It follows the coming-of-age of a young boy, and therefore should be young adult. It also has romance, it has mystery, thriller (what can't she do!?). Harry Potter must be some sort of genre because of all of those things.
BUT, if genre is predictable, and Harry Potter isn't predictable, then Harry Potter must be literary. For it to be literary it should stand the test of time, be emotionally-resonant, and focus on the characters. It's a really, really good story that sticks with readers for-ev-er. Therefore, it must be literary fiction, right?
BUT, the wizards!
Do you see the issues here?
And yet there's this war between the two placing LitFic and Genre against each other. Academia only teaches "literary" things and the word "genre" now has a negative connotation. Genre thinks LitFic people are snobbish. People have literally yelled at each other because of the things other people have said about the classification of their work. It’s a war. And it’s stupid. And neither side is right.
Genre categorizations are highly subjective, and focused (nearly) exclusively on marketing rather than an end-all-be-all to what the work actually is. Just because something is labeled “romance,” doesn’t mean that it’s not also “new adult” or “speculative” or “dystopian” or whatever other compelling aspects it has. The label is chosen based on whatever particular editor viewed as the most prominent story element, as well as what category they can place it in to generate the most sales. These genre placements can help find readers (which is a good thing), but it can also alienate readers (obviously, a bad thing).
And the biggest downside is the worst of all: that some readers may NEVER read a book that they might love just because it has been labeled with an arbitrary category that they don’t think they like. Could you imagine never reading Harry Potter because you didn't read "young adult"?
This shouldn't be a war of “us” versus “them” or black and white or any other contrived binary. The world is full of gray areas. Fiction can be simultaneously a mystery and a romance and scifi. Fiction can be whatever the hell it wants to be. All that it’s required to be is a good story. I’m not anti-Genre; I’m anti-bad-story. (Click to Tweet!)
SO, WHAT MAKES A REAL+GOOD STORY?
A Real+Good Story should have the following:
- Big Themes
It should strive to convey big emotional truths about the world. The reader should be entertained and thoroughly enjoy reading it. And if it doesn't have a plot or a character, it's literally not a story. You can't have a story without someone doing something (aka, a character going about a plot).
The stories that stick with us for a long period of time have all of these traits. All of them. That's what makes them good. But, in fact, every story EVER has these traits. I promise. Whether it's LitFic or Genre, these elements exist. The difference comes into play when you look at where the writer has chosen to place the weight, the emphasis of the story.
Genre pays more attention to entertainment, escapism, and plot.
Literary Fiction pays more attention to theme and character.
When you write your story, you're going to have to choose where to place your emphasis. But all of these things should be present in your story to write something real, good, and true. So, let's break down these traits and see how they function inside a text.
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We may write a story to capture something authentic about the world, or to explore the evolution of a character. But it only happens through plot. Every story MUST HAVE a plot. If nothing happens, you don't have a story. Something must happen that pushes the story forward, causes the characters to change, and raises higher truth. The plot is the vehicle used to accomplish these big, noble goals that are the reason we're writing in the first place.
In Literary Fiction, we tend to avoid talking about plot in favor of other story elements like theme and character. But that doesn't mean plot doesn't exist. Your story must have a beginning, middle, and end. It must have certain places where the protagonist succeeds and places where they fail. It must have many things, or else it’s not a story at all.
If your character is staring at a wall and talking about it for no good reason, you don't have a plot and you don't have a story.
And yet, one of the biggest criticisms of Genre is the plot. It gets accused of being too predictable and, therefore, boring. Depending on the conventions of the particular genre, there are certain points you have-to, have-to, have-to hit in order to satisfy the reader's expectations. If you're writing a romance, the reader will expect the couple to end up together in the end. If you're writing a murder mystery, the reader will expect to know "who-did-it" in the end. These points can make the story seem dull and redundant, and the story risks being the same as every other novel in its genre.
And yet so many stories succeed BECAUSE they follow these conventions.
They succeed because the author makes the reader care about the characters. They succeed because they create character-driven plots. They succeed because the author reaches a higher emotional truth through theme. They succeed because the author tells it in an entertaining way that captivates the reader.
Can you write a Real+Good Story that has a pre-designed plot shape? Absolutely. But you've got to pay attention and emphasize the other elements of quality story writing in order to achieve that.
Besides all that though, who’s to say that a story doesn’t NEED some formulaic and predictable elements? It just depends on who your audience is.
FOR EXAMPLE: Even though I don't read much genre, I certainly watch a lot of it on TV. I'm quite addicted to the funny family-sitcom genre (I'm looking at you Blackish, Modern Family, The Middle, The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat - wow maybe I really do have a problem). These have a predetermined plot shape in every single episode. They are formulaic, predictable, and, in theory, should be boring because we know what's going to happen.
And yet they're not. I watch them every single week because I'm interested and entertained. When I sit down to watch these shows, I'm not investing in something that's going to blow my mind and make me question my beliefs about the universe. I watch them because I'm stressed out and tired from work and I just want something that's going to help me decompress and laugh. I watch them not because the plot is fascinating, but because I don't have to worry about what's going to happen. The plot is basic; the goal is entertainment. The audience here is seeking something simple and basic that they can take at face-value. We can accept this basic plot because the characters are interesting, the story entertains us, and we get what we want from it without having to do big, crazy plot things.
Literary fiction gets accused of being plot-less. Sometimes characters DO just ramble on and on and on about nothing relevant. In the author's defense, it's being artsy and getting to that higher truth. In reality, it can be boring. No one wants to read 500 pages of your character bitching that his life sucks because the world isn't working in his favor.
But sometimes we accept these musings as fantastic and beautiful. Why? Because they dive deeper into character. They do reach that higher truth. They have a point and they say it in a way that is entertaining.
In a Real+Good Story, these character musings are linked to character evolution. The character changes from the beginning to end, and these detours into seemingly random thoughts are the author showing us this character's evolution in action. The help deepen our understanding of this character, which creates empathy for them, while raising the stakes for what does happen in the plot.
FOR EXAMPLE: If a character loses his job, that sucks. It's a plot point, sure. But it doesn't have any weight. It doesn't really matter because we don't care. But what if this was his dream career? What if he planned to change the world with this job? What if he believed he was going to get a promotion and do xyz to revolutionize the company and save humanity in the process? Then, when he believes he's going in to get a promotion and he actually gets fired, it means a lot more. We care about him and we're frustrated along with him that he can't accomplish his dreams. At this point, we'll accept his musings about how his job is stupid and the hierarchy of corporate America sucks because we're right there with him.
Character and plot should be inextricably linked. The war between LitFic and Genre has made it seem as though there's a separation between the two, but there isn't. In order to have a Real+Good Story, the two must be constantly contributing to and supporting the other.
Escapism is stepping away from the harsh realities and immersing into a separate, fantastic world. It's getting out of your own head and into something else. This can be because someone is avoiding their problems, or because they just want to explore a different reality. In books, this may involve going into an alternate reality, a fabricated fantasy world where fairies reign, a different planet deep in outer space. It could also be going into the next-door-neighbor's backyard.
This is another "problem" with genre.
Critics claim that escapist fiction doesn't reach emotional truths. They say that by avoiding concrete reality, these writers are unable to achieve big themes and reveal seriousness about the world. This is bullshit.
Every text has some form of escapism. That's what fiction is. As a reader, you're not going to be reading an biography of what's happening in your day-to-day life with all of your problems and all of the thoughts happening in your head right this second. That's not how anything works. Whenever you enter a book, whether you're diving into the wizarding world of Harry Potter or you're exploring a domestic location that resembles your own, you're still escaping your own reality by going into the book's fabricated one.
Now, going to Hogwarts and going to next-door-neighbor's backyard are too very different extremes of escapism. You're much more distant from reality when you go into a world that has been created from scratch rather than going into a world that's familiar.
But just because you're further away from what resembles reality doesn't mean that you're not going reach higher truths about the world you live in. Harry Potter teaches us about courage, bravery, friendship, love. We've never been to Hogwarts, but we still are able to take these higher truth themes home with us. The high level of escapism, this separation from reality, is just an alternate vehicle used to reach that higher truth.
Your story is escapist by definition because it's going to be different than your reader's life. More obscure worlds will have higher levels of escapism, but they're still successful if they reach the bigger themes of truth. And even further, they can still be successful even if they don't have capital-T Truths, and they're just fun to go into. It depends on what your goals are for your audience.
When you sit down to read a novel, you come to it with certain expectations. You're going to approach Pride and Prejudice very differently than how you're going to approach 50 Shades of Gray (I can't believe I just put those two texts in the same sentence). For both of them though, you're going to want to be entertained, or else you're going to stop reading.
Genre novels have a goal of achieving more entertainment. They are designed to be taken more at face-value, because they're more concerned with allowing the reader to escape from their reality and relax rather than teaching them some moral lessons about the world. (Reminder: This is why I destress by watching simple TV shows after work). Literary fiction novels don't have the intention to entertain. They're designed to get to those truths, those themes. But if it does so in a boring way, no one will read it. They're concerned with entertainment too; it's just not as talked about as it is with genre.
As a reader approaching the text, you're looking for the story to hook you, suck you in. You want the story to be interesting, to move quickly. You want the characters to captivate you. You want to revel and play in this world that is not your own, and you want to take a piece of it with you back to your reality. You want to experience all the things we've been talking about - plot, character, theme, escapism - and be entertained during the process.
A book can't survive if it's not entertaining.
But be conscious of what level and type of entertainment your reader needs. If your reader is someone sitting down to relax after a stressful day at work, they're going to be like me sitting down to watch my TV shows. That's a very different experience than if your reader is sitting down to conquer a literary masterpiece. With the former, attention should be more focused on moving quickly and making the reader immerse into the world. With the latter, some musings on philosophy and life will be allowed, as long as they're done through the lens of a beautiful and fascinating character. Consider what your reader is looking for when they approach your novel.
If you don't have a theme, your story will be pointless. If you have too much of a theme, you'll be condescending. Sigh.
Your novel should have a theme, a point, a reason for being written. If a bunch of things happen, but it doesn't add up to something greater, then why write it? Why read it? Your novel has GOT to have a reason for existing.
Perhaps you started out with just seeing what would happen. That's a fine and dandy place to start. But by the time you're done writing, you should see some higher truths about the world emerging. You can use those to your advantage and place bits and pieces of them throughout your novel to pull the theme to the surface. This will make the whole text have a bigger weight and impact for your reader.
If you start out with a big theme though, you may be coming off too strong. I'm sure you can think of a story where the author was trying to tell you something, convince you of something. They were hammering the theme into the ground and making sure you "got it" loud and clear. You probably hated this novel for it. Don't be that guy.
Conveying the big truths, the big themes has to be something that happens organically and below the surface. It has to be present for the reader to understand it and see that your story has a bigger takeaway meaning, but it can't be in their face. It's a delicate line that you don't want to cross too far over in either direction.
HOW TO USE GENRE TO WRITE A LITERARY FICTION NOVEL
If you're like me, you want to write literary fiction. You want to write a story that is Real+Good, that conveys higher truths about the world, that captures reality accurately.
But what do you do if a ghost pops up in your story? Or a love story rises to the surface? What if there's a mystery that needs to be solved? (Hint: In my current novel, all of these things happen).
We've already learned that fiction lives in a gray area, not necessarily exclusively LitFic or exclusively Genre. So when you're writing your story, why should you subscribe to only one set of conventions? In addition to making sure you have an equal balance of all the elements above that make up a Real+Good Story, make sure you're paying attention to all the possible story elements your novel could explore and consciously choose to use them or abandon them.
HOW TO DO THIS:
- Think about what categories you THINK your novel should be placed in. Look up the conventions of those types of novels. Is your novel missing essential elements?
- Imagine your story is finished and you're asked to give a list of your influences for this particular text. What are those books? What are their genres? How can you use those as models for your novel?
- Consider the things that "pop up" in your story and research the typical conventions of them. A ghost pops up? Research traditional ghost stories. A love interest becomes prominent? Learn how successful romances function. There's a mystery? Figure out how to tell a rewarding mystery. Pretend for a moment that you're writing in that genre exclusively, and learn everything you can. You don't have to subscribe to all of these things and follow them completely in your novel, but it's useful to know what's working well so you can learn from the best and take what's necessary.
- Make a list of what your story MUST have and what it MUST NOT have. These are your guidelines of where you should be researching and focusing, and what you need to avoid.
- Know what your intentions for this story are. Is it more entertainment-based or theme-centric? What does your reader come to the story expecting? How can you cater to this?
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IN DEFENSE OF GENRE
It’s not fair that genre gets these bad raps. Literary fiction snobs snub their noses at the whole field, considering it to be formulaic and predictable. This is false. While there are certainly books that follow typical tropes, there are plenty that still surprise us, still pull at our heart strings, still make us feel something magical. They are good books.
People are going to put labels on your book no matter what. That's how they're going to get found by readers. And this is (overall) a good thing.
It’s important to pay attention to genre conventions, but don’t write to that. Think of the conventions as a buffet of options. You can pick and choose the ones that work for you, the ones that help you to write one thing: a Real+Good Story. (Click to Tweet!)
As for the categories themselves, they're arbitrary. Pam Houston marketed her most recent novel as a novel because the word “novel” fit better on the cover than “memoir.” That’s all. It was a design decision. Emily St. John Mandel said it best:
Her novels have been classified as literary fiction, speculative fiction, thriller, sci-fi, and who knows what else. This is surely attracting some readers, and also probably eliminating some. But it's a subjective, arbitrary label. The fact remains: She wrote a damn good story and people are talking about it.
Your should strive to write a Real+Good Story that people will talk about. Period.
Just because a dragon or a mermaid shows up in your story doesn't mean it's a genre story. And just because your story relies on character doesn't mean it's literary fiction. Write the truest story you know. Write a story that is Real+Good. Write the story that needs to be told. Use conventional approaches as a buffet to help your story be the best that it can be, but don't subscribe to only one way of approaching it. Pay attention to your audience and what your overall story goals are. Write the story that makes sense to you.