Generic

At a book site I visit, someone posed a question to the site members at large. How does one prepare oneself to write in an unfamiliar genre? Lots of answers had already been given by the time I got there, and yet they were all exactly the same answer: research! Read a hundred books in that genre! Learn the genre inside and out!

Because I am contrarian by nature, my first thought was Why on earth would anyone research a genre?

My knee-jerk incredulity aside, of course there are reasons to research genre. Perhaps one is a scholar of the genre and wants to write a dissertation on its conventions, history, or subclassifications. That seems like a very fine reason to me. Or maybe you want to deliberately learn the tropes so you can subvert and manipulate them to your own nefarious ends. Fair enough. It’s not a goal of mine, but I can understand it.

But I dunno, all the research answers seemed (to my ear) to carry an undertone of “so you can be sure you’re doing it right”.

Doing what right, exactly? Fantasy? Western? Is there a right? Bearing in mind that I have a slight anarchic bent, particularly when it comes to art, I think genre is something imposed upon literature from outside, rather than something integral to the work itself. As I wrote to a friend recently: What about “books where the author is transparently preoccupied with epistemology”? That can’t be a genre? I suppose that’s too much of a mouthful for retailers, and the acronym is no better.

I realize there are strict guidelines set by Romance publishers — when the protagonists should have their first kiss, how many sex scenes there should be, how unambiguously happy the ending should be — and yes, you would have to research the guidelines to get published by a particular publisher, but that’s the exception. In almost any other case, surely the work itself must come first. If you set out to write “A Western” first and foremost, there’s a good chance the effort will ring hollow. Write the story that’s burning a hole in you, and genre can fend for its sorry self.

I saw Maurice Sendak speak, back when I was in college, and he said (according to my totally infallible memory), “People ask me why I write children’s books. I don’t write children’s books. It’s not my fault that booksellers shelve my books in the children’s section, instead of next to Chaim Potok.” Hearing that was a formative moment in my philosophy, I suppose.

Now, because I am a bit of a Socratic, I cannot in good conscience fail to tell you that what I just told you is wrong. (Did you follow that?) Because I followed my own advice and I wrote exactly what my heart dictated, and I ended up with a very quiet fantasy novel. Ibsen (or Austen, once I cheered it up a bit) with dragons. And I was told, “This is very sweet, but Fantasy Readers have genre expectations. They’re going to want a bigger story with higher stakes and more action. They’re going to want to see more of this wonderful world you’ve created, not just parlor drama.”

“Huh. How about that,” I said, my outward calm masking my inner chafing at the Tyranny of Genre.

Aha, you’re thinking. Should’ve done that research after all, eh little missy?

Yeah, but here’s the thing: fantasy was and always has been my preferred genre. If “fantasy research” means reading a lot of fantasy, I’m not sure what more I could have done in that regard. The heart of my book was good; no one ever asked me to change anything that was really important to me. From my perspective, changes made for the sake of genre are surface changes.

I think some of it comes down to which aspects of the work take precedence for the individual writer. To borrow a metaphor from Scott McCloud, the work is like an apple: there’s the core of the book, the meaning at its heart, and there’s the polished skin of genre on the outside (and other layers, such as craft, in between). I write – wrote, have always written – from the centre outward. If I don’t have a solid core of feeling and idea, I’ve got nothing. I’m not interested. For other writers, though, maybe it’s easiest to start with the shiny surface. To start with genre, make it all pretty and “right”, and then fill in the big gaping hollow at the centre. That’s a perfectly valid way of working as well.

Just don’t forget to fill that big hollow space. It would be easy to do, since that shiny surface is mighty pleasing to the eye.

As I work on the outline for the sequel to Seraphina, I’m finding that I do have a better generic understanding now, as well as a better understanding of myself and what it takes to get me interested in the work. I can beat on plots all day, but I’m never going to get anywhere unless I’ve found my core, the idea that sets my head on fire and gives me a reason to write.

OK, then! So what have we learned? Rachel knows nothing! Rachel argues one thing, then argues its opposite, then says, “Hey, I’m Socratic, so it’s ok!” But seriously, it is ok. There’s never just one way to go forward, and I take great comfort in that.


21 Comments on “Generic”

  1. Joshua Macy says:

    I think a big reason to familiarize yourself with the genre is so that you don’t write something that’s become a cliche. “…and it turns out they’re Adam and Eve!” Whether you write from the outside in or the inside out, if you’re writing genre fiction (and most non-genre fiction), you’re writing for an audience that’s seen a whole lot of similar stuff before. It’s not that novelty is the be-all and end-all of what you’re doing, but if you’ve literally got no idea what parts are novel and what parts are familiar or even trite, you just don’t know what parts deserve emphasis and elaboration and what can be glided over or fade into the background. You’d be like somebody jumping into a long-running conversation who hasn’t listened to a word that’s been said so far…no matter how brilliant, witty, and insightful you are, you risk being a crashing bore.

    Note, this is entirely different from whether you ought to live up to genre expectations. That’s between you and your Muse.

  2. Phoebe says:

    For me, the reasons for researching genre are pretty obvious: so you don’t walk right into overworn, hackneyed cliches thinking they’re brilliant bursts of originality, a la Cormac McCarthy. His apocalypse was fine by most litfic readers, but SO many genre readers hate him for his use of overdone tropes. While I like playing with genre and subversions of genre, I don’t like gross misappropriation of genre, something that can only be solved by reading thoroughly in it.

  3. Yeah, that Josh, always sayin’ stuff! And ok, ya’ll have a great point. This is a pretty common criticism I see directed at lit fic SF like The Road, or The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Never Let Me Go: gee, I wish the author had actually READ a little in this genre before writing this book, because those of us who’ve been reading SF forever have seen this a million times before, and done better.

    Fair enough, but I can’t help putting an additional bug in your ear. [Warning: Rachel is about to talk about Art. Now is the time to bail out, while you still can.]

    Here’s Josh’s fortuitously-worded analogy: “You’d be like somebody jumping into a long-running conversation who hasn’t listened to a word that’s been said so far…no matter how brilliant, witty, and insightful you are, you risk being a crashing bore.”

    The key word there, for me, is “conversation”. I think all art – writing, painting, music, dance, you name it – is part of a very large conversation, one that’s been going on since prehistoric times, and everything we add to it makes it bigger and richer. There are so many voices, though, that you can’t possibly hear everything that’s been said. If you’re going to participate (and some of us are intensely driven to participate), you have to choose who you’re going to talk to.

    Genre is certainly one way of cordoning off a manageable part of the room to have a conversation with. But it’s not the only way, and I’m not convinced the best possible way. Wouldn’t you rather have a conversation with people you’re actually interested in, than with people who fall into some other arbitrary grouping? Say, people who come from the same town as you.

    No writer writes in a vacuum. Scratch the surface of any one of us, and you’ll find a reader first and foremost. I would never say don’t read widely; in fact I’d say “Read very widely, in genre and out of it.” If your SF novel wants to have a conversation with Dostoyevsky, why shouldn’t it? I think my own work has a lot more in common with George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” than with Tolkien. Not that I don’t love Tolkien, but he did not illuminate my understanding of human nature, or what setting is FOR, or how to grow up with grace and dignity, like Eliot did.

    Now, I do suspect there’s a flaw in the original question. I can’t imagine waking up one day and saying to myself, “Gee, I’d love to write a Western!” if I knew NOTHING about Westerns already. I’d have to have had some exposure, or what’s the attraction? So there’s a nonsensical aspect to the way it’s worded. But then, I dunno, I wonder what mental process the authors of the lit fic SF mentioned above went through? That would be interesting to know.

    Lastly, though: that lit fic SF was enjoyed by a lot of people who wouldn’t pick up an SF book voluntarily. Maybe the conversation was intended to be with lit fic readers, and not us genre readers. But if there are people who categorically refuse to pick up SF, even though it has been demonstrated that under certain circumstances they’d like it, that strikes me as genuine harm done by relentless division into mutually-exclusive genres.

    • Joshua Macy says:

      I think “If your SF novel wants to have a conversation with Dostoevsky” is a poetic but misleading way of putting it. The proposition the author actually faces is one of having a conversation with people who may or may not have read various works by Dostoevsky, and have come away with different takes on it and different bits they remember. There are lots of ways to address this, but I believe being aware of it is key to connecting with the audience and actually advancing the conversation. If the author tries to carry on the conversation with her imaginary Dostoevsky construct while ignoring the real people reading the work…

      I completely disagree with the “genuine harm done by relentless division into mutually-exclusive genres”. First, I don’t think it’s genuine harm at all if some people don’t read something they might enjoy–the world is full of books that people might enjoy, so many that they can’t possibly read them all in one lifetime. It’s at most a mild pity. And if finding those books meant having to read a whole bunch of other stuff that they don’t enjoy at all, it’s not even a pity but a blessing they didn’t have to wade through a river of (subjective) crap to find that speck of gold.

      More than that, though, I’m not sure I see genre divisions as at all relentless or arbitrary. I see them as the effect, rather than the cause, of readers evolving heuristics to help them find books they’ll enjoy and avoid ones they won’t.
      Witness the comparatively recent explosion of Paranormal Romance. That wasn’t created by some marketer having a bunch of signs printed up for bookstores and then rearranging the shelves to fit. Readers decided that they liked sexy vampires, and then that sexy werewolves were sufficiently like sexy vampires that they’d read them too, and so on.

      • Ha! Y’know, having had several more days to mull this over, I’ve begun to realize that this blog post is not about genre at all but about my own highly idiosyncratic issues with being put in a box. ANY box. I get stabby.

        I absolutely see what you’re saying, and I think it would be useful for me to work myself around to a place where I can see genre as my friend. Because in some sense it’s just a shorthand: books in this category are more likely to appeal to you. They won’t all appeal, but they have some core feature in common.

        Still, letting myself* be categorized is a big challenge for me. I’d like to think I am also, in some way, a challenge for categorization as well.

        * (before you say “it’s not YOU, it’s your work” — no, it is also me. I have the same difficulty with anything involving group markers. Clothing, for example. This is a weirdness that permeates every level of my life.)

  4. Els says:

    Hmm. Y’know, it occurs to me that you might be interested in this:

    http://www.interstitialarts.org/about/index.php

    • Hey thanks, els, that IS interesting.

      And y’know, my own idiosyncratic, box-busting stabbiness notwithstanding, I still think “fitting into genre” is not the goal of art, and isn’t something to get het up about. Josh mentioned Paranormal Romance as an example of a genre that has sprung up in response to reader demand – sure, I get that. But here’s the thing: it’s a genre NOW, but it wasn’t when Twilight first came out. Did Meyer do a lot of genre research before she started writing (and what genre should she have researched? Horror? Romance? Fantasy?)? Interviews I’ve read with her suggest that no, she didn’t. She loves the classics, Austen and Bronte. She wrote what moved her, and I think that’s the primary reason she’s been so successful. She does yearning really, really well.

      Similarly, take Harry Potter. I don’t know what Rowling’s reading background was before she wrote those books, but if you’re looking for fantasy cliches, they’re thick on the ground. Right? But there’s one really big, important thing here that we’ve never seen before: the heart and mind behind the work. The author. I think that makes all the difference. The human behind the work is not a cliche, whatever tropes they end up falling into.

      • Joshua Macy says:

        Ok, but Twilight was a late-comer to the genre, first published in 2005. Wikipedia reports that Paranormal Romance more than doubled between 2002 and 2004, to more than 170 titles annually. Heck, by 2004 Mary Janice Davidson was able to get Undead and Unwed published, a parody/comedy version of a Paranormal Romance that spawned a series and that eventually landed her in the NYT Best Sellers list. IOW, by the time Twilight came out, most major bookstores had a section to put it in. The growth of Paranormal Romance wasn’t box-breaking blockbuster followed by imitators, but a gradual swell starting with completely traditional romances in an odd setting or an unusual love-interest.

        I’m not claiming that genre-fit ought to be the goal of an artist, or even *a* goal, or that the artist makes no difference…but I will claim that artists handle tropes more deftly if they know they’re tropes. Despite their enormous success, I think that I’m not going very far out on a limb to suggest that both Twilight and Harry Potter leave some room for improvement as works of art.

        • Josh, you are without question the nicest person to argue with on the internet! Your unrelenting reasonableness is an inspiration. I mean that.

          And lookit me arguing from a position of genre (or really, historical) ignorance! Aren’t I adorable!

          But ok, I think we have finally reached the point where we’re going to start digging into some really complicated questions (like, what is art anyway? And why do people make it? And don’t even get me started talking about “tropes”, because I could talk a long time). I think these are better addressed separately.

          I won’t say “let’s agree to disagree” because I don’t actually disagree with most of what you’ve said. With any question of art, however, I think there are a lot of ways to be right — and I think that’s a really GOOD thing. I will just say that I consider both Twilight and Harry Potter art, and that’s speaking as someone who couldn’t get more than 150 pages into Twilight because I found it utterly tedious. I’d say the room for improvement falls under the heading of “craft”, but they do exactly what they set out to do as art, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve been so successful (not just financially, but in terms of capturing people’s hearts and imaginations).

  5. Arwen says:

    Eh, every damn thing has been written before. I mean, lit fic writers have been doing What is Evil and Boy meets Girl for centuries; genre readers get SO het up about tropes and things being derivative, but I suspect it’s because because robots are a relatively new construct. Yes, we all meh when we see the Adam and Eve thing, and yet that’s exactly where Battlestar Galactica the re-envisioning went and you know those writers are all sci-fi nerds – but this idea is part of our current cultural space, this sense of our own idiocy leading to our destruction and no one there to save us from ourselves. So “the dopes like us that were already here” is going to be explored from bunches of angles, just as Boy meets/loses/wins Girl has been. The question is, how well has it been written? What crunches at the core? If there’s juice there, people will want it. I’d much rather question whether an artwork gave us something interesting there, something a level down, than whether that particular trope has been seen before. (And the ending of BSG did leave me a wee bit cold, but that also goes to show that one person’s juicy centre is another person’s pile of dust.)

    The same myths or tropes being used again is a danger of not enough research but is also just a simple fact o’ art as there are only so many colours in our human palette.

    I’m far more irritated by those works which are hyper-aware of their genre, chasing the buck of the last bestseller or going out of their way to try to be “Cleverly Unique!!! (TM)”

  6. Arwen says:

    … Although, considering further while doing dishes, I would say my comment is coming from being a genre reader and talking to other genre readers. I think I also question whether someone wakes up and writes Westerns having never read them.

    There’s “formula” vs. content; something like apocolypse might be used speculatively by a sci-fi writer or mythically/symbolically in something like The Road, but to compare the two does, I believe, both a disservice. I suppose I see it a bit like comparing the use of burnt umber in paintings by Pollack, Picasso, and Degas. There’s a similarity, but to cue the use of umber as signifying the same conversation is troublesome. Plus, you can’t take Picasso’s paintings and make rules about what abstracts look like, you can only really say who he was talking to and why.

    However. I read a lot of genres, probably returning most often to spec-fic. My most formulaic period was in my early 20s with an addiction to hard-boiled lone-detective female-protag murder mysteries: those books were almost like sonnets, they had such rigid form. Some were really very good. Some were mainly hitting the requirements of form. I was looking for that form in those days, and was minimally satisfied by receiving a narrative of that form.

    If some writer was writing in that *form*, yes, I think they’d need to do research and read a lot to set in that form. But the sci-fi/fantasy I love doesn’t and hasn’t worked like that: you can’t really assume my love of Connie Willis by looking at how I love Neal Stephenson … and everybody gasps and hides when I say how much I dislike Dune.

    • In re: suddenly deciding to write Westerns — there was the time I woke up and decided to write a cyberpunk sex farce. Of course, that’s not what happened at all. I was gripped by a character and a scenario and a few deep issues I was already working through, and it manifested in a form that my writing friends informed me was Cyberpunk.

      I hadn’t really read any actual cyberpunk, although I had a dim notion what it was, and I’ve read other SF. And yes, in fact, I thought I should probably at least read the cyberpunk classics to get a good grounding in it. I started with Neuromancer, found it utterly tedious, got about halfway through and said, “This is completely irrelevant to what I’m doing.” And that’s as far as I got with researching that genre.

      And I dunno, maybe it would have ended up being the most hackneyed cyberpunk novel ever. Or maybe it would have been a novel about a man wrestling his inner demons, that just happened to have nanites in it. Who knows? We may never know; I don’t know when or whether I’ll finish it, and there’s no guarantee it would be published (it’s really NOT YA; there’s a sex scene on page 5).

      Chances are, it would be both: a hackneyed rehashing to some, a moving testament to the human spirit to others. And that would be just fine.

      • Arwen says:

        Only I daresay it wouldn’t be a hackneyed rehashing, because you aren’t hacking out prose, but actually struggling with issues of some depth and working through their facets through narrative. You’re engaged in asking questions of your characters. As someone who has read much cyberpunk, I’d say there are tonal cliches because Gibson set a certain tone, just as Chandler did for detective fiction, and he was sort of a start-with-a-bang. But it’s readers of the genre more likely to be influenced by that cliche.

        If you went and wrote another young-woman changing-the-world cyperpunk adventure, which is certainly a seen trope in that category, I think you would still be doing something substantially different because of your subtext. The possibility of identical plot twist (like the Adam and Eve problem) really to me turns into a matter of identical question being posed. Only it’s just a question, and I’m not sure I believe any two writers would come up with the same challenges to the boundaries of the problem.

        (Actually, I’d be interested to read a compendium of excellent writers all having to write something around that device of Adam and Eve, although perhaps not making it something other than a surprise. At least part of that problem of that cliche is that it’s a punchline. That’s not genre specific, though. So, punchline free, and writers from a bunch of genres? Fun.)

        Perhaps I’m suggesting that interesting people are interesting. How deep does a particular artwork go? The Mona Lisa is on one hand “just another portrait” and on another a work of depth.

        Whether a major publishing house would publish another cyberpunk young-woman, I don’t know. I imagine there is saturation of certain myths. And yet, are vampires over? Or will they just dwindle with those who are hacking the genre until someone comes and refreshes them with new, interesting questions?

        • Joshua Macy says:

          “the problem is that’s it a punchline” Exactly! You could fill an interesting anthology with variations on Adam and Eve, but only if the authors understood that’s what they were doing; an anthology of stories where it’s the punchline would (I think) be either dull or unintentionally hilarious.

          BTW, vampires seem to well into their baroque period. My impression is that far from dwindling, there are more of them than ever, but most of the ones that aren’t part of well-established series are vampire+spin, e.g. “Because Your Vampire Said So” (vampire is suburban mom), “Real Vampires Have Curves” (vampire is plus-sized woman), “Vampire Academy” (vampires run/attend a boarding school), and so on…

          • Arwen says:

            Agreed! Writers writing *without* the punchline. I managed to stick a “not” in my original sentence. OH, Sigh. Although I wish I could write punchlines. Reader’s Digest is a well paying market. *g*

            I appear to believe many of the vampires+spin are chasing the trend- although there might be some brilliant work hiding in that river, absolutely. I also appear to believe artistic challenge dwindles when folks are chasing the trend, even if genre representation is increasing.

            So, to me, vampires are probably over for now, but only until someone comes and genuinely needs to speak vampire myth to say what they’re saying about the world, rather than saying, “Okay, okay. Vampires. What am I going to do with Vampires?” (( Although, I’m not really quite that cynical… I think there’s a genuine motivation to add or critique existing ideas that can be quite good. Sort of like fan-fic. But it’s not going to Blow Anyone’s Mind. ))

            Which leads me to think that the question is: are you planning on starting a totally new conversation that will reference a whole bunch of things, or do you plan to join a conversation that is ongoing and the parameters are well established? And that’s not necessarily a genre question! The writers I love of all genres write are influenced, definitely, but they’re making stuff that stands alone, too, because there’s umpteen million different inputs going in: observations, lived experiences, philosophy, culture, critique, obsessions, hobbies, emotion, and the expression of whatever questions and beliefs the author is wrestling as well as their own reading of fiction and non-fiction. Genre seems such a tiny slice of that, to me.

            Of course, this may be because I read pretty much anything, and so for me, the authors out there are relevant to one another cross-genre, since they’re having lively chats in MY brain.

  7. [...] don’t panic. My book is also that, perhaps even more convincingly so. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m not really interested in genre except insofar as I can poke it in the eye and dismantle [...]


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