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Going Against the Genre

Assigning a genre to a book can be a form of ghettoizing it.

Certain genres are not taken seriously. This remains true even at a time when so many other fields, such as music, mix up genres. But in publishing, science fiction, fantasy, romance are among genres scorned by critics and commentators.

I still remember a recent call-for-submissions to readers in a blog post on a website looking for suggestions for favorite books of the year. But, the writer insisted, nothing self-published: “No fantasy vampire romance set in Middle Earth,” or something to that effect, thus belittling a variety of genres. And also implying that self-published authors are pretty much hacks who are beneath notice and only churn out questionable tales that are geared to women, pathetic fantasy lovers or horror fans. The writer didn’t see the obvious irony of a blogger being snobbish – there was a time not too long ago when blogs themselves were considered suspect, as well as opinions voiced on websites.

But good writing is good writing no matter what the genre. Besides, everything is genre, or can be assigned genre. A so-called literary work can be a mix of various genres, and a so-called genre work can have extraordinary literary merit. Consider that “Moby-Dick,” one of the greatest novels in English, one that asks profound questions about the nature of being and self-knowledge, is also a thrilling adventure tale. Or that the 20th-century classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” is now considered young-adult fiction. Or that detective fiction by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others, is considered on a part with “serious” fiction.

I bring this up after reading a sensible and provocative essay by Roberta Smith, an art critic for The New York Times, who asks curators at American museums, “Why don’t you…mix folk art in with the more realistic, academically correct kind that has so dominated museums since the 19th century?” She then writes, “Given that we live in a time of eroding aesthetic boundaries and categories…it seems past time for the folk-academic division to soften.” (The full article is available here.  )

Now, this may strike some as an inside-baseball kind of argument. Folk art versus academic art might not be at the top of many writers’ minds as a pressing question in an age of information overload when most of us just want to be noticed, period.

But the point she makes is that by assigning a virtual genre to art, the art risks being ignored. The same can be true of writing, and books.

Even when you self-publish on Amazon’s Kindle program, as well as other online services, such as BN.com, you’re urged to put your book within a certain genre, or even sub-genre (If you choose horror, then you’re asked to specify ghost story or vampires or something like that).

Of course, for fans of ghost stories or horror, finding that book within a certain section of the store will make it easier. But those artificial designations are less important in an age when the bookstore is more and more virtual, and searching for a title is a result of recommendations or through following the work of a writer with a strong platform, regardless of genre such as business or self-help or spirituality or whatever.

Genre will remain, since it’s had to erase preconceived notions, even those that begun only about a century ago (it made life easier for bookstores to place things in categories). But your job, as a writer and creator, is to think beyond genre, and simply speak as yourself.

People will surely find you, regardless of where your book is assigned, genre-wise, if your platform finds you the people who want to read your message.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting. What are your thoughts on genres becoming more important to help readers wade through the increasing number of books published? If the barriers crumble because it becomes easier to self-publish, how will readers find what they want?