Why Genre Writing Could Kill Your Career

Why Genre Writing Could Kill Your Career

The title of this week’s post is easily a very controversial, debatable, and in some respects downright wrong statement. After all, we have only to look at the latest copy of the New York Times to see that the fiction categories in its bestseller lists are inevitably headed by established genre writers. Very obviously, genre writing did not kill their careers. So what in tarnation am I getting at with this statement of mine that genre writing might be a terrible career choice?

Genres originated as a marketing tool to help consumers more easily find literature that fits their tastes. Over the years, these categories have developed into very specific classifications of sub-genres within sub-genres. And this is a good thing, since it allows marketers to more easily target interested readers and gives readers the ease of immediately accessing their preferred subject matter. Everybody wins, right?

I would argue, no.

The Problem With Genre Writing

Genres sometimes lead to clichéd storylines, sub-par writing, and, in the long run, a less discerning and demanding reading public. Sometimes to its detriment, genre fiction relies on the tried and true archetypes to present a story that’s been told a thousand times before, instead of digging deeper into uncharted territory and challenging both the writer and the reader. Certainly, this isn’t always the case, but, nine times out of ten, when I pick up a genre book, I inevitably find myself less than satisfied, at best, and downright disappointed, at worst.

In a conversation on Twitter this week, Michael Maren (@mmaren) made the cutting observation that although

some authors transcend genre: Highsmith, Lehane, Denise Mina… others use genre as a crutch. To me the distinction is whether the author challenges the readers’ perceptions or exploits them for stock drama and emotion.

Art vs. Commercialism

As both a reader and a writer, I prefer eclecticism. I don’t like pigeonholes, and I don’t like thinking inside the box. I don’t appreciate limitations imposed by others upon either my writing or my reading, and I have little interest in reading or writing the same material, with a slightly different spin, over and over again.

It’s regrettable that art and commercialism—two completely opposite and often antithetical classifications—must so often coexist, especially since commercialism frequently triumphs at art’s expense. In the September 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest, notoriously successful iconoclast Corey Doctorow pointed out that:

Genres are useful for marketing; they are a great way to help readers find the material they might want to consume or acquire. But they don’t have clean lines you can use to distinguish one type of literature from another.

It’s Not About Genre, It’s About Pigeon Holes

Art isn’t something that thrives within set parameters. By its very nature, creativity must be free to grow beyond even its creator’s initial concepts. When we sign up as genre writers—led on perhaps by our own love of certain types of literature, perhaps by the lure of the money and fame that attaches itself to successful genre writers—we may be making the best possible commercial decision a writer can make.

But, as artists, do we honestly want to put the money before the art? Is a career as a bestselling author worth surrendering the opportunity for deeper and broader artistic license?

In no way am I arguing that those of us who write and succeed in the realm of genre fiction are selling out. Nor am I suggesting that genre authors are incapable of deeper and broader art. But I would encourage all of us—myself included—to never settle for the accepted parameters of popular fiction. Why conform, when we can create? Why further our commercial careers at the expense of our infinitely more important artistic careers?

Tell me your opinion: Do you think genre writing sometimes puts commercialism before art?

Why Genre Writing Could Kill Your Career

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Not everyone is a fountainhead. I don’t have any grand illusions about my writing, which is all non-fiction, and puts real bread on the table. Non-fiction doesn’t really have any teeth unless it’s political, and even then the topics go in and out of fashion like feathered hair.

    But I like genre fiction. If it’s done well, it can be spectacular. If it’s done poorly… well, it’s just another book in the bargain bin, eh?

    But sometimes I get really, really excited by authors. I went to a little hole in the wall bookstore and found mountains of old pulp fiction novels—the kind where the covers give you goose bumps—they’re so rotten and so fantastic at the same time.

  2. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of non-genre stuff that’s junk too. And there’s certainly something to be said for pulp, esp. the nostalgic kind.

  3. I have to admit, when someone Tweeted the title and link of your article, all I could think of was “Say WHA…? Probably another Lit vs. Genre debate again.” Allow me to apologize and say that I’m glad I had a chance to read this.

    I think you’re right. We have to challenge ourselves as writers and allow our creativity to flow, without getting caught up in stereotypes or limitations imposed by being ‘branded’. One could argue that this philosophy works on several levels in one’s life.

    I’m glad this wasn’t a “Genre is bad, down with Genre” kind of article, and leans more towards, “Don’t get caught by the Traps inherent in the world of Genre.” I think, if we know they’re there, and we’re careful, we can better avoid them.

  4. Well, then, I’m so glad you stopped by! I’m a high proponent of art vs. entertainment (not that art can’t, or shouldn’t, entertain), and I’m often frustrated because I feel much of genre fiction sacrifices art to entertainment. But I also fully realize that my interpretation of art isn’t universal, so I try very hard to avoid a judgmental attitude about my preferences.

  5. I have at least a fair understanding of how common cliché’s in genre fiction are. The bulk of my work over the last twenty months has been in the science fiction sub-genre of Space Opera.

    I see the genre bracketing as a challenge, however, and strive to create an experience for my readers that includes creative takes on what may have been done before, something that hasn’t been done before, while giving them POV characters that they can relate to on some level and are on believable, emotional journeys. It’s not easy, but it’s a pretty enjoyable task when things start going right.

    The genre gives me a default audience, which is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been at the top of Mobipocket’s science fiction listing for nearly a year http://bit.ly/jYoLZ and that gives my new releases a boost, but crossing genres is still difficult if you’re not in the general top 10 category wide. I love SciFi fans, especially my readers, but I get a special charge when someone who doesn’t read SciFi enjoys my work.

    I have more to say on this topic, so I’ll blog about it on my own space and not take up more of yours! http://www.spinwardfringe.com

    Thanks for bringing this topic up K.M. Weiland… just look what you did… *wink

  6. I love meeting authors who take the confines of their genres and *use* them to create a deeper story. I tend to think speculative fiction offers a broader opportunity for innovation, but I may be prejudiced, simply because I (unintentionally) tend to read more spec than other genres. I’ll look forward to reading your post!

  7. My post is up: http://www.spinwardfringe.com/

    Same topic, just a different side of things so I’m not simply repeating K.M. Weiland’s enjoyable blog entry.

  8. Katie, as always you wrote a thought-provoking post. I don’t want to get hung up in one genre, or even one style of writing. As I progress, I want to write less fluff and more substance. I’m seriously considering a nom de plume for my fluff, then maybe someday, I’ll write something I an sign my own name to.

  9. Hmmmm….

    I saw the title of your post last night, and actually was slightly perturbed by it because I do consider myself a mostly-genre writer, though I enjoy crossing genre’s if and when possible. As I was too tired to read the post last night, I put it off to this morning.

    I do have to say that I agree with you to a degree. Genre fiction is typically formulaic–I see it everywhere. Since I primarily read mysteries, it’s gotten to be a game with me that I can pick up on where the author’s headed when I read a new book. My most recent read had me pinpointing exactly when something would happen, though I didn’t pick the right killer (which is always a good thing for me–I like the surprise.)

    Unfortunately, genre is a marketing tool, as you pointed out. When you submit your book to a publisher (if you go that route), you must try to identify a few books that are “like” yours. *sigh* When you cross genres, how are you supposed to do that? I imagine speculative and literary works are even more difficult.

  10. Great article.
    Sometimes, when I do critiquing/editing, clients argue, “But that’s what so-and-so does.” I think it’s great that we learn from reading, but sometimes, we use it as a cop-out copy-cat. What they did in that passage may not work in your passage. Or it may be that the new writer needs to figure out their own way of doing something.

  11. @Linda: Lots of people are using pen names when genre crossing. My personal opinion is that the necessity of such depends on how deep into any particular genre you may be. We’re all familiar with the example of romance author Nora Roberts writing suspense under the name J.D. Robb. But, on the flip side of the coin, we have authors such as Madeleine L’Engle writing in genres all across the board, under her own name. She could get away with it because that’s what her readers came to expect from her.

    @Liberty: I’m not saying you can’t play the commercial game right alongside the art game – it’s just a lot tougher. 😉

    @heather: Good point. Sometimes I get the feeling that new genre authors are doing little more than copying their favorite big name author. It shouldn’t have to be said as often as it is: Originality is a must.

  12. I agree with your post. At best, genre is a marketing tool to help the reader decide what to buy. At worst, it limits the writer and pigeon holes novels so they can only be written a certain way. Also it causes only certain genres (the profitable ones at the moment) to be accepted by publishers and agents when novels that push the boundries are often discarded to the slush pile.

  13. One of the biggest pitfalls of genre, in my opinion, is that it tends to narrow the vision of publishers, readers, and authors alike. We begin looking at a certain type of story through a tunnel, and we fail to see the opportunities that spread beyond the tunnel.

  14. I would call this a problem with formula more than anything else. In my youth I was a serious Agatha Christy reader. She was one of the greats of genre mystery fiction. I got the hang of her formula so well that I could guess who did it in the first chapter or so, just from the set up. That’s when I stopped reading her books. Lately, I’m seeing old fashioned mystery formulas sneaking into paranormal books. Where that came from, I have no idea.

    Movies and television fall prey to formula as well. My husband and I often get tired of a show when the formulas take over. Especially when the formula takes the characters in a weird direction that makes no sense in order to shock or just to keep a romantic couple apart. That’s such a turnoff.

    I prefer organic storytelling, where the characters and the situation take us on a journey outside of formula.

  15. You make an excellent point in that organic storytelling, in which the characters take precedence over the plot, generally tend to break the formulas.

  16. Do you want to know the number one reason I dislike genre classifications?

    It’s illustrated quite well by the New Yorker (high-priests of American lit-snobbery) right here:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/08/seven-essential-fantasy-reads-going-to-second-base.html

    The main thing genre seems to do, in my observation, is pigeonhole works in a way that allows high-profile critics and discerning book lovers alike to dismiss books at a glance. Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales or Iain Banks’s space-opera books may never find someone from the high horses of culture coming down to look at them, despite their beauty, wit and imagination – elements aplenty to make anyone who loves writing as an art to smile wide. What has gotten in between the critic and the work? Genre.

    But let’s also take some examples from the other side of things. How are we going to address Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Well, we can’t call it “post-apocalyptic!” That implies something that genre writers dabble in! It’s far too well written, far too character rich to be called that! And Lord forbid anyone describe 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, or The Handmaid’s Tale as sci-fi, fantasy or speculative! If it’s deemed (and marketed) as “good enough”, all genre labels are neglected, and English majors across the country are encouraged to partake.

    What the above linked New Yorker article indicates is that when works are pigeonholed into genre, it creates an easy way for prejudiced lit-snobs to overlook inspiring, yet, non-establishment works of writing art. Just about every one of those seven “essential” fantasy novels was considered derivative and weak by critical fantasy enthusiasts even when they were originally published! (with one notable exception – G.G. Kay). When one says “fantasy”, “sci-fi”, “horror”, the non-specialist reader’s mind immediately closes off. It leaves people who bend the genres, like China Miéville or H.P. Lovecraft (both of whom could well be considered writers of all three!) with nowhere to go. It also, as Mr. Lalonde indicates, closes writers’ imaginations off by telling them what kind of thing they need to write in order to fit into a market niche. And then finally, it does a disservice to readers by creating the different ghettos in the bookstore, where (in marketers’ minds, at least) the sweaty-palmed, overweight fantasy enthusiasts will be steered away from the urbane and sophisticated New Yorker readers – and this is tragic, as both parties are privy to gems that they might find in a system where genre was not so rigid, but alas, are more than likely to pass by one another, viewing each other and their works with preconcived disdain.

    A hundred years ago, in a time that was prolific for both speculative as well as “literary” fiction, there were no genres; there was simply “fiction”. I like that system. It means that if I, like Mark Twain, want to establish my career on slice of life narratives, and then come out with things like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I won’t be punished for it, either critically or financially.

    And that works just fine for me.

  17. I think you just won the award for the longest comment I’ve ever received. 😉 But an excellent comment at that.

    What you say about authors being “punished” for breaking genre is far more true that it should be. If the point of art is to open horizons and foster creativity, rules about what subjects an author can or cannot write about (and hope to maintain his career) are self-destructive, at best.

    I choose to hope that successful marketing will one day find a way around the limitations of genre.

  18. Lorna G. Poston says

    Katie, excellent post as always. :)I certainly don’t want to be stuck in a cube with no possible escape—where book after book look exactly the same—and the only thing that changes is the setting and the character names. *yawn*

    With each new novel, I want to explore new things, challenge my mind and my writer’s spirit. Of course, I have to finish my current WIP first. 🙂

  19. I think it’s inevitable that every author repeats himself to some extent in every novel. After all, we’re limited by our own personalities and experiences, and we all tend to emphasize certain themes and character traits. But to shackle ourselves beyond that doesn’t sound like much fun to me either.

  20. It’s ironic, because since I write “liteary fiction” or “general fiction” I was told it would be more difficult to sell my novels, since there is no well-defined “label” to place up on my work.

    It’s what I love to write, so I keep on writing.

    It’s also the beauty of indie presses – they take chances on authors like me, who have a good book with beautiful writing, but one that doesn’t fit into a genre category.

  21. It’s the story of the publishing world: gems have long been passed over and gone without recognition, for years sometimes, before catching the public’s attention. Genres or no genres, you can’t predict the market, so why try? Write what you love, the story your heart wants to tell, and maybe eventually the market will swing around and you’ll find your stories to be the hottest thing out there!

  22. Interesting post today. I got on my sister’s computer so I could hear it in your own voice as well, and I am nothing but impressed.

    As you know, I write primarily science fiction and fantasy, but recently I’ve published a book that gets more into the police drama/detective genre than anything I’ve done before. I have dabbled in other genres as well–romance, mystery, court dramas, and so on.

    I wondered about your title when I read it on Facebook, but now I understand, and I agree. Too many wannabe authors simply copy what others have already done over and over again. I do push the envelop of SF/F, especially from a Christian point of view. Thanks again for writing this.

  23. Thanks for listening to the podcast and taking the time to encourage me! 🙂

    Within the speculative (and historical) genres, I see a lot more wiggle room. Because sci-fi, fantasy, and history are more milieus than plot structures, authors are allowed to craft almost any *type* of story they like within their chosen milieu. Of course, once you start boiling these genres down to their very specific sub-genres, you do start finding quite a lot of cliches. But, as a whole, I think these genres are arguably the most flexible.

  24. “As both a reader and a writer, I prefer eclecticism. I don’t like pigeonholes, and I don’t like thinking inside the box. I don’t appreciate limitations imposed by others upon either my writing or my reading, and I have little interest in reading or writing the same material, with a slightly different spin, over and over again.”

    So true. I’m right there with you. I think there should be a genre named eclecticism. You and I can start a new trend!!

  25. Ah, yes, but then we’d probably be pigeon-holed as eclectics!

  26. I don’t find genres to be that big a deal, because there’s nothing to stop you breaking all the “stereotypes” of that genre to really create something unique.

    Consider District 9, in theaters now- Sci-Fi as an apartheid allegory, or Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Gap” series, which is within the Sci-Fi genre, but one of the most amazing political reads you can experience.

    One of my upcoming pieces I’m going to work on is of the Sci-Fi genre, but one of the political organizations within the setting will be the Order of Druids. Of course, for those who know much about Druids, the fictional aspect of them is traditional Fantasy fodder. I am going to be using their historical attributes as masters of wisdom and lore, arbitrators and council to Kings and other leaders.

    Will readers picking up a Sci-Fi book embrace or balk when a Druid walks out onto the bridge of a spaceship? I say if you write it properly, they will embrace it- because you’re taking the genre and shattering the stereotypes!

  27. Bad genre fiction is all about repeating stereotypes; *good* genre fiction is all about expanding beyond them. Kudos to you for trying to do so!

  28. This was a thought-provoking but also frustrating article to read. My issue with your presentation here is something that a couple other commenters have also noted: your problem is not with genre per se, but with formulaic writing. Genres can certain become breeding grounds for formula (mystery and romance stand out in my mind in this respect), but the problem is really formula vs. creativity, not genre vs. creativity.

    Cross-genre or out-of-genre writing can certainly be an expression of creativity, but it’s not the only way to be creative, and may not even be the best one most of the time. It depends on what one is trying to accomplish as a writer.

    I think there are very few writers who can truly master more than one or two genres well enough to make a contribution to the development of that area of writing. Reader expectations cover more than just cliche plots and characters: there is also knowledge (science for sf, history for historicals, etc.), congitive skills, approaches to theme and symbolism, etc.

    I think of it as something like musical styles. I wouldn’t suggest it was a bad idea for someone to focus on classical music, or jazz, or rock. Cross-fertlization is important, but so is mastery of one’s preferred mode.

    In my own favorite genres (science fiction and fantasy), I would have to say that almost all the most creative and innovative works are written by writers who work exclusively or primarily within those genres rather than genre-hopping eclecticists.

    I might even argue that spreading yourself across too many genres can lead to less creative work, because you can spread yourself so thin that you’re not aware of what’s already been done in each genre, and not really know where the cutting edges are.

  29. You make some valid points, almost all of which I agree with. My problem with most genre writing is not that it’s *genre.* I have no problem with mystery or romance or science fiction as a subject matter. My beef with genre is that it all too often creates the formulaic writing that I think we both agree is regrettable, at best.

    Your analogy to music is a good one, and I agree that focusing one (or two) area for mastery is probably best – and probably goes without saying, since most authors find their strengths and interests early and stick with them. But focusing on one area is not the same as conforming blindly to genre “rules.”

  30. I’m fortunate in that my originality shaped itself around an epic fantasy trilogy. Some of the people who have read my writing say it’s “different,” and that it doesn’t call to mind any other fantasy work. I find that high praise. I mention these remarks because they illustrate a point: genre fiction does not have to entrap a writer but can rather serve as a framework.

    Am I a fantasy writer? Well, yes and no. I have other ideas I’ll develop in time. For now, I’ll stick to the fantasy genre in order to build an audience. I won’t let myself be pigeon-holed for love or money. ;o)

    Janalyn

    http://writewithjanalyn.blogspot.com

  31. Write what you love. That’s all it comes down to. And so long as you’re aware of the risk of pigeon-holing (and it’s a risk no matter what you write), you’ll likely stay way clear of the pitfalls.

  32. I must say one thing you’ve taught me is to, “Think Outside the Box”. Thank you for that…and I’ve got to say, LOVE the picture this week.

  33. Thanks! I loved the pic myself!

  34. Megs - Scattered Bits says

    Sounds like the problem is SUBgenres, not genres. SFF is a pretty fat genre. So is mystery. So is romance. So is historical. So is mainstream. Oddly enough, I neither read nor write subgenres, so I fail to even NOTICE all these boundaries people talk about and rarely have any difficulty finding fiction that is NOT the same ol’, same ol’.

    Good article.

  35. Actually, I’m not much of a genre reader myself. I prefer broad horizons to small niches.

  36. A lot of good discussion here. One newer book I can think of that expands beyond sterotypes is Auralia’s Colors by Jeffery Overstreet. It has no dragons, knights, or magic, but it is definately fantasy.

  37. I’ve heard of Auralia’s Colors, but haven’t read it yet. I remember thinking the cover was gorgeous.

  38. Thank you for this incredibly helpful post! I’m not really a genre writer – not a single genre, at least, and I was a little worried about it. But you’re right, art should come before money. That’s how I’ve always felt, I just didn’t realize it. I think I’ll worry less about genre and more about story. 🙂

  39. The possibilities of the writing world are too vast to unnecessarily tie ourselves down to a limited range of subjects. Write what you’re passionate about – no matter where it fits on the bookstore shelves!

  40. I like the way Kristine Rusch reminds us to write: write the story, create art, then when it’s finished, figure out its genre and market it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I appreciate that approach as well. It’s important for us to know our priorities. Placing the emphasis on whatever story comes out doesn’t mean we can’t succeed at genre writing, but it does give us a different perspective for shaping not only the stories themselves, but our writing lives as a whole.

  41. Very well said. Some who have asked me what genre mine comes under even been like well in one part of the series their is a time travel/reality/space ship. another part is about the multi verse… another part is all about aliens… another is about different time periods in human history… serial killers the list goes on so what would the genre be? My reply is I will go where the book seires takes me. Thanks for this post. I have never thought about the Genre while writing either.

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