genre talk

Some discussion over here about whether or not it’s necessary to read in your genre in order to “write it well”. This is a question that always makes me go “ehhh?” since one would assume you write the kind of stuff you love*, and it stands to reason that if you love it, you’ve grown up reading various manifestations of it, whether or not they fall under the precise genre labels currently organizing fiction in the bookstores.

Which reminds me of the writer on a panel at World Fantasy 2006 — wish I could remember who it was, but my memory is addled — who pointed out that writers are readers first, who often love a certain type of book and read them all down through the years until there are no more left to read…so they’re forced to write new ones instead.* Which strikes me as a variation**on what I’ve always said: I write the kind of book I would like to find on the shelves but usually can’t.***

This was my post on the subject, which I’ll cross-post here because this blog is due for an entry:

I don’t think it’s a conscious choice; we read what we love and our writing emerges from some kind of subset of that (I read and love a lot of literary realism, for example, but I find myself writing about the kinds of individuals who tend to have wings or strange powers). If we think in terms of ‘genre’ we risk limiting ourselves in dangerous, career-damaging ways: since in many ways writing for a particular subgenre is the same thing as writing for the marketplace, and in the space it takes to write and publish a novel the marketplace could already have moved on, leaving your otherwise delightful, well-written novel in the dust. You don’t want to end up chasing the dragon. Which only takes a lot of discovery and joy out of the process of storytelling itself.

I’ve really come to believe — and nothing so far has dissuaded me from this — that if you read widely and deeply, and pursue your interests and obsessions and live in the world and write from the world — from your own direct experience and imagination — as well as from books and movies, if you engage with and follow your culture, including pop culture, then I think you stand a much better chance of being (and remaining) an interesting, relevant writer who happens to write genre novels than if you deliberately look to the conventions (as opposed to just naturally including them in a unique tangle of personal artistic influences) set by certain novels that came out fifteen, ten, five, two years ago. That was then. This is now — not just the ‘now’ of the actual writing, but the future ‘now’ of when the book actually hits the bookstores.

My heroes have always included ‘hybrid’ writers who carved out new space for themselves, including those who ended up dominating their genres through nothing less than (re)inventing them– Scott Turow, Anne Rice, Dennis Lehane, Poppy Brite, Holly Black, etc. Storytelling so powerful and entertaining — and informed by a compelling literate intelligence — it couldn’t be denied, broke new ground and made room for all kinds of new writers. Why not aim for that? Aim for the moon and you might hit the stars, and all that….

And I think the first part towards striving for that is identifying yourself as a writer of fiction, period. Turow, Lehane, Rice, King himself — not one would label himself/herself a ‘genre writer’. Other people do that. Can’t wait to do that. Can’t help themselves.

* I use the phrase “stuff you love” instead of “genre” since genre tends to box stories down into certain kinds of categories, in a way of thinking that seems dangerous to me if you’re talking about reading and writing stories, rather than marketing and packaging and selling them. — in short, I appreciate the term and what it can do for a writer — connect the writer to an audience willing to gamble on somebody they’ve never heard of — but I don’t trust it.

** If my husband was a fiction writer, he’d be forced to pick up where David Gemmell left off…

*** The very smart and talented Jeff VanderMeer took a different angle on this, remarking on how he used to love heroic fantasy until heroic fantasy started pissing him off with its lack of realistic, nitty-gritty detail — “Someone would walk from the stables to the palace and I just wouldn’t believe it — where’s the smell and the muck of it?” — so he started writing not what it had been or was, but what he felt it ought to be.

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