Genres: Literary Cliques

(left: cover of Dragonflight, art by Michael Whelan and published by Del Rey; right: cover of Black Horses for the King, art by David Shannon and published by Del Rey)

Anne McCaffrey, best-selling author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, wandered outside of the science fiction genre to write her historical fantasy/Arthurian fiction novel Black Horses for the King.

Whether it specifies the length (novel versus short story), the kind of writing (prose versus poetry), or the content (romance versus fantasy), I’m not a fan of the “genre” concept. I find genres unnecessarily divisive. Nothing is ever that black-and-white. Nevertheless, genres are a prominent concept in writing and I must address the matter if I wish to discuss writing. I have too many thoughts on this subject to cover everything in one post, so I will present them in a new series of posts that I call the “Genres” series.

While genres can be used to organize literature, they also lead to heated debate among readers and writers. Every genre comes with its elitists, people who think the genre is superior to all others and, conversely, people who think the genre shouldn’t be considered literature. Some fans refuse to try other genres or refuse to admit that they read more than one genre. The results of this divisive attitude? Literary cliques and anxiety for writers.

This divide most clearly affects writers. If a writer mostly works in one genre, deviations risk drawing criticism and disapproval from fans. Beginning writers must be careful as to which genre they practice. Pedestrian and literary fiction, for example, are typically considered more worthy of pursuit than speculative fiction. Some writers can’t decide where to submit their work because it does not clearly fit into one genre alone.

But is any genre really superior to the others? Should writers stick with one genre and avoid cross-genre (hybrid) work? Should aspiring writers pursue literary fiction for the sake of building their reputation?

The short answer: no.

(left: cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, art by Mary GrandPré and published by Scholastic; right: cover of The Cuckoo’s Calling, artist unknown but published by Sphere)

Despite achieving fame in fantasy, J.K. Rowling has stepped outside the genre multiple times. Her crime fiction novel The Cuckoo’s Calling is notable because she published it under a pseudonym.

I’ve already covered passion driving work in my “Writing for Yourself” post. Now I want to revisit the necessity of variety. As readers and writers, we need to dip into several genres to broaden our horizons. Different genres teach us different things. The more diversely we read, the more we can grow as writers, intellectuals, and people.

I focus on speculative fiction, particularly fantasy, in what I write and what I read. However, it’s not the only genre into which I’ve delved. I adore books like Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This year, as part of my Master’s program, I’ve read a spectrum of literary fiction from Gogol and Chekhov to O’Connor and Boyle.

All that I’ve read has shaped me as a person. I owe my tolerance and sense of social justice to books like Harry Potter; my political stance can be traced back to Dr. Seuss; and my ever-expanding understanding of other cultures comes from writers likes Jhumpa Lahiri.

Just as importantly, reading and writing across genres have strengthened my skills as a writer. Dabbling into realistic fiction has proven especially fruitful, and crossing between realistic fiction and fantasy has added depth to my writing in both genres. Realistic fiction helps me with the technical side of writing fantasy. In return, fantasy gives me practice in world building.

The most notable change is in my dialogue. As recently as this academic year, my dialogue was one of my weakest points. It sounded unnatural and dragged the story down. (I can only think of one fantasy story I wrote last summer that does not fit this bill.) Then I read Flannery O’Connor for my Master’s program. O’Connor is well-known as a master of dialogue. She even inspired me to write realistic stories. My first try still requires a complete rewrite. Nevertheless, my dialogue improved tremendously. It was arguably the most salvageable aspect of that piece. The next story I wrote was also realistic fiction. Feedback on that work suggests that my dialogue continued to get better. As long as I don’t limit myself to one genre, I know my writing will remain on this upward trajectory.

Dividing literature is akin to dividing people; too much division and all you’ll have are narrow minds in a flat world.  Sometimes you have to force yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to grow. So go ahead, read a genre you don’t like. Write in an unfamiliar genre. After all, what do you have to lose?


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Share Your Thoughts