Why I’m Giving Up Resisting the “Genre Writer” Label

I spotted this article on the Guardian’s website, a blog post suggesting the “genre wars” in fiction may be over.

Is This the End of Fiction’s Genre Wars?”

The article suggests that finally, genre writers are getting the respect they deserve, because they seem to be writing somewhat outside of the boundaries of their genres. Truth be told, I found the column rather naive, and that summary pretty silly.  To suggest that genre writers are finally getting recognition from literary critics (read: lit snobs) seems a slap in the face to genre writers; they’ve always been recognized, even by established literary critics, for their work.

The article also makes mention of the growing trend of “cross-genre” writing, which isn’t so current after all. Countless writers have been blurring the distinctions between one genre (sci-fi, for example) and another (noir, let’s say) for decades. On my bookshelves are the entire collected works of one Thomas Pynchon. The reclusive genius have written one novel after another blending conspiracy thrillers, slapstick comedy, sci-fi, historical fiction, and experimental fiction. Pynchon doesn’t just dabble in different genres; he excels in them, and weaves each respective genre together in a tapestry of post-modern lunacy, both exhilarating and exhausting.

I’ve always felt writers like Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut both respected and rejected the boundaries of genre. They understood the confines of certain genres, and how those genres place an emphasis on plot, but they also felt restricted by those confines. As do I.

Or perhaps I’m the one being naive here. Yes, booksellers and publishers still insist on the entire classification system of books. Ergo, “genre.” It would be silly of me to assume the Barnes and Nobles throughout this country, and booksellers across the globe, not to mention publishing houses like Penguin and Random House would simply dispose of genre just because writers have crossed genres for years.

I think I’m the one with the problem here. I dislike, intensely dislike, the usage of labels, and to me, “genre” smacks of labelism (is that even a word?). Neil Gaiman is a (LABEL)fantasy writer – although he has branched out with much success. Stephen King is a (LABEL) horror writer – although he has successfully branched out. John Grisham is a (LABEL) legal thriller writer – he too has successfully branched out. I could care less about your labels. I don’t care if your novels are about time-travelling steampunk vampires, written for a young adult audience. I dislike your labels. I care about the content of your work.

But Margie Brimer’s excellent advice piece, “Do You Know Your Genre?” made me realize that using the genre “label” is absolutely vital in branding your work. I’ve resisted having to choose one specific genre to write under, because I don’t particularly care to adhere to the constraints of a specific genre. I’d rather write to a cross-genre audience, but I know that can be hard to pull off.

Therein lies the problem: writing to a “cross-genre” audience.

At its core, my WIP is a superhero fantasy; I’ve created a new hero, based on familiar tropes, and turned those tropes on its head. A failed superhero, if you will. This failed superhero is at times an unlikeable hero, an antihero, even. The unlikeable character, even intentially (think Humbert Humbert in Lolita, although my protagonist is nowhere near his levels of depravity), is an essential element to literary fiction. As is the nothing happens element in literary fiction; for good stretches of the WIP, nothing really happens, in terms of action and suspense, yet there are things happening to our protagonist. He’s a broken superhero, trapped in his one big failure and unable (and unwilling) to move on. His life is a series of comical and heartbreaking moments, until something happens that forces himself to reconsider himself and his place. This is where plots are exposed, and his true character is revealed.

And we all know plot and character are essential elements to commercial fiction. Think of what someone like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard writes, and you’ve got commercial fiction at its finest.

Add all this up (superhero fantasy + literary fiction + commercial fiction) and I think I’ve got something that might add up to “upmarket fiction“. I’ll let the editor of Writer’s Digest (yeah, I’m quoting them, even if I have a love/hate/mostly hate relationship with them), Chuck Sambuchino, define what “upmarket fiction” means:

Simply put, it’s fiction that blends the line between commercial and literary. To further examine this, let’s break down those two terms. Commercial fiction, essentially, refers to novels that fall into a typical genre (thriller, let’s say). Commercial fiction can sell very well because it usually has a tight premise/logline (“Someone is trying to kill the president!”) and people like reading a category like thrillers because it’s exciting. Literary fiction refers to novels that don’t fit into any standard genre classification – romance, mystery, sci-fi, for example. Literary fiction requires the highest command of the language. Not pretentious, over-the-top purple prose – just simply excellent writing. . .

It has commercial potential. It has the ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions and take off as a product. It’s a win-win for everyone. I’ve heard a lot of agents say that they are looking for “literary fiction with a commercial appeal,” or something like that. Well, one word that does the job of those six is “upmarket,” and that’s why you hear it so much. If you’re writing narrative nonfiction or upmarket fiction, chances are, there are a ton of agents out there willing to consider your work.”

Some examples of “upmarket fiction” would include Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. All of which are excellently written, and have enjoyed mass commercial success.

That’s what I’m aspiring to. Not so much the mass commercial success, but far from the niche where literary fiction sometimes goes to die, nor where genre/commercial sometimes restricts. So I’m calling myself an upmarket literature writer. It’s a label I can be happy with.

There. Now I’m adhering to your fancy labels. Happy now?


8 thoughts on “Why I’m Giving Up Resisting the “Genre Writer” Label

  1. I enjoyed this. I have dabbled in different genres, and have realized that my voicing is what influences my style. I am writing the book I want to read, and if it happens to fall into the YA superhero thriller set of “upmarket fiction” then so be it. I just hope YA readers of superhero thrillers will enjoy it.

    • Write what you want to read: that’s the best advice any writer can get, and that’s the approach I take when I write. I’m sure readers of your novel will feel that you took that approach as well.

  2. Thank you for writing on this topic of genre. I’m still trying to work out what genre I’m writing. I suppose the writer needs to write what he / she needs to write, what compels him or her to write. My model in this struggle to find my way in the world of publishing is the late Patricia Highsmith whose novels inspired great movie thrillers such as The Talented Mr. Ripley. She disliked the label “crime fiction” that her publishers foisted on her in order to sell her books. Yet many critics would consider her novels as works of art. What her example seems to be teaching me is that the author, first and foremost, must write what she needs to write, and then allow the publisher do his job of finding the best label in order to make the most money. Or in my case, I must figure out as a self-publisher how to slap the right genre label in order to just make sales. Thanks for a great blog.

  3. I’m with you here. Ultimately, you have to just write what it is you want to write, and not worry about such semantics like labels. A lot of writers dislike labels, but they recognize them as necessary evils. I’ve come to the same conclusion as well.

    Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you!

  4. Great post, Gus. I wish I had the answer to the labeling conundrum – it bugs the shit out of me too, (to the point where, in a fit of pique, I referred to myself as a “chicken quesadilla” on my Linked-In profile for awhile). but I have yet to imagine a workable substitute. Maybe just go with “animal, vegetable, mineral” and leave it at that? As far as my own work goes, I’m goin’ with “of no redeeming social significance” and let the reader beware! Keep ’em comin!

    • “Of no redeeming social significance.”

      I’d read that book.

      My worry is that, as an unpublished novelist, I’ll have to do what’s necessary to get published. So if I need to pick a genre just to get my foot in the door, so be it. I’m not really thrilled about it, but, hey, I’m writing what I want to write, and I’ll worry about the marketing later.

  5. Kudos, Gus, for this no-nonsense appraisal of the whole genre fuss. A good story is a good story. Period.

    I write in a variety of so-called genres, but that’s the obligatory hat-tip to marketing — the doorway, so to speak, onto the shelf. And I decide what the “genre” is after I write it (there are so many labels out there, it’s not that hard to find a flavor).

    The important thing is to find a story that you’re passionate to write about. And I actually enjoy manipulating expected genre tropes so the stories do more (I hope) than sink into expected cliches. In that sense, I think genre writers have to do a better job than the run-o-the-mill lit story (although lit stories have developed their own set of ho-hum tropes as well).

    Give some great examples of genre-defiant authors, all of which I agree with. I’d add Annie Proulx to your list for “breaking the back” of the traditional Western and showing just how far a good writer can twist generic expectations into something that defies classification.

    My two cents.

    • Annie Proulx is also a great example, thank you for the reminder. I’m always drawn to writers who work outside the constraints of genre and recognize that certain tropes can be re-worked and manipulated. They have a clear understanding of the rules, and certainly abide by them; it’s the texture within the story where the “defiance” comes into play.

      Great comments, Mark. Thanks for stopping by!

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