David Michael Williams has suffered from a storytelling addiction for as long as he can remember. His published works include The Renegade Chronicles and The Soul Sleep Cycle, a genre-bending series that explores life, death, and the dreamscape. Learn more at david-michael-williams.com.
Why genres must die
By David Michael Williams
Imagine coming face to face with chaos incarnate.
Maybe it’s an ancient abomination awakened by a sorcerer’s incantation. Or a rogue AI, unburdened by conscience, bent on overwriting our reality. Or perhaps you’re confronting some failed science experiment, a monstrosity fixated on destroying the very order upon which our civilization thrives.
Now, whichever form you wish to give this anarchic force, imagine it has done the unthinkable by destroying all notions of genre.
That’s right. The manmade system for distinguishing offshoots of speculative fiction from one another as well as Westerns, romance and even more remote boughs of the fictional family tree has been uprooted. You’ve been cast into an overgrown wilderness where fiction is just fiction.
Your skin prickles as you consider the implications. Pushing back panic, you type the URL to your preferred bookstore. But you’re too late. The functionality to filter by category is gone; the shortcut to your favorite stories, snuffed out.
How will you ever sort through the thousands—no, millions—of books that have been published to find the science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy books you cherish?
Suddenly, inspiration strikes. With a shaky hand, you scroll through page after page of results, scrutinizing the covers. The bared torso of a muscular man surely signifies romance. See that dragon glaring at you from the thumbnail? She guards a fantasy tome.
Finally, you stumble upon a crop of covers bearing strange, shadowy figures and let out a sigh of relief.
Familiar imagery. Familiar territory. Welcome back to your comfort zone.
But are you really better off?
A history of genre
Once upon a time, there weren’t many, if any, genres. You had poetry, plays, religious texts. As more and more people learned to read—huzzah for literacy!—short fiction grew longer. The novel was born.
Most works of fiction focused on reality, including cultural clashes, economic hardships, familial discord, and the tragedies and triumphs of everyday life. These books served as a mirror, of sorts, documenting the sacred, the sublime, the very zeitgeist (and a dozen other terms heard echoing in literary criticism classrooms).
Then there were the writers who were more concerned with “what if” than “what is”…
Gothic horror’s origins can be traced back to the 18th century, but stories designed to frighten predate the medieval ages and ancient Greece alike. Probably, cavemen grunted out ghost stories as shadows flickered across their cave walls.
But when you get enough talented writers, in a short span, penning brilliant stories with a psychologically dark tone and featuring supernatural terrors, that type of story is bound to get a name. While some, like Edgar Allan Poe, focused almost exclusively on the macabre and strange, other authors contributed to that cannon while also pursuing other subjects. We remember Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker for their respective monster stories, but those weren’t the only styles they wrote.
Writing horror didn’t preclude them from also writing historical fiction, political thrillers, and even romance.
Did J.R.R. Tolkien invent fantasy, or does the credit belong to the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh? Would science fiction have thrived if prolific writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury hadn’t greased the gears? Does it even matter?
Genre is a human contrivance that allows us to group similar books. But whereas once genre was but a handful of categories, a survey of modern categorization reveals an impossibly complex web of interrelated themes and tropes. Genres are convenient. Maybe too convenient.
We live in a world of sub-sub-subgenres. Children’s spine-chilling horror, anyone? How about alternate history steampunk with magical realism? Or would you prefer YA paranormal romance featuring shifters? If you know what you like, it’s easy to find it.
Which is a damn shame.
The hidden threat
Readers love genres. Grouping similar titles increases a reader’s chances of finding his or her next favorite book or series. No need to dig through a stack of random novels. Just follow the breadcrumbs.
We writers love genres too. After all, an author wants to reach his or her audience. What better way to do that than reducing a story to its key elements, seasoning the narrative with the character types and settings readers desire/demand, and then wrapping it in a package that displays the fonts and graphics a potential buyer is predisposed to purchase?
Genres are win-win!
On the surface, yes, but doesn’t limiting one’s options—whether as a writer or a reader—also limit the potential to find unexpected treasures? What if a self-identified fan of speculative fiction is missing out on some of the best stories because he or she interprets all literary fiction as “the boring stuff”?
Sometimes I worry that genre writers won’t reach their full potential because they have settled into a cozy niche. Worse, by giving readers exactly what they (seem to) want, these authors are pandering. If the people want zombies, give them zombies. Sure, we’ll add a unique little twist, but ultimately, they’re still recognizable as zombies.
Over time, genres become bloated, stale, and somewhat incestuous. Subgenres cater to those who want even less latitude in their literary wanderings. A + B + C – D = the sweet spot. It’s awfully specific and frighteningly formulaic.
Where’s the innovation? If authors paint only within their genre-defined lines, how will readers ever receive something new? Art is all about taking risks. That means both writers and readers should pay less attention to genre than things like composition, characterization, and, dare I say, experimentation.
I’ve been a genre junky for most of my life. Fantasy and science fiction were my bread and butter as a reader as well as a writer. In fact, I’ve published a trilogy—a trilogy!—firmly entrenched in the realm of sword-and-sorcery fantasy.
Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but, hey, a man can change. Although I burned out on reading and writing fantasy a while back, I’d gladly write another fantasy adventure if fans demanded it. As a reader, I still pick up the occasional magical, medieval adventure story. But I will also read thrillers, chick lit, graphic novels, and whatever else catches my eye.
Another admission: I am sensitive to this topic because my new novel, If Souls Can Sleep, is something of a genre-bender. There’s a dash of fantasy, a sprinkle of sci-fi, as well as hints of mystery, paranormal, literary fiction, and even metafiction.
Frankly, the book is bizarre.
While I consider that a strength, others might disagree. Actually, others did disagree. Several editors at notable publishing houses lauded the story, but because they couldn’t envision on which bookshelf it should live—because If Souls Can Sleep intentionally straddles genres—they wouldn’t take a chance on it.
If the story had suffered as a result of breaking down genre barriers, I would have understood. Yet I can’t agree with the stance that a story should be penalized because it doesn’t fit snugly inside the box of one sub-sub-subgenre or another.
In related news, a beta reader recently told me If Souls Can Sleep might fit into the slipstream genre, which I had never heard of. Neither, apparently, has Amazon.com, making If Souls Can Sleep a book without a clear-cut category.
So be it.
The status quo
For those who seek out stories that star similar characters and string together familiar plots, a world without genres probably sounds like the apocalypse. Don’t worry. As much as I’d love to see a world with a little more chaos, I lack the power—arcane or otherwise—to rid the planet of genres.
A genre-free future isn’t likely to arrive anytime soon. In the meantime, all I can do is ask readers and writers alike to lean a little less on the crutch of tropes and types in order to push the limits of storytelling and explore uncharted territory.
Here’s to living dangerously!
First he lost his daughter. His mind may be next.
After years of being haunted by the day his little girl drowned, Vincent faces a new nightmare — one that reaches into the real world and beyond the grave.
If Souls Can Sleep introduces a hidden world where gifted individuals possess the power to invade the dreams of others. Two rival factions have transformed the dreamscape into a war zone where all reality is relative and even the dead can’t rest in peace.
Available in paperback and for Kindle here: https://www.amazon.com/Souls-Sleep-Soul-Cycle-Book-ebook/dp/B0785M6RVZ
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
She is also a co-founder of Ladies of Horror Fiction, though she has stepped down to regular crew level.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.
I agree. Genre is mostly used by booksellers to put books into neat little boxes, but not all books fit in those boxes. My book doen’t fit well in any one genre; it’s too mature for YA, not “fantastic” or gory enough for horror, not action-packed enough for thriller. It’s really retro Southern Gothic, but apparently that’s not really a genre…
I think its interesting that most authors feel the genre is too restrictive, but most readers don’t seem to mind it!
I partly agree and partly don’t. I do think there are far too many sub-sub genres but on the other hand there are books that I know, for sure, that I will not like and if you have no idea of the genre then you’re conceivably paying money for a book that you (if it were genred) you’d know you wouldn’t like. Fewer, simpler genres, though, would help narrow it down. Yes, I could be missing some books that might catch my attention but I don’t think a reader should be ‘required’ to read outside of their chosen genre or area of interest.
For instance, I’m not a fan of many paranormal romances and I hate getting a book shelved under ‘horror’ when it’s anything but.
On the other hand, a lot of books and movies are hurt by being tossed into a category which they don’t really belong to so people reading/watching with a set expectation might react more negatively towards it because of the lack of even a hint of the genre it might be in. This could only hurt the author in the long run. It wouldn’t be fair to the writer to get a bunch of negative reviews because the reader was misled on its genre or area of interest.
Music is starting to fall down the sub-sub-sub-genre rabbit hole as well. I have two: What I like and What I Don’t, lol
I have to say, I don’t entirely agree. I like having genres! I know which ones I like (SFF), and it does help me find books I like. But I do like all sorts of subgenres and genre mash-ups/crossovers. Crossovers have helped introduce me to new subgenres even. So I don’t think books *have* to stay within the lines, strictly adhering to a single genre’s formula. Interesting thoughts in the post though!
It is an interesting post. I think personally I like knowing where a book falls generally but not super specific!
I’m such a mood reader that I usually want to know what I’m getting into when I pick up a book and genres help me do that. Every now and again I’ll go into something cold and it works out but usually it doesn’t.
I agree completely. In my four book series I deliberately blurred genre lines. A major theme of the novels is that the Outsiders are never defined–they are deceptive by their nature and present themselves to the humans they influence as angels or aliens or ghosts–whatever they think a particular human is most likely to believe.
But I never commit myself to what they really are, and whether my books are Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror, depends in large part on how the readers answer the question “what are the Outsiders?” for themselves.
What do people most often shelve your books as, then? Just out of curiosity!
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