I’ve always believed that a story is created for the story’s sake, and not to fit a mold or template. I subscribed to the notion that if characters lived, they were intrinsic to the novel’s unfolding, and their agendas might differ from that of the author. There’s magic in that conflict between writer and work; it gives an edge to storytelling and authenticity to a fabricated journey, the product of the author’s imagination. I still believe it, but I’ve also come to realize that if I’m to feed my family, I must walk a path of compromise.
The compromise is genre: knowing its rules and, while breaking some of them, adhering to the ones that still give my characters room to maneuver and allow them to breathe. The truth is, hybrids struggle more than ever, partly because they generally fall into the realm of literary or mainstream fiction, genres themselves, for which the bar is set incredibly high.
Genres have come into their own because:
- The reader’s focus has narrowed. Not long ago, you could browse in a bookshop for hours, picking up random books with intriguing covers and blurbs and possibly choosing one that you wouldn’t normally read because you liked the look of it. Obviously, there are still bookshops around and this is still an option, but more and more readers are gravitating towards Amazon, where millions of books are housed in a digital warehouse the size of Jupiter. It’s a bit like Netflix. When I look for a movie, I’ll take a quick glance through the main page, then click on TV series or thrillers to narrow my search. Better still, I’ll type in the name of a director or actor and quickly zone in on something I’d like to watch. A hybrid falls somewhere between all these channels, and unless the reader is looking for a specific author, or has heard some buzz around a specific book, most of the browsing s/he will do will be in a genre of his/her choice.
- Many readers want to be surprised, but not too much. To encounter something unique and fresh, but not too different. While some readers are adventurous, still more like to stay close to their comfort zones. When you’ve been pushing through a hard day’s work, chances are you’re not going to want to push through your down time too. You’ll want to relax in the arms of a writer you trust to deliver the chills, emotional depth, conflict or drama you expect.
- The reader who wants to be entertained will largely be guided by genre. That’s because thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, romance and fantasy all have tropes, formulas that work and deliver what’s anticipated. Some of them have been done to death, but their very familiarity allows the reader to get comfortable and immerse herself in a world of (predictable) design. Without having to work too hard or think too much.
- Conversely, there are readers who love a challenge, and brilliant genre writers who continue to push the boundaries of tropes and formulae. This is probably where I’m most happy, as both writer and reader. Tana French is an Irish crime writer whose books have won numerous mystery/thriller awards, and they’re seriously good. Her voice, plotting and characters are distinctive, and she knows so much about police procedure, you’d think she was a member of the force herself. She doesn’t compromise her writing to suit her genre; her genre serves her.
Genre’s job should be to act as a guide rather than a rigid classification, but maybe that’s just me—rigid gives me hives. I don’t see any point in writing without a sense of creative expansiveness, even experimentation, and risk. A computer can’t write a book, although sometimes I wonder if that’s the way we’re headed. In the meantime, the best thing to do as a writer is probably the best thing to do in all things—find a balance between conformity and rebellion that you can live with, and live on.
Next up: Robin with ‘N’