Mixing Genres: Are We Committing Career Suicide?

WOSLetterMI’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’

15 thoughts on “Mixing Genres: Are We Committing Career Suicide?”

  1. Jennifer, you so eloquently put words to my own thinking. I am going to post the link on Facebook for my writing friends. Thanks for helping me articulate what I believe (and do) re genre.

  2. There are genre expectations, I guess, but as far as rules, the only genre that I’m aware of that sets pretty strict guidelines for its writers is romance–especially when delving into the sub-genres. Perhaps science fiction and fantasy get the most freedom, because what they work with is largely speculative and expected to come from the mysterious grey area of the imagination. In any case, it is a compromise, but everything in writing is something of a compromise, from the first draft to the final, there will always be things we have to cut, either because we ourselves recognize that they must go, or because someone in a better position to see the big market picture advises us as to the right career path.

    1. Hi njmagas. Most readers of genre fiction have expectations–I’m thinking Thriller, Horror, Mystery, Crime, Noir. Each have distinctive elements that set them apart, for example a crime as a driving force, or an antagonistic force/character that shadows the plot. Science fiction and fantasy have their tropes too. I so agree with you about compromise and cutting, which is part of the inevitable editing process. Thanks for the visit and for your thoughtful comments.

      1. Sorry I wrote that at midnight over here and should have been more clear. I was talking more from the publisher’s side of things. Of course the readers have expectations of the genres that they read, but as far as I’m aware, romance is the only genre where the publishers lay out strict guidelines for their writers to follow. But I could be mistaken. 🙂

        1. Yes, that’s true, because the imprints (Harlequin, for example) have very niche markets, and you’re right, they’re very specific about whatever formulae work for them. (And some wonderful things come out to play at midnight:)

  3. I love your conclusion. I write from the heart. If I cannot write what I want to write, my readers will suffer. Three novels to my name and a fourth manuscript complete and being edited–all different genres. My readers can’t wait to see what I do next.

    1. The heart is the best place to write from. Then the brain goes to work:) Thanks for weighing in, Doug, and congratulations on writing so prolifically and building a following.

  4. Other Susan here Jennifer! Loved your post thank you. ‘Genre’ has always given me the heeby jeebs but I can see its relevance in terms of readers’ focus narrowing somewhat – but rules I guess can be broken as long as we know what they are?

    Garden of Eden Blog

    1. Hi Susan, you’re right, rules are best broken when we know what they are and how they work. I guess knowledge really is power, because it gives us a deeper sense of authority. Thanks for visiting and for your comments:)

  5. I think mixing genres is fun for the writer, but it adds an extra layer of disbelief so you have to be careful. I also think writers aren’t normal readers. And because we tend to interact with other writers, we don’t understand that readers want specific genres, not genre-blending. If there can be a ‘main’ genre in the story, even if others are present, that should hopefully help with the ‘shelving’ problem.

    1. Hi Jennifer, I’d be curious to know whether you published your novel, and how it did. I really believe that a sense of the writer’s passion, which was surely another ingredient of your first novel, comes across to the reader. Thanks for popping in:)

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