Writers Write is your one-stop resource for writers. In this post, we ask: Is genre a straitjacket?
Some writers believe their stories don’t fit into the neat pigeonholes of an Exclusive Books or Amazon. They prickle when you bring up the subject of popular and commercial genres like romance or suspense. It’s a straitjacket: constricting, narrow, stereotypical.
Testing your story
But does it have to be? Genre is a great litmus test—it simplifies and illuminates. It can help the writer focus—maybe make the suspense tighter, give more attention to a romantic sub-plot or rethink a theme. Genre can make a story immeasurably stronger because it suggests a proven structure where readers feel comfortable. Structure gives strength. Genre can teach a writer discipline and focus. It can also stretch the imagination.
Perhaps the problem is when writers see only the limits of genre. Instead of meeting the challenges of genre, they end up with a mushy manuscript that often can’t be marketed—or sold.
Experiments not Accidents!
That’s not to say that experimental forms must be dismissed. Bret Easton Ellis uses blank fiction to show the bleak and fascinating ennui of his characters’ lives. He uses it because only something anti-generic can be a lens for his characters, not because he is confused or lazy.
The Hunger Games trilogy similarly uses speculative fiction to show a dystopian future and the effects of an authoritarian regime. In fact, the strength of speculative fiction has led to it becoming a compelling hybrid of many other established genres.
Pushing the limits
Writers can make popular genres work if they look at pushing the boundaries without breaking them. Genre offers many rewards if a writer can see the endless possibilities and permutations within its parameters.
I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler, who took the detective novel with its genteel drawing room mystery, and gave it a new authenticity by adding hard-boiled criminal characters to the mix. I’m betting he didn’t find genre boring.
Who, for you, has been a pioneer in popular fiction?