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Why Genre Is Such A Big Tragedy

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Genre. I loved it once. The word. The very concept. That delightful French-style curl on the ‘-r’ that makes it less of a word and more of a noise. But I’ve come to a recent realisation, one that makes me sad and angry and a little bit giddy, all at the same time.

Genre’s a bitch.

I think I first started to come to terms with this fact back in college. I’d grown up with genre; I knew my sci-fi from my fantasy, my horror from my thriller and even if I wasn’t able to put those differences into words, I knew it deep down in my soul. I was lucky enough to have a damn good English teacher in secondary school (well…teachers…though I did have the same one for four out of six years); he never said as much, but I know he loved and admired genre too.

So when I got to college to study…y’know, English, I expected to have even more of it. We even had a specific course looking at theatre by genre, period and theme. It was called Theatre: Genre, Period and Theme. (I’m impressed that I remember that.) I could be misremembering, but there were definitely some confused faces around the room when that discussion came up. (That said, it was first year in the arts block, and we all know what people say about arts students…)

Genre was something of a Holy Grail to me back in those days; it got mentioned in a lot of essays. Sometimes I was making the argument that “well, this is X genre, so of course we can expect this to happen.” And then I started challenging things. And blurring the lines. Some of my favourite research and essays argued against genre, making out that Charles Dickens was re-writing fairytales or that certain Greek tragedies were actually comedies.

I was deconstructing left, right and centre. And I wasn’t entirely comfortable with talking genre anymore; there was something about the concept that was withering and dying, some part of me that got to a point where I couldn’t really define genre any longer. Everything crossed over. Everything.

Maybe it says more about me than genre, but that’s the point where my relationship with genre really started to change: I didn’t want to read or see “pure” genre any more. Mostly because I didn’t believe a pure genre exists; I still don’t.

It’s terribly postmodern of me, I know. And I know that there are a million arguments otherwise. But as a writer (and more importantly, a reader) turning my back on the concept of genre has helped me to broaden my horizons in a way I never thought possible; I’ve read and enjoyed books (and movies) that I’d never have thought of watching, and I’ve written scenes that I never thought would come out of my own brain.

See, too much of our industry is defined by genre. And there are very good reasons for that: publishing houses operate a business, and I’m not naïve enough to think that money doesn’t drive the market. But that doesn’t define a genre, and it certainly shouldn’t define stories or characters; it should be the other way around entirely. And if that leaves us with a new genre that consists of one work…all the better for it.

For me, genre isn’t the Holy Grail that it once was: it’s a tiny feature, something that helps to categorise what you’re writing. Or reading. Or watching. It’s nothing more than that. So why limit yourself?

Let’s face it: the industry is changing. Self-publishing, e-readers and social media are giving readers and writers more power. There’s a broader choice than ever before. So why is genre still treated like a dirty (or hallowed) word?

Genre and I…we’re not friends anymore. A big part of our falling out came when I started writing Godhead. It started as a contemporary fantasy, but that felt like a dirty word, the quaint black sheep that the rest of the industry indulged with a pitying smile. But I felt that any discussion about genre undersold everything that I put into Godhead; genre ignored all the research I did on Greek mythology, the personal experiences that helped to shape scenes or characters in the book.

But as a writer, I know I have to play the game; I have to tick some boxes and I’m not going to overhaul the industry single-handedly. Because the industry isn’t built by writers, or even by agents or publishers: we’re just the bricks and pebbledashing, but it’s the readers that form the concrete and the foundations.

So, dear reader…why do you play that game? Why do you populate your blog (or your Goodreads profile) by saying that you “only read straight Christian YA paranormal romance”? (No kidding, I came across this a few weeks ago. I may have the adjectives in the wrong order, but they were all there.) I can’t help but feel that such a reader is limiting their experience. And…potentially…<insert whispered accusations here> killing our industry.

There’s a lesson here that we can all learn. Embrace your genre, but don’t let it define you. It’s human nature that we learn when we’re challenged; we appreciate what we like when we have something to compare it to. And nowhere should we see that more than in the world of literature.

It’s our world, and we should build it our way. If you’re a writer, try something new: you don’t have to publish it, but spread your wings and experiment. If you’re a reader, make a point of picking up something new and different every few books.

And if you’re a genre, I’m sorry that our relationship went south: it’s not you, it’s me.

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