I Say Genre, You Say Genre

Steampunk” is my new favorite word. I think it should be the name of a band but it’s the name of a fiction subgenre, unfortunately for aspiring musicians.

I’d never heard of it until I started researching exactly where my recently-finished novel fits in. There are about eight million genres these days. I’m pretty sure when To Kill A Mockingbird came out, it was simply regarded as Fiction. Now it would probably be “Gothic Fiction,” or “Coming of Age Fiction.” Or, more likely, “Gothic Coming of Age in the South Fiction.”

Those novels that can’t be categorized cleanly, like mine, are lumped into literary fiction or mainstream fiction. The two genres are similar and the lines between them seem a bit blurred, depending on where you look.

This hyper-need to define and categorize down to the eighth sub-plot, or lack of, has created quite the battle between the Literary and Commercial genres. (Commercial being composed of the many subgenres, like Romance and Western. And Steampunk, Cowpunk, and Butterflypunk. Just kidding on the last one.)

Literary writers are demonized for caring too much about the words themselves and not enough about plot. Highfalutin, they are. They care about the craft. In Hollywood, they’d be the Method actors who pretend to be homeless for two weeks to prepare for a role.

Commercial writers are demonized for ignoring the beauty of the language for the excitement of the plot. Dumbed down, they are. The Transformers movies.

There’s all manner of stuff written about this apparent enmity. There are hundreds of blog posts and articles titled, “Literary vs. Commercial.” (Which is why I didn’t use it for this post.) Most recently, I read of it HERE, where the author stated that plot IS more important because that’s all anyone ever remembers. I argued in the comments that we also remember stories that are well told, and the words matter. He’d quoted Homer and Shakespeare, for crying out loud. Not such bad writers.

I’m more with agent Donald Maass, who just wrote a book about the merging of commercial and literary fiction. For me and many others, both matter. The best of the best write beautiful sentences that string together an interesting story.

But not everyone focuses on both. Some writers care more about plot. Some writers care more about language. My question is, Who cares? In an age when we have the subgenres of Frat Lit and Synthetic Biology, Decadent and Dying Earth, it’s clear there is more than one way to skin a cat. And write a book.

**I just have to list some more subgenres I found because they sound so perplexing and/or ridiculous (apologies to writers of these): Feghoot, Fabulist, Quiet or Soft, Rampant Animals, Firm Science, Generation Ship, and Wetware Computer.

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28 thoughts on “I Say Genre, You Say Genre

    • I included a link on the word above, but it’s hard to see on my blog. Here’s what Wikipedia says: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by a setting in which steam power predominates as the energy source for industrial technologies. Typically, therefore, works of steampunk are set in an alternate history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or the American Wild West.

  1. During my first writing course in college, I was lucky enough to be taught by Benjamin Percy. I remember him sarcastically saying that those in the literary world often say the word “genre” with a sneer and a curl of the lip. He went on to have his story, Refresh, Refresh, made into a beautiful graphic novel and his talent is getting more and more recognition. I’m glad when writers cross from one genre to another. You’re right: A good story is well-told in language and pacing, and through compelling characters.

    Though the “Wetware Computer” genre does perplex me. . .

  2. Can’t answer your question….all sounds like “gobbely-gook” to me. Can’t wait to find your book on the shelves, if it is as good as your blog I’m going to love it…..now what should I look under???

    • Why thank you.
      As far as I can tell, look in Fiction under “V” for Vealitzek. Honestly – I went to Barnes & Noble, and that’s where it would be–in ten years, considering how long the process takes.

  3. Music lovers have the same problem – shoegaze, lo-fi, J-pop/K-pop, Britpop, alt-folk, post-wave, queercore, Riot grrrl, hard bop, chillwave, etc. It’s a bit insane. I have decided that only two genres are needed – for music, literature, film, or pretty much anything else: “Awesome” and “Sucky”. That kinda covers it as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

    • I know – I just want to tell agents, “Well, it’s awesome fiction.”
      I think the People Who Make Labels are trying to keep up with all the cross-genre stuff. So, Mumford & Sons is “folk rock” or “Indie”–which seems to be like mainstream fiction and encompass everything.

    • Same here — I just write. I wasn’t thinking anything about genre when I started, and I’ve been writing seriously for 15 years. When pressed, I would shrug and say, “I don’t know; it’s fiction. No vampires, no aliens, no sex scenes, just fiction.” But I’m a bit stubborn; I don’t like to be boxed in even though I understand it from a marketing perspective.

  4. Yes, from a marketing perspective you have to pay ‘some’ attention. But, that is very much the direction many aspects of life in general are moving…like maybe it is too boring to deal only with a few aspects of a piece of writing, but now we have to drill down into the nitty gritty on everything and then exaggerate it until we are all gagging from it. I think it makes life very complicated…definitely can put a damper on creativity if you let it.

    • Yes, you’re right–it does makes things more complicated. More things to fit in your brain, more pieces to the puzzle you’re making. As I start researching my next novel, it’s sort of in the back of my mind but I’m not too worried about it. It can’t lead anywhere good to worry too much as you’re writing.

  5. It’s enough to drive you mad isn’t it? What I have been learning is this. If your query letter is good enough to get an agent or publisher’s attention, and the it’s a solid well written story it will get picked up. Then let the experts decide what the genre really is. The genre of my short story and novel has grown from Crime to Historical Crime to Historical Mafia-Crime. And each time it changes I say..”Okay. Whatever you say” LOL! Well done Jess!

  6. Genre is definitely a problem for me. I never know where to place my books. They are mostly chick-lit, but not sophisticated or romantic enough for true chick-lit enthusiasts, and as the mystery is secondary, there isn’t enough action up front to please a mystery reader. My market is probably a smaller market of readers, but I will try to find them. 🙂 I love the word steampunk, and some of the illustrations associated with the books are awesome. Wetware Computer — I had one of those earlier this week when I dropped my mp3 player into a glass of water and ruined it.

  7. I heart reading slipstream. This post is funny and true, as a writer you sorta have to know where your work fits in so you can target an agent, but I think when you’re at the desk writing the only thing that should matter is the story at hand. I hate the business side of writing. I wish I could just be creative 100% of the time. 🙂

    • Yes, that would be fun. Though I do like the business side–once it actually gets going. I used to direct communications, so I like coming up with messaging and marketing. It can be creative. Though I like writing books a whole lot better.
      Had to look up slipstream–thanks for adding to my vocabulary!

  8. Pingback: Events: Is Crime the new Literary Fiction « crime thriller girl

  9. Hey, no skinning cats!
    Slipstream? Usually, it’s some sort of fantastique, but “slipstream” sounds more serious. As for genres, they’re for bookshelves in the stores. Easier to sell that way.

  10. I have looked at this debate previously, as I wasn’t sure what constituted commercial and literary. You have clarified the terms more than any other person so far, thanks! Whilst reading or writing, words coupled with plot are essential to me. There are some books that remain my favourite, because of their use of both so wonderfully; these to me are the books that stand the test of time.

    • Yes, I agree. It’s my goal, too. And the plot doesn’t always have to be crazy, I don’t think. Things have to happen, but as long as the story, no matter how loud or quiet, is moving along and told well, I’ll keep reading.
      Thanks, Savvy!

      • Thanks for the response Jessica! I agree with that, I think sometimes merely an opening line is enough to grab you if written well enough! Words are very powerful if applied correctly; look at lyrics of songs!

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