Putting yourself on A map: Navigating genre

Genre is a scary word for writers, especially those with no background in literary studies. Most writers aspire to do something unique and new, sometimes out of ignorance of someone already have done what they have in mind. It is a frightening thought for an artist to be categorized, closed in a tiny box and analyzed like they were a rock in a geology lab. But just like everyone else, every writer has a favorite genre, fantasy, science-fiction, crime, romance, YA… and when setting out to write, and one cannot avoid but bring one’s influences into one’s work.

The problem starts with surrendering to genre conventions. By reading a lot of fantasy books, you develop a feel for what is expected of you, and what the readership likes to see in their fantastical reading material. After having consumed half a shelf of crime novels, you might as well be a detective with your knowledge of procedural police-work. But is that enough?

Despite what the movie industry seems to think, today’s public is clever, and they expect clever entertainment (more about my frustration with modern-day movie writing can be understood by watching HISHE or Honest Trailers on YouTube… they get it so right… or Cinemasins). How can a writer give his or her readers the cutting edge novel they (unknowingly) want if they restrict themselves to the same things that everyone has done in the past?

Since the 60’s, it’s become incredibly popular to break genre restrictions. For the most part, this so called movement has been dubbed Postmodernism (love me some postmodernism, did my bachelor thesis on it, trying to prove Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics are postmodern), which just goes to show you that even by trying to break any conventional means of categorization, writers will eventually find themselves categorized as something. This may not have brought down the shackles of antiquated views on literature, but it did show people that genres are nothing more than guidelines. Not even that, in fact. Genres are not there for the writers, they are there for scholars, readers and marketing experts.

A reader needs genre to more or less know what to expect from a book, which will (or will not) encourage them to buy it, a scholar needs genre because without talking about literature and sounding clever about it, they’re out of a job and marketing people need genre to better find an audience for whatever book it is they are selling. We as writers can use genre to help us orient ourselves in what we want to do, but we are not bound to repeat the same thing everyone has done to date.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, mix things together, borrow elements from different genres, you’d be surprised how well things can blend together. Just as examples, I want to mention two blends of genres that work so well that I think they can be great inspiration to anyone who want to experiment a little.

Science-fiction meets western; Firefly. I thought I’d start with the exception here, i.e. something that isn’t a book. If you don’t know the show, I recommend you binge watch it right now, that’s right, stop reading and watch it. It’s a perfect blend of the best element of a desperado-type western in a science-fiction setting full of possibilities and adventure. The protagonists of the show are directly taken from your run-of-the-mill gang of misfit outlaws (former military) in the old west, but instead of a pack of horses, they have a spaceship. They even have a “city-slicker” who joins them and turns out to be useful despite his lack of experience as an outlaw. Putting this group of lovable misfits in space did open endless possibilities for the show, which was, unfortunately, cancelled before its time.

Historical (meta)fiction meets crime; The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Probably the most successful of Jonasson’s novels, the book combines a story of crime, murders, impossible investigations, tough motorcycle gangs, and a romp through history through the protagonist’s memories. Besides being a great satire and clever commentary on the nature of political conflicts, the story is endlessly hilarious. The ridiculousness of the protagonist’s journey through history continues in present day Sweden as he runs of with a drug dealing motorcycle gang’s millions.

Of course you can say that everything mixes genre to some extent, which is sort of true. The trick is in doing to consciously and for a point. Setting a love story in the 1800s does make it both a romance and a historical novel, but does it have to be? Are you truly using the conventions of both genres to say something unique? Or are you using the fact that people love love stories and are fascinated with the 1800s?

Genres are there, as constructs, for our benefit. We can pick and mix, build something new out of the what we know to present our stories, our views. A genre gives you a certain set of rules of what is expected of you, but you are free to “borrow” a different, new rule to exceed expectations and do something truly unique.

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