Genrethought

4 Jun

Random writerly thinky-thoughts that y’all have probably had before, hence the sharing, as usual:

We’re all forced to think in terms of genre. Well, saying “forced” is bad, because as much as the willful punk in me wants to say “fuck the labels!” the truth is that I find them handy when applied to objects. People, eh, not so much, but what can you do? The problem is that books are as complex as people — as many people, depending on how many characters, places, and important objects we’re talking about living in those pages. Thing is, without genre and subgenre labels, I would never discover any books for myself. Yeah, I do tend to go on recommendation, but there are also certain words that’ll draw me to books I’ve never heard of before, especially in the right combination, and in a broad way, that’s what genre’s all about. “A world without genre” sounds fucking awful, let’s be serious.

Writers complain all the damn time about genre and how it makes them feel restricted. Writers are readers first (well, the ones with a hope of being any good are), though, and that means they also understand perfectly well the usefulness of genre labels, and are just as likely to be annoyed or even depressed when their expectations for a given label are dashed by a book. To use a shockingly self-centered example — people who’ve read the superpowered romance I do are usually surprised, be it pleasantly or unpleasantly*, at how little my main characters are bothered to explain, justify, and in some cases utilize their powers in the pre-approved and oft-utilized mode of modern paranormal romance.

And that’s okay, because you gotta do things your own way, or it’s fake. I can smell a faker within the first few pages of a book, and it’s cringey; I don’t want to be that guy. The story itself is a communication, a connection, a conversation**, but how to know if it’s one you want to have? Yes, self-centered artiste, your Great American Novel really is the wank your family thinks it is, if that’s how you’re gonna be about it.

So, okay, fine. What do you do if there’s just no good subgenre that’ll set people up for expectation? I think that’s why most of us who like working with the more specialized, independent publishers are so comfortable there, to be honest. They’re not concerned that your book is one half urban fantasy one half horror with an unhealthy romantic subplot — they just want the good story. I knew going in with Scripped (because yeah, that’s an accurate description of it, genre-wise) that I’d disappoint someone’s expectations, genre-wise. That sucks, but it’s okay, too. Part of the job, and at least I know I made a good faith effort to try and explain to people what they’d be getting into with it.

I’m staring down the barrel of Katey Hawthorne’s fourth romance novel right now, as I may have mentioned because eeeee! Ahem. Anyhow, if my first three were weird as hell for the genre, this one is even more left field. Instead of taking the real world and adding a quantifiable paranormal element, with all the rules and regulations that entails, I’m making a magical element straight out of folktales and forcing it to be taken as real. That sounds like the same thing, but it’s not, in terms of reader expectation or author intention. Like, not at all.

So that sounds like magical realism. But it’s also not, because there’s just way too much history that confuses the definitions there; there’s the post-colonial baggage, which can either imply misappropriation*** or political intention, be it casual or pointed; there’s the implication that it’s someone just trying to shake off the supposedly low-rent “fantasy” label (which is a ridiculous black-and-white way to look at it — plus, have you met me?); and of course there’s the fact that it’s not quite right.  Yeah, there’s the appropriate amount of metaphor involved, and the magic exists to challenge the readers’ reality construct — but the characters, though they have far less work to do and far less intention of explaining it to themselves, are aware that the world they live in doesn’t accept it, either. The point is: there it is, and it’s not actually a big deal, and it never should be. Still, that kinda DQs it from MR.

Plus, who wants to explain magical realism? Fuck, ain’t no one who can, as far as I’ve seen; I just kinda go with my gut based on the million and twelve articles I’ve read on the subject.

My question is: how do you reconcile these things for your readers as best you can? (Cuz if I’m not willing to do that, I don’t deserve their consideration, let alone their hard-earned cash.) Also, how much in terms of flowers and chocolate is it appropriate to send to your publisher for thanking them for taking the massive chance on your book and giving it a go?

I don’t know, man, but I’m open to suggestion. All I could think of was to let the book describe itself, so that’s what I did in my superpowered love post today. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, because I know the people who mostly see this deal with the same questions daily.

Phew. And in closing, I’m inclined to think that those who call romance shallow trash are, in fact, the shallow ones. They’re clearly not fucking paying attention, because this shit makes you question everything — yeah, in a different way than horror or fantasy or sci fi, but come on, just listen for three seconds and it’s obvious. God forbid someone gets kissed instead of gutted. Therefore, I’d like to take this opportunity to cordially invite them to go fuck themselves. While I’m on the subject.

*Both are cool. Hell, I still have trouble believing people let me entertain them like this at all, let alone that they’d star or review the things; I will be the last to complain about any view of it. Too busy groveling.

**I don’t believe in stories that must be taken a certain way. No room for interpretation? That’s just propaganda.

***It’s an anglo folktale I’m using, the kind of sea-bride thing, but I mean misappropriation of the classification label.

9 Responses to “Genrethought”

  1. JodiLee June 4, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    I hate defining my work by genre, and I so hate asking all you to define yours for Belfire. It just… I dunno. Sticks in my craw. Or claw. Or something.

    ;)

    • Katey June 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Our inner “fuck that noise!” punks are having fun together right now. <3

  2. Raven June 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    I feel lots of twinkly <3s at you right now.

    • Katey June 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Two of my favorite things: twinkles and hearts!

  3. Cate Gardner June 6, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    I try not to start off with genre. I can try, like I so need to write a horror story, but once the plot and the characters have evolved it could end up a totally different genre, or several genres. I heart the small press. Especially magazines that accept a wide spectrum of genres so I don’t have to worry if my story fits the brief.

    • Katey June 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      I don’t think I start with genre either — even with the two pennames it’s more “happy ending” vs “rocks fall everyone dies”. But even with the small press, we do have to talk about our books to get them to people, is all I mean. How do people know what to say? DOES anyone know what to say?

      You seem to be the best at it. Can I take lessons?

  4. Meghan June 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    I have fits with the whole thing and usually wind up just adjusting a bit depending on the crowd. In front of rennies, it’s a book about Festival. If I’m somewhere with a lot of slash fic, it’s a love story featuring two women. If I’m in more of a nerdy crowd, it’s urban fantasy. If I’m at a circle, it’s Pagan fic. But ultimately it all drives me nuts because each genre is just a tiny corner of what the whole thing is supposed to be.

    Someday I hope to start a new genre, though maybe there is no such thing. Popular consensus is that Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is one of the founders of urban fantasy, but I do rather wonder about how Beowulf was viewed by its contemporaries….

    • Katey June 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

      Yeah, that’s something I didn’t really think to mention, and super important: the whole thing where you highlight different aspects for different audiences. But on your blog and website, you have to say something that… at once captures all of those and doesn’t limit. Which I think you’ve been amazing with — especially considering the MASSIVE cross genre appeal of the Faire Folk stuff as an example.

      Le SIGH. MY LIFE IS SO HARD.

      Who do we have to eat out to get our own genre, anyhow?

  5. Milo James Fowler June 9, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    “Let the book describe itself” — I like that approach. But then again, none of my novels have been published (yet). I too like to cross genres with a vengeance, but I’m lousy at pigeonholing my work. I recently blogged about “branding,” and I know it’s important from the publishers’ standpoint, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could just write and readers would naturally follow?

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