Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Genre Debate

Today, guest writer, Claire Fryer, shares some interesting insights about genre writing:

The Genre Debate

A few years ago, that great juggernaut of Canadian literary fiction, Margaret Atwood, re-opened the can of worms regarding what makes “science fiction”…well, science fiction. Atwood’s discussion of the term “speculative fiction”, emphasized in its application to her best-selling Maddaddam Trilogy, fell under the category of what several writers and critics already believed science fiction covered – that is, challenging the social, political, historical, etc. modes which are presented in variations of their current modern context; literally to speculate. Utopian and dystopian alternate universes are one great example. 

Atwood possibly wished to disassociate herself from the mainstream understanding of science fiction as the spaceship-ridden galactic whimsy which has bridged the outskirts of pop culture with shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, rather than explore a more open-minded view of the genre. But the debate – regardless of how old – does raise a very important question about the concept of genre itself. Writers don’t just need to focus on being good writers – they need to have a fairly good understanding of the arena they are playing in too.

Audience Is Everything

Writers often say they write for themselves, and many can get by with this – by nature writers are curious, intuitive, and introspective, searching for answers and exploring for possibilities – and chances are, if a writer can portray this in an engaging way, they will share common interests with an audience. So where does genre come into this? 

The less sexy side of writing, a.k.a. the publishing industry, will say that it’s about marketability. Readers will flock to a certain section in the bookstore for a reason; choosy readers will immediately search for their author of choice. Some will even search for specific plot lines, archetypes, a stereotypical hero or one who breaks the mold – strong female empowerment, for instance.

Where publication is concerned a writer must be prepared to put a label on their work, and be familiar with the audience they are writing for – or perhaps more importantly, hope to write for. This shouldn’t dictate the overall narrative or style of the text on a huge scale, but can work as a source of inspiration rather than another commercial confinement. 

For instance, a writer might decide to take some of the norms of the genre and work freely within them and subvert them – take the work of Neil Gaiman, for instance – who blends science fiction, fantasy, and hysterical fiction to create highly entertaining novels and short stories which are adapted for the screen. This kind of creativity can enhance the genre and expand its horizons (think of the innovative work of Frank Herbert, especially Dune) or even give birth to an entirely new genre on its own, but one which will still appeal to a target audience.

Getting It Right

So how does a writer distinguish between a fine line of diversifying a genre or defying it completely? Well, these are things that an intuitive editor should be able to help out with, but as always, a writer’s gut feeling is the most important. There are different ways to approach a genre, just as there are topics. Approaching a genre can be the same as finding different ways to explore a study – take education for instance. It can be examined on a technical point of view, as well as a social and cultural one, even political. But there are several aspects in which a perception of education as an issue can be viewed. 

A genre, just like a story, can be approached in much the same way – if genre is going to play an influential role in the story, then it’s important to consider what and how you want to treat it, and to explore its subgenres as well. Will you introduce a new kind of character type? Will you change the dynamics of traditional story layouts? Are you going to critique or parody the genre, celebrate it, make it accessible to more readers or narrow it down to a few niche connoisseurs?

However you decide to treat genre, just make sure it is purposeful. Although some of the greatest literary ideas have occurred by accident, avid readers tend to be very critical about how a book adheres to or usurps different themes – so whether you choose to untangle a genre or follow it closely, just be sure that it’s intentional – even if you leave a little questioning to the audience. And of course, it’s also okay to cross into more than one genre at a time as well. As with everything, remember that while focus is the key to a great work, you have the freedom to explore endless possibilities until you get there.

Special thanks to Claire Fryer for sharing this article with Coaching for Writers. I welcome guest writers. If you are a writer and would like to contribute an article offering tips about writing, publishing or marketing books to this blog, contact Brian(at)BrianMoreland(dot)com. Have a great day!

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