Sometimes I wish I spoke German. I hear the German language is much more forgiving when it comes to compound words and concepts than our own. English is a tricky little mutt.
I want to talk about genre. It’s one of the basics you learn in school, along with Aristotle’s Triangle and hero types. I suppose it makes sense on the surface: yes, it’s important to classify things. It makes our human brains happy to know that all fits into some great order; no square pegs in round holes, and the like. Romance, fantasy, western, science-fiction, history, biography, steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, suspense, crime… I could go on for miles.
But what if you don’t fit? What does genre mean really mean anyway? Are there rigid requirements? Will publishers and readers alike toss you out if you don’t conform?
I worked for a while at a huge bookstore chain, and spent a great deal of time perusing the aisles. It’s a simultaneously exciting and depressing experience. Crack open any number of published authors, in some cases best sellers, and you’re rather shocked to find bad writing. Good stories? Maybe. I’ve never been one for crime dramas, or for suspense, so I can’t really say (I think I read The Client when I was in grade school if that counts, but only after seeing the movie).
Personally, I’ve always felt more at home in the fantasy and/or science fiction department. I know it has nothing to do with the cover art and design; a momentary pass through will inform even the most aesthetically challenged that something is amiss here (warrior women holding spears and fighting dragons in bikinis, anyone?). I guess I’ve always felt comfortable with the freedom many of these writers possess–they write without filters, freely describing and coloring worlds sometimes so alien as to be nearly incomprehensible to the regular reader. There’s a stigma here, in these aisles, something that says, “You’ve got to be a dork to read this stuff.”
Hell yes. I am a dork. I’m not ashamed to admit it, you know. And it’s not to say it’s all Booker Award winning stuff; I realize, very much so, that much of what is published these days is… significantly lacking. That’s the problem with sticking within one genre. How many wizards and elves–how many dwarves and orcs, space-westerns and black holes–can we write about until we run dry? Not to dispute that there is an audience for this sort of thing, of course.
I’ve noticed, in recent years, that the Internet has had a profound impact on genre. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many people, and so many influences, have converged. At any given moment while I write, I’m a click away from Wikipedia to learn more about percussion pistols and Victorian codes of conduct that I ever knew possible. And this is important. My Masters is in English and I studied medieval English mostly, so I doubt (with the exception of Tennyson and Morris as Victorians at least) that I’d have come across anything remotely steampunk were it not for the Internet. But by the same token, I’m well aware that I am not writing your garden variety steampunk novel (if there really is such a thing–I’m not sure). There are some very romantic aspects to my story–both in the “roman” sense of the word, and in the romantic lovelorn sense–as well as aspects of good ol’ Westerns, Arthurian legends, and even a little science fiction and fantasy, for good measure. How in heck do I pitch that to a publisher?
So I ask anyone out there who might know better than I, or who has ever asked the same question. Where do the weird ones fit?
(It seems my question, in particular, is pointed toward beginning authors. People like Stephen King do it all the time–his Gunslinger books being a perfect blend of about fifty genres at last count…)