We live in a world that can be described rather aptly as inhabiting the Information Age. The world around us is continually being quantified, described, catalogued, organised, indexed, stored, and defined. With such continuing developments, we’ve seen the emergence of more and more genres, sub-genres and even sub-sub-genres as books are written by an ever-expanding body of people.
It is natural that we wish to understand the world around us, but it is my opinion that we are too eager to define what we see when it comes to items as complicated as a book. Even novels themselves vary in length, to the point where we have even further subdivisions to define what kind of story is written, including novellas and epics.
We like to look at a story as simply being say, fantasy, crime, or non-fiction. It gives us an idea of how it fits into our previous experiences with novels. When we encounter a fantasy book we often expect that there will be magic, otherwordly beasts and experiences, grand settings and even a whole new universe.
The more you read, though, the more likely it is that you will encounter books that don’t seem to fit within that genre but also don’t seem to quite fit better anywhere else. You might say that you like fantasy but not like The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Books are more complicated than just their genre.
What we often don’t realise is that genre is blurry, and very much so. There are plenty of books that will fit snugly into the middle of certain genres, particularly those which were ground-breaking enough to have really defined what those genres were. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a series that did just that. It changed what fantasy was and gave the genre an identifiable face.
Books are such complex devices, though, that they do not only have one genre within them. Almost every book ever written involves either romance or tragedy, to varying degrees. The ‘microgenres’ within a book can affect us even more than the book’s broad genre can.
While this is something that we might be able to recognise when we place ourselves in the mindset of a reader, it is something that we often forget when we place ourselves in the mindset of an author. While the overarching genre of a story gives readers an idea of what to expect, it can also create those expectations for a writer as they produce the story itself.
We might think to ourselves that our reader doesn’t want a lovey-dovey romance in a science-fiction setting, and tone it down. We might believe that our reader won’t appreciate the wanton violence of a character in the midst of a romance, but these are self-limiting ideas.
The important thing to realise is that genres are a construction that is more forced and artificial than a novel. A genre is made to categorise what exists, but it should not constrain a future creation. A story is organic, and has its own path to take. What flows naturally with the narrative is what should happen, not what the reader might expect. There need not be a twist just because you are writing a thriller, for example.
Now, I’m not trying to advocate for some kind of anti-genre rebellion. I want for you to remember that the integrity of the story is more important than the integrity of the genre. A good story should not be sacrificed for the mere necessity of ‘fitting in’. If the authors of the past had sacrificed their own integrity so, we would not have so many of the stories that we have today.