Should genre mean something to you, or not? A #genrecagefight special.

In Today’s Genre-Sensitive Publishing World, Might George Orwell Be *gasp* Unreadable?

Ever since ‘genre’ was invented (by Plato and Aristotle, no less, when they divided ancient Greek literature into drama, poetry or prose), theorists have philosophized about the concept of genre, evolving and expanding it such that, today, genre and genre theory have the power to:

  • impede writers from publishing and selling their work (oh yes, read on…),
  • cause expectant readers unnecessary disappointment, and
  • incite literary cage fights.

The literary 'genre' cage fight (left to right): Kirsten Tranter, P.M. Newton and James Bradley. © Zena Shapter 2011

One such cage fight took place last Friday night, at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt, and I’m not sure yet whether anyone escaped unscathed. The guest panel of speakers, James Bradley (“Wrack”, “The Deep Field” and “The Resurrectionist”), P M Newton (“The Old School”) and Kirsten Tranter (“The Legacy”), along with their honorary chairperson Sophie Hamley (Literary Agent, Cameron Creswell Agency), philosophized over so many aspects of genre that their discussion could not fail to get you thinking, especially me.

You see, I’m not sure how genre affects me as a writer, or a reader, or a film fanatic, or even whether it should.

"If literary fiction writers say they don't follow any particular set of conventions, isn’t that a convention in itself?" James Bradley

Technically, a genre is “a style or category of art, music, or literature” (“Oxford Dictionaries Online”) and, when classifying the genre of an artistic endeavour, for example a film or a book, you’re supposed to:

  1. examine the structural elements involved in the telling of that story,
  2. identify any conventions it uses, such as phrases, themes or explanations commonly used by other collections of stories, and then
  3. try to fit the patterns/structure with other already-established collections of stories.

We seem happy enough for films to be produced industrially...

Given the huge range of story-collections established today, genre classification should be easy. However, in the publishing world, literary critics and scholars continually disagree over the finer points of textual classification and some novels simply do not fit in any particular collection of stories. Why all the disagreement?

Well, the Greeks (who invented genre, see above) believed that the type of person an author was, greatly affected the type of poetry they wrote, and that certain metrical forms only suited certain genres. So genre wasn’t just invented for ease of reference, but to distinguish certain styles of literature from others and, in this, there was a judgment. That judgment is still alive today.

"There's a lot of crime fiction out there that’s considered disposable because it’s churned out." P M Newton

For example, do you remember the BBC’s snub of sci-fi and fantasy books earlier this year (their show “The Books We Really Read” sparked an impassioned response from Stephen Hunt)? And, as our cage-fighting panel observed, people happily flock to the cinema for “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars”, yet hide their sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks on the bus. Why? Because some genres suffer from stigmatization, especially speculative fiction and collections of stories produced industrially. Kirsten Tranter gave the example of Charles Dickens, whose work was published (if not originally written) in monthly serials and who earnt money by reading his work aloud on tours. Yet isn’t it amazing that Dickens, arguably the Victorian era’s most popular English novelist, should attract a stigma just because of the way his work was published?

Maybe we should adopt a more subject-based taxonomical system like libraries where, for example, James Bradley’s “Wrack” is classified as 'Shipwrecks – New South Wales – Fiction'?

The solution? Well, Kirsten Tranter tries not to think about the technicalities of genre when she writes.

“I don’t think about genre consciously when I write. I decide on the story I want to tell, then hope readers will respond to that. I like novels that sit across the shelves in the bookshop.”

Like Kirsten, I too enjoy seeking out cross-genre novels. The labels a book is given to market it don’t matter to me as much as the story it tells, as long as that story is written well. I think this is because I’m a style-over-substance reader. But not everybody likes stepping outside the categories they know and trust. Which is why publishers have to market novels by genre and why, as Sophie Hamley pointed out:

“there’s a lot of great fiction that doesn’t get published because it doesn’t fit in a genre.”

Sophie Hamley said, readers themselves “are more likely to take a risk on an unknown novelist if it’s clearly in a genre they like. But that puts pressure on authors to clearly identify themselves.”

So what should you do as a writer? Do you write the story you want and, if it doesn’t fit with any particular genre, hope your publishers will risk it anyway? Or do you write in keeping with a selected genre’s conventions for ease of sale? And what if you don’t identify yourself with any particular genre? Genre is not a static concept, it is fluid. Genres form as new conventions emerge and old ones are discounted. So what if there’s no name for your genre because its creation is yet to come. Think of all the famous authors whose work was rejected because it didn’t fit with current genre-conventions:

  • Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” was once rejected because it was “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • When H.G. Wells tried to market “The Time Machine” he was told “it is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”
  • Stephen King’s “Carrie” was rejected because “we are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
  • George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was rejected because “it’s impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

Luckily for us, George Orwell, perhaps the twentieth century’s best chronicler of English culture, published his allegorical “Animal Farm” even though it was subtitled “A Fairy Story” and even though his previous works were published in such an array of different genres that publishers today might have considered him, in James Bradley’s words, “unreadable”.

Perhaps more readers will come to perceive genre only as a tool by which to better understand a book, as James Bradley hoped last Friday night?

And what of the future of genre? Is genre set to become only more important as Internet fiction buyers restrict themselves to the ‘book categories’ of their preferred online bookstore, only branching out should a trusted blogger recommend a good read? Or will word-of-mouth prevail through “what other readers bought” recommendations, awards and bestseller lists? Meanwhile, will writers choose to restrict themselves to genre or chance writing what they love, pushing genre’s ever-evolving boundaries into the future? What kind of reader will you be? What kind of writer will you be? As for me, I’ve recently stumbled on a theory called the ‘ecology of genre’, which believes that:

  1. genres sometimes create writing, and
  2. writing sometimes recreates genres.

And I like the yin and yang feel of that. It kind of says it all.

Zena Shapter

I write from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. #Ditmar Award-winning author. Movie buff. Traveller. Wine lover. Story nerd. Book Creator & Mentor. Founder & leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers' Group / ZF Kingbolt.


  1. Pingback: When Genres Attack Part 2 « city of tongues

  2. Thanks for the blog Zena – I was hoping to get along on the night but events conspired against me. It is a hard question – do you write to a genre or to tell a story? I think ultimately the story must win and that hopefully good storytelling will draw readers no matter the genre it is packaged under – although I may think differently if I had a story rejected because it did not fit into a particular box!

    • I think a lot of people would agree with you, Sam. Whilst it might be a good idea to keep genre in mind whilst you’re writing, the story must come first. It’s all about balance. Say, I wonder how achieving that balance works in practice… Thinking back to the last time you wrote a story, at what point during the creative process did you spare a thought for its genre – when you first thought of the story’s premise, in its plot-planning stages, as you came across plot or character problems, or not at all?

  3. I was so sorry to miss this cage fight! Genre is always a topic to raise hackles – and cause confusion. I read and edit genre with pride, but I know that some of the new, unpublished writers I work with are troubled by the perceived need to “fit” a certain category.

    Obviously it’s true that it is easier to market a book that “fits” an existing genre and that means a writer will have an easier time of it if they’ve written something that can be easily slotted into fantasy, or crime, or romance, or whatever. But by no means does this undercut the need for a good story and great writing. These things have to come first and you can’t sacrifice them to force-fit your work into a category or genre because you think this will encourage a publisher to take you on.

    I do read a lot of unpublished manuscripts where I’ve been told up-front the author has deliberately written to genre because they read somewhere that their original cross-genre idea mightn’t sell. They rework the story to fit perceived requirements and usually the result is a story that feels a bit hollow; writing that feels a little off.

    The fact is that getting published for the first time is hard. It’s always hard. Do you make it more difficult for yourself by writing outside or across genres? Well… possibly. But you won’t get anywhere with dull writing and a story that doesn’t work, either – you won’t even make it through the slush pile if you haven’t got a good story.

    • Abigail – those are pearls of wisdom for inexperienced writers indeed! If you try to force your story out of its natural telling, hollow writing will follow! Some very clever editor said on Twitter today that if genre is going to limit you as a writer, there’s no use keeping it in mind, and writers shouldn’t forget that some books are very popular because they cross genres. Wish I could remember which very clever editor said that… Wait a minute, it was you!!!

      As an editor, would you say it’s easier to edit a story into fitting a genre (if the writer hasn’t paid any attention to genre but, in their particular case, they should have), or to edit inappropriate genre conventions out of a story (which the writer used because they thought it would help the manuscript sell)?

    • Great blog, Zena!

      I agree with what Bothersome Words said about writing the story for the story’s sake, and not necessarily aiming to fit into a certain genre. That said, authors who do write to genre shouldn’t give up hope. If an acquiring editor at a publishing house sees potential in a novel that’s been written to fit a genre, they’ll sometimes take a chance and sign the author up, then work with the author to straighten out any kinks caused by writing to the genre.

      Which is exactly what happens with every book bought by a publishing house, of course!

  4. Mark (Shearer's Bookshop)

    Hi Zena, thanks for writing this and thanks for coming last Friday – it was a pleasure meeting you!

    On this question of cross genre novels, I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of different ones from the shop. One example is ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin. It’s a post-apocalyptic (sci-fi) zombie novel (horror) set in the future (sci-fi) involving a quest (fantasy) and it’s also a family drama (literary fiction). So where do you shelve it? We keep it in general fiction, because it isn’t ‘deeply’ sci fi or horror. I think that the cover art plays a larger role than we would think. The Passage has a vague cover, it’s a black and white photo of a little girl’s face. If the zombie or apocalyptic angle had been played up more in the image, then maybe it would have been shelved elsewhere.

    Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is also a good example. It has similar elements to The Passage in that it’s post apocalyptic, there’s a quest and a family drama. But because it also won the Pulitzer and is by an extremely famous literary author there’s no question that it is shelved in literary fiction. If it had been written by an unknown, then perhaps it would be shelved in sci-fi.

    Finally, there’s the ‘speculative fiction’ genre – in my opinion it’s no more than a sneaky way for literary authors to write sci-fi. And as for Orwell, we have 1984 shelved in fiction, classics, and sci-fi!

    • Hi Mark! It was a great night, thanks for organising it. And you really made me think on Twitter today, when we were talking about how a bookshop decides where to shelf cross-genre books.

      For those who weren’t around, Mark said that if a bookshop has enough copies, they’ll put their cross-genre books on several shelves – like Orwell. But if they have to choose, they’ll base their decision on the book’s ‘major’ genre. The word ‘major’ made me wonder whether maybe all books are technically cross-genre, only some have a major/minor split of 95/5 and so are easy to shelf, whereas others are 50/50 so are harder?

      As someone surrounded by books all day, Mark, do you notice customers going straight to their preferred genre and staying there, or do they browse the shelves of several different genre?

      • Mark (Shearer's Bookshop)

        Hey Zena, sorry for the delay in my reply, we’re short staffed this week so I’m not spending as much time at my desk as usual! I think most customers generally head for the sections they prefer and stay there, unless they’re shopping for someone else. If you see a 40 yr old man in a Doctor Who t-shirt, it’s unlikely he’ll be heading to general or literary fiction (in which case he misses out on books like Year of the Flood, The Road, or The Passage). And I’m not judging people based on their ages and shirts, as I myself possess a rather large collection of extremely nerdy clothes.

        But that’s where the role of the bookseller becomes extremely important as we can tell the customer about a book they may not have heard of before and take them to a new (for them) section of the store.

        • Thanks Mark! I love bookshops! I love Shearer’s! And you’re right, I’ve been shown the light by many a wise bookseller in the past.

          Speaking of Dr Who, did you know that The Doctor Who Club of Australia’s ‘Whovention Part II’ is happening on the 11th June 2011 in Bankstown? The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, will be there! I’ll tweet you the link…

  5. Hi Zena

    I equate genres to a post office. Each post office box represents a genre and each writer has to fit into one of those boxes in order to be able to sell their writing to a publisher. Each publisher has an audience they know they can sell to and keep to that formula. That’s why they have guidelines you need to stick to like a ‘Mills and Boon’ have strict guidelines because they know their audience. You can’t blame publishers for trying to make a profit. When your writing crosses the boundaries of other po boxes then you are taking chances of it less likely to be published. This is shown in past when top writers were little known in the early part of their writing life and had to struggle for years before they developed a following for their style of writing.

    Editors are the same position. It is easier to edit books when you know what formula you need to follow which requires less effort to do. Editors are their to make money as well so they will tend to pick work that pays well and requires less time to edit. Gone are the days when a publisher sends an editor over to the writer and goes through a manuscript in detail to make a manuscript as best it could possibly be. Each focuses on a genre to make life easier for themselves. I’ve discussed this with other writers and they find the quality of work is not as professional as they would like it to be either because editors don’t have the required experience and it is difficult to find one that has, or editors are trying to fit it into a box defined by the publishers.

    Publishers have made mistakes in rejecting manuscripts. J K Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ book was rejected six times (by major publishers) before a smaller publisher accepted it.

    It makes life easier for readers, editors and writers to understand books written in a genre but it doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking. My manuscript crosses those boundaries and it is harder for me to find a good editor to communicate it as best it can be done.

    It is a decision a writer has to make whether write the way they want to which may challenge readers thinking patterns and less likely to make much money from it or conform to the established guidelines and write for the market and hope they strike a formula to make a decent living from writing.

    • I know how you feel Arthur. To conform, or to thine own self be true… that is indeed the question. If you conform, but in doing so you loose the essence of what you were trying to say, your work may end up being hollow, as Bothersome Words said above. On the other hand, if you prioritise your uniqueness, you chance editors not picking up your manuscript because it doesn’t fit with what they usually do. I guess, as writers, we all just have to look at the roads ahead of us and consider what Robert Frost did:

      The Road Not Taken

      Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood,
      And sorry that I could not travel both
      And be one traveler, long I stood
      And looked down one as far as I could
      To where it bent in the undergrowth;

      Then took the other, as just as fair,
      And having perhaps the better claim,
      Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
      Though as for that the passing there
      Had worn them really about the same,

      And both that morning equally lay
      In leaves no step had trodden black.
      Oh, I kept the first for another day!
      Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
      I doubted if I should ever come back.

      I shall be telling this with a sigh
      Somewhere ages and ages hence:
      Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
      I took the one less traveled by,
      And that has made all the difference.

      Robert Frost

  6. very interesting, was great to sit down and read all about this in depth.

  7. Pingback: They’re bringing genre back! With another #genrecagefight | Zena Shapter

  8. Pingback: Genre-ly speaking | Bothersome Words

  9. Pingback: Debating genre – is it so bad? | Zena Shapter

Comments are closed