Why Genre is Bullshit

The “rules” of genre hurt everyone — including readers.

Award-winning speculative fiction author Nnedi Okorafor once said, “I’m tired of certain readers missing half of the story because they’re restraining themselves with genre expectations. There’s NOTHING I can write that’ll pull a reader out of this because it’s not something I’m doing. It’s something THE READER is doing.”

*cue the sound of my raucous applause*

There are few things more stifling to a writer’s creativity than telling them they can’t do [x] because [insert genre expectation]. Here’s the thing: genre is nothing more than a sales tool. It makes for easy placement on store shelves and websites. To rob yourself of brilliant, beautiful stories because they don’t conform to some imaginary set of rules is quite frankly the reader’s loss and not the writer’s — though we are, of course, likely to suffer financially. Here’s another thing: readers (and editors, and publishers) claim they want originality in stories, yet a synonym for “trope” is “cliché.” Work must be original yet conform to the expectations (read: “clichés”) of its declared genre, or it will not find its intended audience. So we are told.

I teach a university-level class in which my students learn to write book proposals. There is nothing I dislike more than seeing them struggle to define their genre, which they always do, because they naturally want their work to appeal to everyone. And it should have that opportunity, were it not for the fact that agents, editors, publishers, and readers insist that we lock our work into a neatly labeled box fit for marketplace consumption. New writers — hell, all writers — shouldn’t even have to think about how, where, and why their work fits into this genre or that, or whether they’re properly following the familiar constraints of romance, science fiction, horror, and so on. They should be focusing on their craft and simply telling the best damned story they can, in whatever form that takes.

Gary Braunbeck writes toward the end of his stunning book To Each Their Darkness:

“…You may be forced to live outside their city walls when your fiction ‘doesn’t quite fit anywhere’ because they’ll be scared of you…” (328).

“It’s really nice outside those city walls, trust me. You don’t have to write what they say you should write, you don’t have to settle for reading the same old thing repackaged and rewritten for the umpteenth time” (329).

He goes on to say, “But that’s part of the game, isn’t it — having to consider the merits of something on its own terms and not those you try grafting onto it through your own sensibilities” (330).

This, I believe, is what readers find so frightening. Knowing what you’re going to get — what you’re supposed to get — is safe. It’s comfortable. But what happens if you read without dissecting a work to ensure that it obeys your preconceived notions of “genre,” and instead engage with the story for its own sake? As a reader, shouldn’t you be willing to take the journey with any book, regardless of what you think it should or shouldn’t be doing in terms of the genre to which it has been (often unfairly or incorrectly) attached, and regardless of genre itself?

I love you, readers. You’ve said some wonderful things about my work. I’m a voracious reader myself, as any writer should be, and I have been guilty of the very things I accuse here. At least until I began unintentionally writing short fiction that didn’t “fit anywhere,” forcing me to reevaluate my own assumptions. It’s time to embrace living outside the city walls, where you can examine why you cling to those expectations in the first place. Throw off the restraints and challenge yourself. You never know what you might discover out there, and within.