I started wondering while ago: do we really need genres?
Let’s work this out together.
I know of at least three authors who work in more than one genre. Pamela Foster, who has written—or is writing—a literary Western series, contemporary fiction, and even what might be called somewhat speculative fiction, a book called Bigfoot Blues that—you guessed it—has real Bigfoots in it.
Then there’s Velda Brotherton. She writes Western historical romance, contemporary stories about PTSD (her latest, Beyond the Moon, was originally written in the eighties, long before anyone else had PTSD on their radar), a series of mysteries, and she has a forthcoming horror novel.
Then there’s Greg Camp, who writes in two genres predominantly: science fiction and Westerns (they’re not so far apart, if you think about it). And he’s working on a horror short story for an ezine we (Oghma Creative Media) have in the works.
And there’s my friend JE Newman, whose forthcoming novel Changeling is set a couple hundred years in the future after a virus caused a small percentage of the population to become what we call superheroes/villains. But all the superheroes are gone, now, except for one bad guy who’s still around killing people who don’t need killed. Science fiction? Yeah, there’s some of that there. Fantasy? Sure, in the urban sense, what with the supers. But can you pigeonhole it? Not really.
I dare you to tell any of these people they can’t write in multiple genres.
That’s exactly what the major publishing houses will do, though. They argue that your name will come to be known for a certain type of story, and if you write something different, it’ll dilute your audience because they won’t know what to expect from you.
Let me use just one example, and I use him because I’m so familiar with his work: Stephen King.
When you hear his name, what do you think? Oh, he’s that horror writer. And even Mr. King calls himself that.
But I beg to differ.
Yes, almost all of his stories have an element of horror in them, and that’s okay. I could argue with you that even science fiction can have horror in it. What’s more horrible than being trapped in a spacesuit with no way back to a ship or planet? But okay, let’s go with the stipulation that, to be horror, there must be something otherworldly about the story.
Fine. Firestarter is about a little girl whose parents partook in some of those (in)famous drug trials college students went through in the sixties. The result is that she has pyrokinesis—the ability to start fires with her mind. That’s straight speculative fiction, with his usual dash of horror thrown in. After all, Charlie—the little girl in the story—has the potential to cause a nuclear reaction, she’s so strong.
Then there’s The Tommyknockers, which involves a crashed UFO full of aliens who have a very bad effect on the humans who discover them. Dreamcatcher has much the same type of monsters. Ditto for Under the Dome, though the aliens in this one are the most appealing to me: they played with the people in the story simply because we were like ants to them. Very realistic, in my opinion (even though I don’t think this is one of his better books, awesome cover notwithstanding).
Then there’s his entire The Dark Tower series, which is so much different from anything else he writes that many of his mainstream fans refuse to read it. Predominantly, it’s dark fantasy, but there’s also the distinct flavor of a Western there, with Roland being a gunslinger. There’s also a dash of Arthurian legend, as well as some rift hopping through dimensional doorways.
Pin that one down, New York Editor!
Want a couple more? Okay, there’s the Low Town series by Daniel Polansky, wherein we have a protagonist who is basically an ex-cop turned drug dealer in a fantasy world who—in the first book, at least—solves a murder. WTF is that? The publisher calls it fantasy, and it mostly is, since the setting is an entire fictional world.
Then there’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. It’s set in a future where Philadelphia has been obliterated, and our protagonist works for a company that investigates all the deaths for insurance firms to see which ones they actually have to pay out on. He’s hung up on this one girl he discovered while accessing the Archive, a repository of every camera feed in the city. He uses the Archive to determine the true cause of death, the hope being that it will save insurance companies billions of dollars. The girl he discovered looks to have been murdered.
I’m not finishing this book, even though it has some nice touches of hard-boiled noir to it. It’s a little too literary for my tastes (the author has a literary degree, don’tcha know), and he also has an irritating habit of ending probably 98% of his dialogue with em dashes—as if everybody constant interrupts one another. Probably one of those literary devices that shows he’s A Serious Writer. All it does is throw me out of the story.
Still, there’s a bit of a mishmash going on there, isn’t there?
So…do we really need genres? I think Western author Dusty Richards said it best: “We’re all writing the same thing, we’re just using different costumes.” Heck, most of us read in more than one genre, so why can’t authors write in more than one? Even Louis L’Amour stepped outside of Westerns by writing some detective stories for the pulps back in the day, and experimenting with other kinds of stories just before he died. The Haunted Mesa is probably best described as magical realism with a touch of horror, while The Last of the Breed is a modern adventure story.
I have found my calling in writing crime fiction, but I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of a science fiction story set on a tropical planet involving drug smuggling. Sort of a Miami Vice in Space, if you will. I don’t know if it’ll ever get off the ground or not, but it might. I also have my ambitious space opera I’d love to try and finish someday, too.
So, yeah, some of us are comfortable staying inside a niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we have a particular talent for that genre, as I seem to have for crime fiction. And maybe we have no desire to stray outside our genre. That’s fine, too.
But what if we want to? They’re all, at heart, stories, and that’s what we tell as writers: stories. We have to help the reader suspend his disbelief, transport him into the world of the novel, and get him to stay there for the length of our tale. We have to have characters the reader cares about, and we have to put them in a situation the reader can identify with. Everything else is just stage props.
Yes, in a sense, we need genres to give us a handle on what we’re getting into. But can’t good authors do just the same, no matter how many genres they choose to write in?