Guest post from Aderyn Wood: What came first – the story or the genre?

This post has been graciously offered by Aderyn Wood, a writer I have got to know through her novella The Viscount’s Son which I delved into because it sounded interesting. Yes, it has vampires in it. No, I wouldn’t count myself a positive fan of vampire stories. But, as Aderyn quite clearly points out in this article, when you are looking for a good story, being a fan of one thing or dismissive of another doesn’t make any sense. It’s the story and the writing that counts.
Take it away, Aderyn.

What came first—the story or the genre?

Unlike that chicken or egg conundrum, the answer here is obvious.

Of course the story came first.

Our caveman ancestors didn’t create murder mystery cave paintings, or tell fireside stories of cyberpunk dystopias. No. Most likely their stories had elements of all our genres – romance, mystery, fantasy (although probably no cyperpunk!).

The thing I’m interested in exploring is what comes first for writers and readers. What should come first? Now let me be honest here …

I hate genre.

Well, I mostly hate it, and I’ll try to explain why.

Genre creates prejudice

Prejudicial statements about genre are everywhere. They’re all over writing and reading forums, on review blogs, and in general conversations about books. Statements like ‘oh I don’t read fantasy/horror/romance/suspense’, or ‘I don’t read books about werewolves/zombies/claustrophobic clowns’. I have a friend who loves politics and history. She recently asked me why the world had gone Game of Thrones crazy. I told her “you know, I think you’d like it, it’s highly political”.
“I don’t read books about dragons,” she said. I blinked. I once had a reader contact me because she was interested in my novella ‘The Viscount’s Son’. She told me she liked the historical focus, but when she realised it was a ‘vampire book’ she stopped reading and informed me that “I don’t read vampire books!”
My point is that sticking to a select group of genres and ignoring others can prevent us from enjoying a range of reading experiences. I myself have fallen victim to prejudice when I used to think I didn’t read zombie fiction. I’m glad I changed my mind when I picked up Nessie Strange’s ‘Living Dead Girl’. – a book that will have you laughing at the characters just as much as you care for them. Now ‘The Walking Dead’ is one of my favourite TV series. That story has more to do with human relationships and the way we construct our societies than any other Television series I can think of. So I am very happy I overcame my own prejudice.

Genre has been nurtured by the big publishing houses

You only have to visit a publisher’s website or stroll into a bookshop to see this as a truism. Books are organised in a system of categories entirely based on genre. At my local book store I can go directly to the fantasy/sci fi section or the young adult section or the thriller/suspense section or the historical fiction section. Or that ambiguous, largely unattended section called ‘Literary Fiction’. Fellow genre-hater, John Banville (also Benjamin Black) wishes bookstores didn’t have the genre of ‘literary fiction’ at all. “Bookstores may as well have a neon sign saying ‘don’t read this stuff”. It’s because the big publishers have nurtured genre, by having well known categories become more well known, publishers have made it easier to market novels. Categorisation provide readers with a sense of security in knowing that if they invest in a genre book they will find X, Y and Z. As a fantasy lover I do appreciate this at times, but has this ‘security’ measure actually restricted possibilities and opportunities for readers? Has it also treated readers as not intelligent enough to choose a story by themselves without the big hand of GENRE pointing them to the right section? Banville states that his ideal bookshop “would have no sections, just alphabetical, and not fiction, but all the books next to each other. You would discover things.”

Genre = sales

As I mentioned above, the big publishers have nurtured the idea of genre to help with marketing and trends. The more zombie or vampire novels they can sell to a hungry (pun intended) market, the more dollars. Now, as an author, I’m not going to bag the idea of making a profit, except to say that doing it through the prism of genre can prevent readers from discovering something new/different/wonderful. But this prism is deeply entrenched in the book-buying mindset of readers. Acclaimed indie author CS Lakin discovered some hard proof of the power of genre when she experimented with writing a subgenre that she had been told “sells itself”. Her experimental genre novel is now making more money and sticking higher on the rankings than her usual non-genre fiction. Certainly, some writers can (and do) see this as a recipe for success. However, aren’t these genre ‘rules’ just creating more of the same?

Genre = more of the same

A frequent lament of rejection letters is that the manuscript doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. Put another way, it would be too difficult to market/find an audience for. Publishing houses have strict marketing budgets and this is why genre can be so convenient, and economical, as it guides readers en masse. A quick google search can bring up all sorts of well known best sellers who were rejected because their stories differed too markedly from the genre rules and expectations of the publisher. Here’s three of my favourite famous rejection lines –

• “Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.” L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. – has sold 15 million copies
• “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ – sold over 1 million in its first year
• “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ has sold 10 million copies.

I thank the great Book God in the sky that Heller didn’t listen. ‘Catch 22’ is one of my favourites – it is so different from everything else I’ve read. And that’s my point. Too much adherence to genre rules gives us the same old plots, characters and clichés that we’ve seen everywhere else. I’ve been checking out quite a few book blogs recently and I’ve come across more than a handful of reviewers complaining that they’ve seen this character type or plot point too many times. They’re crying out for something different, new, refreshing. Well thank the Book God for indie authors, I say. They are not fettered by the chains of genre rules. – well not as much. Amazon still requires authors to categorise books according to genre, but at least they can choose across genres.

The Story should come first

Genre has its place. Remember I said I mostly hated genre? I think it’s a 90% hatred. Only because it has been allowed (and encouraged) to become such a dominant influence in the way we choose our books. As an author and a reader, it does offer some usefulness (about 10%). It gives us a platform to discuss elements we enjoy in stories. I, for example, enjoy fantasy. I know that means elements of magic, imaginary characters and settings will be included in the story – and these elements give me a frame of reference to both write stories and discuss what I read. My latest book ‘The Borderlands: Journey’ is a Contemporary Fantasy (well, I think it is). It certainly has magic, mystical settings and fairytale creatures – all set in our modern world (mostly anyway). But it also has elements of other genres. It is an adventure story, a drama, a young adult and a coming of age novel. If I was to dig a little deeper, I think it also has elements of a mystery novel. When I first thought of it, it was the story that gripped me most. I didn’t think of a genre and then set out to write a story that matched its rules. I wrote the story I wanted to and then scratched my head about which genre I could squeeze it into. Remember, this is not what you’re supposed to do if you want to make a truckload.

Many writers and readers will read widely and not restrict themselves by sticking to one particular genre or avoiding others. People who love books will often pick up anything if it is a good story, and it is those readers and that mindset that I admire most.

Aderyn Wood is an indie author who enjoys reading and writing a wide range of stories – although she mostly adheres to fantasy. Her latest book is the first of a trilogy – ‘The Borderlands: Journey’.

Thanks for that very lucid analysis, Aderyn. I couldn’t agree with you more that by limiting our reading to somebody else’s definition of a particular genre, we miss out on a mass of good literature.
I’m adding a link to Aderyn’s blog. Hope it works for that small, insignificant part of the world that isn’t French 🙂