I remember, many years ago when I was a student, sitting and arguing with a friend about music. He was adamant that it was crazy to give various labels to music. Music, he said, is just music. Nothing more, nothing less. Giving it labels forces it into boxes which don’t always fit it.
It was a long argument and some beer was consumed, but I recall it clearly as it opened my mind up to the problems inherent in labeling anything.
Which is where genres come in.
In fiction, there are all sorts of genres. Essentially, they are labels which people (publishers) give to books. Vampire, thriller, crime, romance, cowboy romance, sci-fi, dystopian sci-fi, and on and on and on the labels go.
In fact, there are so many labels or genres that they really serve no purpose any more because with such smaller and smaller divisions it becomes hard to figure out where exactly your novel should fit.
Writing to a specific genre has been said to be the best possible way of ensuring you get eyeballs on your book. And, for some people, having this sort of template might prove helpful. Plot point A here, character B does this here, minor climax here followed by character C doing this here and resolution here after character D reveals something here. It’s formulaic. Follow the formula and you’ve got a novel. And with the novel, you have success.
What about the breakout novels? Things like Outlander by Diana Gabaldon for example? It fits no easy genre. It crosses multiple genres. And yet it succeeds. Writing to a genre doesn’t give you any scope to move away from it. If you have a great idea which doesn’t fit any existing genre does that mean you shouldn’t write it? Of course not. It means you should write it as well as you can.
I’m firmly of the opinion that, like music, writing shouldn’t be chopped up into labels. Fine music is fine music. Fine writing is fine writing. But is my definition of ‘fine’ always the same? No.
Depending on my mood, I’ll listen and enjoy some Mozart or Pink Floyd or Kraftwerk or whoever fits my mood best. And exactly the same with writing. Right now I’m enjoying reading about Medieval cookery. But I’ve also recently enjoyed Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, a book on the intelligence of birds and another about the medieval underworld (yeah, I like the Middle Ages).
In other words, I like what I like and I am happy to dig around and look at any book (within reason) if it gives me what i want at that time. Genres aren’t going to help me that much.
What about you? Do you only read one or two genres? What about the books which don’t fit any genre? They’re the one the big publishing houses are looking for and they haven’t a clue which one is going to be the next Harry Potter (which was rejected so many times).
A genre is, like the Pirate’s Code in Pirates of the Caribbean, only a guideline. Nothing else.