I have had a love/hate relationship with genre fiction for as long as I can remember. On the one hand, I love genre fiction. It’s my preferred reading, especially horror. On the other hand, so many people say that to write successful genre fiction, you have to follow the rules of the genre.
“Respect the genre you’re writing in,” says Kathleen Krull. “In your effort to put your own stamp on it, don’t ignore the established conventions of the genre—or you’ll alienate your core audience of loyal buyers.”
Editor Page Cuddy says, “The best advice that one can give a writer is not to condescend to the genre or try to pack a literary idea into a more commercial form in hopes of selling it.”
I have to agree with what Krull says. You do have to respect the genre. But I wholeheartedly disagree with Cuddy. If you want to write space opera and have the talent to make it a literary masterpiece, do it! By all means.
Genre fiction gets such a bad rap from people who aren’t fans of the genre—even if those people are fans of other genres. You read strictly science fiction, but think anyone who reads strictly romance is wasting their time. You read only romance, but think anyone who tries to put a fantasy element in their romance novel is boring.
And I can’t even say people with those opinions are wrong. Opinions are opinions, not right or wrong, just opinions. We’ve all got em.
Personally, I think horror is the most interesting and entertaining genre to read and I can’t imagine spending my valuable time reading something like military history. But that’s my opinion.
However, when you talk about genre, regardless of what genre you favor, so many people agree with Krull: You have to respect the genre you’re in.
Yes, you do. A horror story must have some horrific element. A science fiction story must have some fiction in its science. A romance must have two or more people falling in love. But beyond that? Shit, the sky’s the limit, knock yourself out.
Toni Morrison said “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
And that’s what we do as genre authors. Hell, as authors at all. But in genre fiction, we’re allowed a leeway that more “literary” writers are not. Maybe that’s because it’s genre fiction and genre fiction is the ugly step-relative sleeping under the stairs in the broom closet. And still, genre fiction outsells literary fiction every year.
Don’t believe me? Off the top of your head, name your five favorite authors? I guarantee at least three of them were genre authors. Quite possibly horror authors. I know you know Stephen King’s name, and no one can say he isn’t not only a horror writer, but probably THE most famous writer of his generation.
Genre fiction sells.
And still it is looked down upon, sometimes even by the very authors who write it. I heard a story from a friend once who met a very famous and respected author of religious books that had horror elements. The friend introduced himself and said he writes horror, too, and the author was shocked, insisting he doesn’t write horror. But I’ve read his work. He’s a horror author.
But so many people shun genre fiction, insisting it’s not real writing.
I can think of 20 or 30 genre authors right now who would disagree. And I have shelves lined with genre fiction in my house and I know those words didn’t just appear on those pages by magic. Human hands had to sit and write them, one sentence, one word, one letter at a time.
But I’m not here to talk about how popular genre fiction is. I shouldn’t need to, that fact should be obvious to anyone. I’m here to talk about the rules of genre.
And those rules are simple. You know your genre. At least you should; you really don’t want to tackle writing in a genre you’ve never read before. So before you write your first horror story, you should be very familiar with what that entails. But once you have those “rules”—and I use that term loosely—down, feel free to expand from there.
Combine genres. Get some romance in your horror. Spill a little scifi in your fantasy epic (Masters of the Universe, anyone?). Try some western in your space opera (I’m looking at you “The Mandalorian”). The rules for each particular genre are what they are and Krull is right, they should absolutely be respected. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an elevated form of that genre.
Since the day I first put words on a page with the intention of creating a fictional story other people might be interested in reading, I have only ever wanted to write horror. It’s a genre I have loved as long as I can remember, and one I have the utmost respect for. Horror is my life, as far as creativity goes. But I have written in several different genres, including science fiction (“Purple Haze” and “The Foodies of Mars”), superheroes (“Invasion Agents”), and even romance and science fiction (“Epoch Winter”). But all of those stories still had some element of horror to them.
And as long as I’ve been writing horror, my goal with the genre has always always always been to elevate it to the status of literature. To give it the respect those “mainstream” novels get, albeit with more recognition and sales (be honest, who actually SEES the movies nominated for Best Picture every year? No one, we were all too busy at the latest super hero or horror movie).
If you ask me, it’s this attitude that we have to follow the rules of the genre that’s keeping genre fiction from gaining the respect it deserves by non-genre readers. As a writer, I have all the respect in the world for someone who can write an 800-page scifi or fantasy epic, or the guy who writes two western novels a month. I couldn’t do it. But I feel like non-writers who see those books, all they see is “Nope, not my thing” and they move on. And I feel a lot of that is due to, not just complacency on the part of the reading public, but a lot of it falls to the authors who want to live inside that genre bubble and never risk trying a new concoction lest it drive the readers away.
Learn the rules of your genre, and then break them the first chance you get and give us something new and exciting and interesting. You owe it to yourself as a creative person, and to the work as an art form. Or better yet, genre be damned, just write the book that you really want to read.