Is Single-Genre Fiction Outdated?

This article is by Michael Cairns.

genresFor decades, the publishing industry has worked to ensure that every book that they publish can be marketed within a single genre. This is, up to a point, understandable. Publishing is a business, and the clearer the genre of a book, the easier it is to find the target audience.

However, the rise of self-publishing has changed the way in which people not only sell books, but also write them. Indie’s don’t need to have a big ‘opening weekend’, so as to avoid high returns on print copies. Self-publishers can play the long game, relying on good stories and brave readers to build an audience. They can also take more chances and write outside the long-established boxes.

I take great pride in pretty much throwing genre out the window. There are a few reasons for this. But first, a little backstory…

I grew up reading science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics in equal measure. The key element that made any of them work for me was the characters. I still have affection for fictional characters I read about in Eagle and Tiger comics when I was eight years old. Indeed, I remember the characters when the plots have long gone the way of my hair. Without further ado, here are my top three reasons why I love to mix genres.

Characters

As an author, my goal is to create characters so compelling that I am free to do anything I like with the universe that surrounds them. There are only a limited number of different plots out there, but there are an infinite number of characters, all with their own idiosyncrasies, interests, values, and flaws.

When I think of Star Wars, I think about Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. The AT-ATs are immeasurably cool, but it’s the people I care about. The machinations and intrigue that run through A Game of Thrones is fascinating, but I’m still waiting, and waiting, for the next book because I’m desperate to know what happens to Arya and Tyrion. If Jon Snow had gone beyond the wall in book one, and discovered a spaceship buried in the ice, and the coming winter turned out to be an alien invasion, that would have been totally cool with me. I had bought into the characters so much that, provided it was done early on and in the right way, Martin could have taken the story just about anywhere and it would have been fine.

Characters, regardless of whether they fly spaceships or ride horses, carry a story. If the characters are strong enough, then the author can get away with doing the unexpected within the genre, or even leaving genre behind completely.

Themes

A really good book will emotionally move the reader. If it’s written well enough, then emotional attachment will happen, irrespective of genre. Whether it’s the break-up of a family, the loss of a loved one, the inevitable corruption that power brings, or the tragedy of war, themes are universal. They feature in almost every great story. Sometimes the authors put them there consciously. Other times, readers take from the story what they need at the time; art can be a healing process.

These themes often define whole parts of our lives. At different times we might seek out stories that speak to us about what we are experiencing at that moment. For me, that means that at various points in my life I’ve wandered all over the literary map. I have found the same escape in a Sarah Waters novel, a Steven Erikson novel, and a Terry Moore comic. The genre was irrelevant, because the presence, or lack of, dragons didn’t change the way the story moved me.

Sometimes, when the story has faded from memory, we’ll still return to the feelings it stirred within us. We rediscover that special place it took us to.

As an author, I dream of moving my reader. If the struggle of someone unexpectedly endowed with super powers works better in an epic fantasy setting, then that’s what I’ll write. If I can talk about modern day issues of paranoia by having zombies fight magicians, that’s what I’ll write.

Therefore when writing, tying yourself to a specific genre and it’s conventions is needless because, in itself, it does little to further what you are actually trying to accomplish, which is to move the reader.

Freedom

I write fantastical novels, filled with magic of all different sorts. I’ve spent my life escaping into other worlds and finding wonderful things there. As an author, I get to create those worlds as and when I please. I should add at this point that all of my stories have rules within the madness. I refuse to allow magic or any other convenient deux ex machinas to crop up at the last minute and save the day. But…

Why would I, as an author who leaves the reality in which we live at the door, choose to straitjacket myself in another? I understand the pleasure of creating new worlds and do so frequently, but why should a world with dragons be okay, but not one with dragons and people who can throw lightening from their hands, or fly? Why shouldn’t the dragon have to contend with zombies?

As a creative, I believe that limitation breeds creation. I never allow myself to write as though logic doesn’t exist and, as I hope I made clear earlier, my story is always driven by the characters and their journeys. So certain limitations are essential.

But genre?

A willing restriction on our imaginations driven by a combination of market forces, an outdated publishing business, and our own fear of confusing readers. No, I can live without genre.

What do you think? Is genre an outdated concept that should be forgotten? Or does it still serve a purpose?

About the Author:

Michael Cairns is author of the superhero urban fantasy series, The Planets. Book one, The Spirit Room, and book two, The Story of Eris are both available now. Sign up for the mailing list at CairnsWrites.com and receive a free copy of Childhood Dreams, book one in his science fiction adventure series, A Game of War. You can also connect with Mike on Twitter, GoodReads, Facebook, Pinterest,and Wattpad.

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Ellen Kushner: co-founder, Interstitial Arts Foundation
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Ellen Kushner: co-founder, Interstitial Arts Foundation

Welcome to the wonderful world of INTERSTITIAL ARTS! This is exactly the sort of thing we’ve been discussing – and working hard to promote – since 1998. Come and join us!

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

Hi Ellen
Thanks 🙂
The website looks interesting, I’ll take a proper look in a day or two when I have the time.
thanks
Mike

Robert MacAnthony
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Robert MacAnthony

I don’t think the question asked by the title is the right one to ask. Yes, limitations that strictly define a work as having to fall into one genre or another may be behind us as a requirement of fiction, but that doesn’t mean novels that adhere to more strict genre guidelines are outdated. You can write a perfectly wonderful and engaging novel firmly within the boundaries of a given genre, or else branch outside of the genre to do it.

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

Hi Rob
You’re absolutely right. We weren’t 100% sure about the title for the post, but wanted it to be something that caught people’s attention.
Outdated is where it falls down. In hindsight, I would rather say something about the freedom created by the self-publishing industry and how that has given publishing houses less control over what genres authors write in.
Interestingly, I read a blog post today in which the author three times submitted their manuscript to an agent and received feedback that included “read this book by this author and makes yours more like his” and “there isn’t a market for Irish detective stories.”
It’s that degree of what I would have to consider fear or short-sghtedness that I see as outdated.
cheers
Mike

Sarah McCabe
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Sarah McCabe

Though I am working toward publication, I still consider myself a reader first and a writer second. As such, I value genre. Genre exists to help readers find the kind of stories they like. As I reader, my tastes are fairly narrow. For example, I like Fantasy, but not Urban Fantasy. I like Sci Fi, but not Military Sci Fi. Genre helps me to separate out the books that I am most likely to enjoy from the books that I am least likely to enjoy. Thus enabling me to save time searching for new books to read and making it more likely for me to find books I want. And this is even more true now that the world has exploded with books to read thanks to self publishing. The better those books are categorized the better it is for readers.

The more clearly you can indicate to the reader what you expect from your book the better. Amazon allows you to use multiple categories and keywords which is a much better system that in brick and mortar stores where a book has to be shelved under one major genre. I don’t mind books that mix genres, but I do want to be informed about what to expect from the book before I spend money on it.

Sarah McCabe
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Sarah McCabe

To clarify that last statement a little, that doesn’t mean I want books that stick to strict genre tropes. If you’re writing a book with the intention of defying tropes and surprising the reader, then all I need to know is that the book is intended to defy trope and surprise the reader. Then, if I’m in the mood for something unexpected, I’ll know to pick up your book.

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

HI Sarah
Thanks so much for your comment. I think you’re absolutely right regarding the usefulness of genre. As a writer, I want to go everywhere, but as a business person who has to think about selling my books, I also need to be aware of the needs of the market.
Have you ever sat down and worked out exactly what it is you dislike about Urban Fantasy or military scifi? I would be interested to know and how those things relate to the three things I’ve listed above. For example, the vast majority of the books that get lumped into the UF genre are often very thin on the ground regarding characterisation. They can be lazy, relying on standard tropes because the audience already know what to expect and are quite happy to accept it.
I’d love to hear from you regarding that, if you have a chance.
I also love your advice about making it clear, maybe in the blurb of the book, if a book is multi-genre or deliberately pushing the boundaries.
cheers
Mike

Philip Overby
Member
Philip Overby

Hi Mike,

Great article and I’m right there with you on not straightjacketing yourself when you’re writing within speculative fiction. As long as one makes sure things make sense within the universe he or she created, I say anything goes. I’m a big proponent of unshackling the genres when possible and really going full tilt.

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

Hi Philip
Thanks so much for your comment. It is essential that everything fits within the boundaries of your world, whatever that may be. My editor is excellent at making amusingly sarcastic comments in the margin any time I stray too far outside them 🙂
BTW, Splatter Elf? I’m there 🙂
cheers
Mike

Nicholas C. Rossis
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Nicholas C. Rossis

Hi Mike,

I have struggled with the need to pigeonhole Pearseus as something or other. The story arc is taken from Herodotus; it has numerous sci-fi elements and yet I had to classify it as epic fantasy, despite there being no dragons etc. It fits so many genres, that I wish I could tick boxes and be done with that.

So, I’m grateful to you for putting so eloquently what’s been in my mind! As you well put it, “No, I can live without genre.”

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

Hi Nicholas
Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad it struck a chord with you.
The frustration is that genre is useful in terms of readers finding your work. I’m in the same boat as you with regards to trying to choose the right genres and categories on amazon and the other platforms that I think are most suitable for the book, without driving away other potential readers who might be put off by that category!
As Brandon said below, it would be much easier if, assuming we had to choose at all, we just had a single ‘fantasy’ category for everything.
cheers
Mike

Jabrosky
Guest
Jabrosky

I always felt the wonderful thing about the fantasy genre was how broadly defined and inclusive it is. If your story takes place in a world other than our own, or if it has stuff in it that couldn’t happen in our world, it might qualify as fantasy. In this light fantasy isn’t a singular genre so much as a whole slew of genres bound together only by a certain fanciful quality (however you might define “fanciful”).

That said, I can appreciate the creativity of results from mixing together elements of different genres.

Michael Cairns
Guest
Michael Cairns

Hi Brandon
Well said! I think in many ways, the genre straitjacket I mention above comes far more from marketing and publishing than from any particular writer’s need to fit neatly within a genre. It’s that fanciful element that makes it so much fun to write. 🙂
Thanks for your comment.
Mike

Lorinda J. Taylor
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Lorinda J. Taylor

I absolutely agree with you! My books are very mixed-genre, including space travel, future history, epic fantasy, romance, adventure, first contacts, alien cultures, interpretation of myths … (not all of those in every book, I hasten to add!) Character is also the most important thing to me, and for me a story is a failure if there is no emotional involvement. These latter characteristics mean that literary fiction gets into the mix. I write a literary style. When I started to write, it never occurred to me that I had to straitjacket myself in one particular genre, and I intend to keep writing exactly like that as I search for readers who appreciate what I do.

Michael Cairns
Guest
Michael Cairns

Hi Lorinda
Well said! I’m glad I’m not the only one. As you say, it’s about finding readers who like what you do. Compelling characters will ensure that, regardless of genre.
thanks for the comment
Mike

Michael Healy
Guest
Michael Healy

There is no single genre story anywhere in the world. Every story takes creative liberties with reality making it speculative. Most stories have aspects of mystery and/or romance. Nearly every story has jokes.

Michael Cairns
Guest
Michael Cairns

Hi Michael
I take your point. It’s rare to find a book that contains no traces of other genres.
However, I think in terms of subject matter, writing style, and the levels to which everyday things such as love or humour feature, most genres can be tied down quite easily.
By which I mean, a full on Murder Mystery will often have perhaps a slight under current of romance and a touch of sarcastic humour, but is still very clearly a Murder Mystery. Similarly, a romance might squeeze in a car chase or other small burst of action, but will still clearly be a romance.

Does that make sense?
thanks
Mike

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