“What genre do you like writing in?” This is a question I was asked two months ago, and it is one I have started to encounter since. Genre is important, to a certain extent, and it is as helpful as much as it is limiting for a writer.
As I answered the question, listing (among others) science fiction, realism, fantasy – what came to my head in that moment – a strange feeling came over me as I did so, as if surrounded by imaginary walls being erected as I spoke. It was the first time I became conscious of genre, as never in my life, or for as long as I have been writing, have I thought about what genre I’m writing in or trying to place a story idea into the structure of a given genre.
Genre is more helpful for readers, I think, than it is for writers. Genre becomes more apparent as the story evolves and the further we continue to write. Perhaps it is obvious from the outset – a story about dragons must be fantasy, as is a story with vampires supernatural – but genre only refers to specific categories that are defined by characteristics or tropes. Genre does not refer to the story itself. Asking someone what genre they write in is not the tip of the iceberg, it is scratching the surface, for genre tells you barely anything at all at face value. When one talks about a story, a book they’ve read, how does one normally describe it? Does one, A) tell what the story’s about, the story’s characters and their actions, or B) says it is [insert genre here]? Which is more interesting? Which tells us more?
Describing Harry Potter as fantasy does little to tell us what it’s about or to differentiate it from countless other fantasy novels. Describing Harry Potter as a story about a boy wizard who goes to a magic school and must fight an evil wizard is much more compelling and tells us a little bit more. Calling The Count of Monte Cristo a swashbuckler or an adventure novel (according to Wikipedia) is fairly accurate, but in doing so loses its other qualities, which is, namely, about a man who is done an injustice and, afterward, his quest for revenge and the consequences, intended and unintended, of his actions by playing God.
Sometimes we can easily dismiss a book based on learning what genre it is, before we even give it a chance. I know I have – sometimes, that’s because it’s a genre I don’t really care for (such as horror) but it is easier to dismiss a book based on the face value of a given genre versus making an informed decision whether to read a book or not, after we’ve learned more about it – its plot, what the story is about – and whether that interests us. When we start looking for stories and not just genre, that is when we discover new and exciting things to us, things that maybe we didn’t even know existed or that we didn’t know we could be interested in.
A story doesn’t have to be written in just a single genre either. Some of the best stories are ones that combine genres, or elements of them; while not a book, the best example that currently comes to mind is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At face value, it’s a superhero movie but on another level, it’s a political thriller, and this combination works very well. It is these stories that often have the best dynamics, as, when thoughtfully executed and written well, they are multifaceted and can be approached from many different angles.
What genre do I write in? Saying that I write fiction is easy (and this doesn’t make me feel like I’m putting myself in a box), but when asked for more specifics, while I could start listing some of the genres that my stories could easily be categorized as, I try for a better answer. This is my current answer: I write fiction about human nature, discovery and self-discovery, the triumph of good over evil (as corny or black-and-white sounding as that is, as ambiguity/grey area is de rigeur), magic; a romance of a past that never came to be or even existed. That is what I write about, right now.