Happy Friday, novelists! We conclude our discussion of technique this week with publishing’s most fraught distinction: genre.
Is your novel cyberpunk or steampunk? Hard-boiled or soft-boiled crime? A historical western? Alt history? Horror? Paranormal romance? While genre distinctions are often more of concern when we’re buying books rather than writing them, it’s undeniable that as we write, genre plays a significant role in shaping our novels. The trick is in fact not merely in correctly categorizing your work but understanding how the tropes and tendencies of the genre in question impact how you tell your story.
Mainstream vs. Literary Fiction
We can broadly divide contemporary fiction into two primary groups: mainstream fiction and literary fiction. Mainstream is often also called commercial or popular fiction, although you can easily see the difficulties with using either of those terms. After all, hasn’t Jonathan Franzen been on the bestseller list? An yet, his work is almost universally deemed as literary fiction.
Although definitions vary, mainstream and literary fiction may be distinguished largely through their execution. Mainstream fiction tends to focus primarily on plot–the sequence of events driving the story–and has a degree of suspense. Very frequently, a work of mainstream fiction has a central conflict with an identified antagonist. Most importantly, however, it has the trappings of a genre or subgenre such as those mentioned above, the categories of which are speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), romance, mystery, and adventure (e.g. western). Examples include: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
Literary fiction, conversely, is largely character or concept oriented. It may have a more unusual structure or style. It’s likely the novel’s conflict is more internally than externally driven. It may certainly have a plot, but its pacing and presentation of events will probably not make the plot the central focus. Moreover, literary fiction is most often grounded in a present or historical reality. Even if a character’s psychological state seems to warp reality, we have a sense of being in the world as we understand and accept it. Examples of literary novels include: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Home by Marilynne Robinson, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Slipstream, or blended genres
As you can imagine, many, many novels fall between the cracks even for these two distinctions. After all, what about Beloved by Toni Morrison–a ghost story? Or heavily comics-inspired The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon? Recent zombie novel Zone One by Colson Whitehead? A horror novel may have a beautifully executed psychological conflict and a work of literary fiction may have at its core a gruesome murder. Not to mention genres and subgenres borrow from each other constantly as well. You might set your romance novel on a starship or unleash your Lovecraftian horrors on the 1930s Dust Bowl. We won’t even try to touch the very nebulous concept of “Young Adult” fiction. So yes, the boundaries are flexible–it’s right and necessary to acknowledge that these definitions are largely arbitrary.
Where a consideration of genre benefits you as a writer, then, is in the manipulation of these ideas. Testing or rejecting the tropes of your genre might be the answer to giving your story some spark. Maybe your space opera would benefit from a literary structure or your hyper realist minimalist manifesto requires some suspense. The changes you introduce might be slight or very large, but even as an exercise they will almost certainly lend some insights.
And if you intend to go completely hog wild, combining genres left and right, I say go for it. But do try to remember what your story is about from chapter to chapter.
- Write a passage which could appear in novels of at least two different genres.
- Choose a paragraph from your favorite mystery. Rewrite it using a literary aesthetic.
- List the tropes common to a subgenre you enjoy. Brainstorm five new tropes you’d like to see in a novel from that genre.
- Add a speculative or suspenseful element to a literary short story, e.g., what if zombies attacked in “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner?
- Write as many tropes as you can think of from distinct genres on slips of paper. Draw three from the hat and write a story using them.
What genre is your novel? What elements might you borrow from other genres?
About the Author: Julia Patt
Julia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11, Stymie, and PANK.