How Important is Genre?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Most writers choose a genre or two and write within them. There is a practical reason for this: it’s easier to sell genre works to publishers, who have to sell to bookstores. And even online bookstores are more likely to buy books if they know where to “shelve” them.

But what if you want to write something that doesn’t seem to fit?

To use an example from another art form, consider the photograph at the head of this post, which I took on vacation in July. The picture shows the River Aure running through Bayeux, France. I like this photograph, and maybe I’ll want to enter it at the Lake County Fair next year. But it doesn’t quite fit any of the categories for this year’s entries. Nature scenic? Yes, the river and the trees and the flowers are nature, but the buildings help make the picture. So maybe it should be entered as architecture? Although the buildings would make a nice picture on their own, it wouldn’t be the same one.

Since there is no perfect match, maybe I should just forget it. The rules allow only one entry in each category, so if I enter it in the wrong one and it is disqualified, I will have given up the opportunity to enter a photograph that does qualify. But I like this picture better than other options. So should I risk it?

That’s the same question writers face when drawn to an idea or plot that doesn’t fit neatly into a particular genre. Should we follow our hearts or make the “practical” choice?

Fortunately, I’ve never faced this question with my own writing. My manuscripts (published and unpublished) have always fallen within the genre lines. Not on purpose or because of any particular effort on my part—it just happened. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t creative. Many of the great composers, including Bach and Mozart, worked within the musical formulas of their time but still managed to show their genius. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself with Bach or Mozart, but the point is that there are plenty of opportunities for creativity while writing within a genre.

Still, sometimes we just can’t make an idea fit. So do we abandon it and move on, or do we follow our heart?

That’s a question only the writer can answer.

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