The Purpose of Genre

Writing is an act of creation. When we put pen to the page (or fingers on keys), we created worlds of characters and give them a meaningful plot to propel their lives. They can fall in love, discover treasure, fight a mummy, fly to far off worlds, or all of the above. With writing, we’re really only ever limited by our imagination.

Then it’s time to publish.

I have said it before and I will say it again: publishing is a very different animal from writing. Whereas writing is a passion, publishing is a business. It operates on rules and logic. In a publisher’s eyes, the best writing is the world is worthless unless people read it. It is from this desire to connect writing to readers that we get genre.

Genre is essentially the characterization of narrative. It is the neat boxes that our wild writing is driven into. While this sounds restrictive, it is actually very helpful to the writer. Writing can be unwieldy. If we write with only passion then we will have stories that shoot wildly in many directions. Genre, and the logic behind it, helps focus our narratives on a desired goal. In writing a romance, the main drive of the plot has to be the protagonist’s relationship. In writing science-fiction, the writer must fully explore their idea of a non-existent technology and its impact on society.

book genres
There are many many many genres in literature. The above does not even list all of them.

The writer who tells you “I have a story for everyone” in fact has a tale for no one (at least that’s how agents and publishers see it). To date, not a single work has been written that has been liked by the entire population. As of 2014, The Holy Quran had sold over three billion copies but I’m willing to bet that we could find people who don’t like it (even if they’ve never read it). Every work of art has a finite audience and genre is an excellent tool in this regard.

That said, I would not get too caught up on genre while writing. For one thing, there are many layers. At the broadest is Fiction and Non-Fiction – simply put, is this a true story or not? Then there’s tone, romantic or realistic? Am I seeing any heroes this time around? Next is form – am I reading a novel or a short story, or is this a graphic novel? What age group is this for?

I asked all those questions without getting to “genre” as most people think of it. When writing, it is best to remain as out of your head as possible so these are not questions I would concern myself with too much. Most of them answer themselves as the process unfolds.

Hobbit genre
Yes The Hobbit is fantasy. It is also a romantic children’s comedy novel. Isn’t genre fun?

When I would think of genre, however, is when I encountered writer’s block. If my story was struggling and I didn’t know where to go next, then examining its main idea makes sense. If I’m writing a horror story but my last couple chapters have done nothing to build dread then I’ve gone off topic. A solution to my writer’s block may be to backtrack several chapters and rewrite in a new direction, one that keeps my hopeful genre in mind. Genre can be a guidance system that helps the writer see through their process.

This is the first of many blog posts that I’ll have on genre, in large part since it is my primary topic in this year’s South Shore Writing Initiative class schedule. I’ll be diving deeper into genre in future posts, looking at specific categories and their definitions. I will also provide the same writing exercises that I give my class.

Genre is a part of publication but it is still a writer’s friend. Being aware of genre can help a lot in regards to the writing process. Genre is a pathway to the audience. Use it to frame a narrative, play tricks with audience expectations, or help keep focus. It is far more a tool than a hindrance.

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