Genres Are A Reader’s Friend

Genres: Reader's Friend, or Straightjacket?

genres are a readers friendA classic Saturday Night Live fake commercial had Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner arguing about whether a new product, Shimmer, was a floor wax or a desert topping, only to have spokesperson Chevy Chase reveal that it's both. If you've never seen it, watch it here. 

I feel that way about genres. They're both a reader's friend, and a straightjacket.

Genres Are a Reader's Friend

open-book-with-heart-romanceTo me as a reader, genres are my friend. I read a lot, and have wide-ranging tastes, but some stories aren't for me. I know from experience that I won't like them—they'll bore me or make me unhappy. Genres offer me a way to narrow my choices at the bookstore, so I don't have to read the blurbs of every book in the catalog or on the shelf.

Genres give me instant context, too. Here's an example of a book tagline:

A man discovers a hidden garden, and finds himself slowly but surely drawn back into the war.

If I know the genre, the tagline becomes a lot more meaningful. If it's in memoir, I know the book is about the man's real-life experiences. If it's in action and adventure, I'm thinking maybe it involves spies and intrigue. If it's in science fiction, maybe the hidden garden is actually a dimensional gate. 

Genres Are a Straightjacket

book with chains wrapped around itBy the same token, genres can become a straightjacket. I grew disenchanted with “young adult” genre some years ago, but I couldn't put my finger on why until I heard an author repeat what her publisher said about her manuscript: “Speed up the pace, amp up the action, and lose the first-love same-sex relationship between secondary characters, because parents don't want their kids exposed to that stuff.” It made me realize that too often in the YA genre, killing people is more acceptable than loving them. 

Most genres have a few rules that authors break at their peril. Westerns better be set in the American West, and have an action-oriented plot, and often involve justice. Compare Riders of the Purple Sage and Little House on the Prairie, for example. I don't read Christian fiction, but I'd imagine it has to involve characters who have or find faith. Romance means main characters falling in love, and who get a happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending. Don't make me get out my keyboard and leave you a one-star review because you added a surprise tragic ending and called it a romance. 

I love cross-genre and multi-genre books stories, but the author has to meet reader expectations for all its genres for it to work for me. Romantic suspense should have a romance—not just romantic elements—and an action-oriented plot. Science fiction mystery should be grounded in science (real, speculative, or imaginary) and have a juicy puzzle for the readers to solve along with the main character(s). 

What do you think about genres?

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  1. I agree. Genre fixes the expectation, and only the most open minded reader will enjoy working the ‘edges.’

    One issue with genres is they tend to implode into the least common denominator, waiting for someone like a Stanislav Lem or Ursala LeGuin to push them back to their original dimensions. Until then, the more open reader has to be content with 30 year old back lists to supplement the fun stuff being published right now.

    1. Interesting — I hadn’t thought about the boom and bust cycle with genres, but it’s true. In the late 70s and early 80s, some young mavericks burst on the scene, expanding SF to encompass more personal social issues, such as sexuality and gender, and what it means to be human. Hard SF fans were dismissive, proclaiming they were destroying the genre, but funnily enough, SF is still alive and kicking.

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