Saturday, February 07, 2015

Genre is dead. Long live genre.

If you've read Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor--and I highly recommend it--you may recall Keillor's telling of the early church in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. The founding church began as a single congregation, then split, then split again, until finally every church consisted of one member meeting with himself in his living room. As Christians, we can relate.

As writers, I think we can relate as well. Back when I was a young whipper snapper, I snapped up books and whipped through them faster than a prairie dog in a hailstorm (it works, visualize with me). My primary source for books was the navy housing bookmobile. The bookmobile was divided up by genre. The genres were called "Books on the bottom shelves" and "Books on the top shelves."
I'd select my books based on the title and cover. My favorite book of all time, Watership Down, was selected because I thought it was about naval battles. The cover was missing. It's a good thing I didn't see the fluffy bunnies on a cover, otherwise I may never have read my favorite book.

Now, a short thirty-some-odd years later, the two genres I grew up with have been split, and split again, and split again, until we now have genres that are comprised of a single title meeting in his living room. Wait...never mind. You get the point.

If you're an Amazon shopper like most of us, you know that we really don't have genres anymore. We have key words. You type in "Amish Vampires and Pontiac Trans Ams" and a list of titles pop up. There is no genre called "Trans Am driving Amish Vampires." There should be, but I don't make the rules.

If you follow Donald Maass and have read his Writing 21st Century Fiction, you know he alludes to this muddling of genre as well. But he, like me, is not concerned. In fact, he, like me, sees it as a huge benefit to writers and readers alike.

What does genre do?

Genres allow readers to narrow down the vast number of books available to a few that fit their tastes. That's the good side. Imagine a book store where there was no organization according to genre.

But the dark side of genre is that publishers have established rules, often restricting rules, according their definition of the genre. Now, I'm a plotter and I love having guidelines before I start the first chapter. But they're my guidelines. While I believe that the publishers set these guidelines based on decades of customer research and experience, it still doesn't discount the fact that most readers will never get a chance to try an alternative to the formula.

What indie authors have done is provide easily accessible alternatives to the formulas. What a large corporation was not willing to do because they can only take acceptable risks, the individual writer is free to do. What have we got to lose? A few months of our time and maybe a little investment on editing and a cover. If that's still too much, you can write about Amish Vampires in Trans Ams, have your friends edit it for free, design your own cover, and upload your novel at zero cost.

Obviously, we've seen some crazy stuff get self-pubbed during the recent indie gold rush. But we've seen some gems come out of it as well. Our odds of success are still about the same, whether we self-pub or submit to traditional publishers. The difference is that, with indie publishing, you're not counting on a single assistant to the assistant editor to give your manuscript a pass after she's already read six dozen that morning and just got a Dear Jane text from her boyfriend.
You can put it out there and let the readers decide. At least a few will read the entire thing. If you get a swarm of one-star reviews, you know it's back to square uno.

Okay, Ron, what does that have to do with the death of genre?

Everything. If you'll scroll up before my rant, you'll note that I give credit to this genre demise to the indies. The indies took the risks and tried different things. My Amish Vampire sold his Trans Am and went into space, but it was close enough (did you picture Burt Reynolds with fangs?). In any industry, the big players are not the risk-takers. It's the nerd in his garage building the first home computers with his stoner buddies while IBM executives were saying that no individual would ever need his own computer. It's a kid from Memphis beating out a blue-sy tune on his old guitar while swaying his hips. It'll never sell. It's a couple of brothers with a bike shop who wanted to fly.

They're all indies. Indies blaze new paths. Once the path is wide enough, the big boys follow and make it mainstream. Then the indie gets tired of staring at cubicle walls and finds a new path to blaze.

Is that who you are? Some of you reading this are quite comfortable with your publishers and agents. That's fine. I still want that for myself. But another part of me, one that says you're 48 years old Ron don't just write, write something that defies the trends. Something that would have your book seller staring at a dozen different genre shelves with no clue what to do with it. But something that a reader will pick up on Amazon or Kobo and say, "Wow...I didn't even know such books existed."

No, I don't need to sell books to make a living. In fact, I could probably retire early if I'd stop spending money on conferences and how-to-write-books books. So I have nothing to lose. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that most of us fit that category.

So why not? That should be your phrase of the week. Why not?

Put your Amish Vampires in the driver's seat. Give your gun slinging cowboy a salvation experience and an orphanage to run (and maybe a talking horse). Re-write some fairy tales with a few more explosions. This is our time. There's trails to blaze, people.

Let's throw a few genres into the blender and see what pours out. Go make me proud.

What is your most outlandish idea, the one you won't even tell your critique group about? Go ahead, your secret's safe with us.


Ane Mulligan said...

Then again, there are those of us who want some genre labels to guide us. I'm Queen of the Big Honkin' Chicken Club and I don't read suspense or thrillers. So I want to know up front if the book I'm thinking about buying would scare me spitless. I'd be very unhappy if I was duped. It's not nice to fool the Queen.

Jessi L. Roberts said...

Back when I was trying to come up with a NaNoWriMo idea, I wrote a story set after the vampire/zombie apocalypse. It involved elves, werewolves, werecats, and post-apocalyptic towns full of humans who didn't get along with the werewolves. It was pretty much dystopian, but I'd dumped fantasy and paranormal species into the mix. Oh, and it had a Christian message too.
I still like the concept so I hope I can rewrite it into something that doesn't look like a bunch of late NaNo nights. If I do, I believe I'll self-publish it. I highly doubt the market will take such a mixup.

Ron Estrada said...

Awesome, Jessi! And there's definately readers out there who love that sort of insanity. You could even serialize it and make it sort of a literary soap opera with that many characters in the mix.