Discussions here, here, here, and here (with more here), made me think that I’m one of those writers that struggles because I don’t fit neatly into a box. Okay, I can hear an evil fey in my ear channeling Nick Mamatas throw a snappy response back about fitting into the “not published enough” or “not good enough” box…but that’s just that constant author’s shadow of self-doubt creating external villains. (For the record, I have much respect for Mr. Mamatas, and have great appreciation for his work, as well as his fiery honesty. Why his face is on the evil fey whispering in my ear…well, that’s just an author’s imagination.)
But, the bottom line is that most writers I know, including myself, just want to write what we write. We don’t want to fit into little boxes. The marketing professional inside of me says, well, sorry, kiddo you have to have labels so that the bookstores know where to shelve your product (book). This whole belief that consumers (readers) only read from a certain shelf is very limited. Are there customers like that? Sure, there is; but, the fact is that most readers read everything. They will read a mystery, they’ll read a collection of short stories, they’ll read science fiction and fantasy; they’ll even read literary fiction. What’s my evidence of this? My book shelves, the book shelves of my friends and family, what I see my community members reading in the library, and it seems some folks in the industry (especially the library side of the house) tend to agree. Oh, and don’t forget the internet – the internet’s bookshelves are endless, as the affable Chuck Wendig pointed out.
However, even when common sense prevails, there is a clear problem with the industry. I say this because I’m seeing such statements from authors trying to thrash themselves away from confining genre labeling and what the industry seemingly expects of them. Writers like Caitlin R. Kiernan or Myke Cole have to communicate – via blogs, interviews, panels at conventions, etc. – that they are only going to write one way until they are taken serious as a science fiction writer (Kiernan), or that men can write romance (Cole) in order to throw off the chains of genre or author branding. I see a problem when people say William Gibson is defeating his author branding by writing historical fiction as opposed to cyberpunk. Hell, eventually, even the almighty J.K. Rowling has to write something else. Whereas other authors like Harlan Ellison, Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, and Jean Johnson write in multiple genres with relative ease and no one tries to clamp them down to one genre shelf. Even classics like Orwell and Adams wrote in multiple genres. Of course, then there are folks who seem to have their own genre, like China Miéville or Neil Gaiman. Other times, some folks just bend the language to make being trapped in a genre something good: Be a specialist, they say. I say Bollocks! to the spin doctoring. Write what you want. If the story is good, it will sell.
Over the years I’ve written everything from non-fiction, fiction, creative non-fiction, and from horror to literary fiction. When I sit down to write a story the first thing on the forefront of my mind is not what genre it is. I’m writing to tell the story that must be told. It is as simple as that. Nothing more. My protagonists certainly don’t whisper in my ear and say, “I must be on the hard-case crime shelf,” or ‘Hey, you, writer, you better make sure that I end up on the same shelf as Cronin, King, Neville, or Straub.” No, they grab the writer (me) and say, “Tell my story and let the world know.”
I may be being too metaphorical here; however, I despise when I read something that is just rehashed formula made to just sell and not stimulate (I will refrain from naming names, but many of them are sold at Wal-Mart check-out stands or liquidated via Costco). I bore of stories like that. I want to see the writer challenge me – both of us going out of our comfort zone. I seem to be quoting Kiernan a lot lately, but she’s got a fucking good point: “I am not here to write stories that make you feel good about yourselves.” Both as a reader and a writer, that’s not what I look for from my literature. Make me think. Make me feel. And for goodness sake, don’t coddle me. If I liked your science fiction story, I’m probably going to dig your historical fiction. If I liked your graphic novel, I’m likely going to dig your young adult project, too. I don’t want my authors to type-cast themselves; I certainly don’t want them to pigeonhole me as a reader.
Given that, I don’t expect anyone to do that to me either. Fuck the genre police. Write your story and don’t let the bookshelf labels hold the pen.
*Writer’s Note: Thanks to the Twitter-verse for helping my frontal lobe connect more examples for my arguments here. @impropaganda and @chriswhitewrite were especially on point.