Forget Genre

by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is going to bounce around a bit like a paper cup caught in the wind, but will hopefully come together at the end, so bear with me.

One of the things I promised myself when I agreed to take part in this blog was that I would try to avoid offering advice to aspiring writers. This is not arrogance on my part, nor is it my assigned covert role in some labyrinthine conspiracy designed to make certain that basic necessary knowledge for starting one’s writing career is kept concealed from you, thus eliminating any potential competition you and your work might pose in the marketplace.

The reason I am uncomfortable offering advice to aspiring writers is simple: I’m still learning how to do this myself (and I hope that I’ll never stop learning). Many of the things I discovered through trial and error no longer apply, and I wouldn’t dare try to tell someone else how they should go about managing a writing career.

But there is one piece of advice that, when pressed to, I gladly offer to aspiring writers — and it’s one that is often met by blank, confused stares: Forget Genre.

If you sit down and say, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” you might — consciously or not — start grafting traditionally horrific elements onto a story where they don’t belong, and you can hobble a story by trying to force it to fit within the “traditional” (read: popularly accepted) boundaries of a particular genre, rather than expand those boundaries by not worrying about how it’s going to be categorized. View it only in terms of the story you want to tell, not the one you think readers are going to be expecting.

Two things happened recently that prompted me to revisit this subject for myself: 1) Reviews for my novella In the Midnight Museum and my new Leisure novel, Keepers started appearing, and, 2) A member of a local writers’ group made a statement so naive as to be almost — almost — laughable.

About the former: much to my relief, the reviews for both Museum and Keepers have thus far been overwhelmingly positive, but in almost every case, the reviewers have said something along the lines of “…it’s both horror and not”, or, “…I guess horror is as good as anything to call it…”

You get the idea. Neither work fits easily into any single category, and it’s making some people crazy trying to figure out where to put them. My response is: how about just addressing them as stories and leave it at that?

My guess is that readers and reviewers begin reading a story labeled “horror” (or “cyberpunk”, or “fantasy”, or “mystery”, or what have you) with certain ingrained expectations; they have come to anticipate certain elements to appear to a particular type of story, and are surprised — sometimes not pleasantly so — when those expectations are not met and/or indulged.

Only half a dozen times in my career have I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” and then proceeded to do just that, always bearing in mind what readers expect in a horror story, and making damn sure I worked in as many of those expected elements as I could. Six times I’ve done this, and six times I’ve produced stories that are just, well…awful. And they’re awful because I did not forget genre, genre was the overriding factor in their creation — and telling a good story was secondary.

Shame on me.

Now to the latter point before I bring all this together.

I belong to a local writers’ group that is composed mostly of fantasy and science fiction writers. Many of these folks are unpublished or have just begun publishing; some of the folks have a decent amount of fiction already published; and a small handful of them, including myself and Charles Coleman Finlay, have got a fairly decent body of published work out there.

In a recent discussion, one of the members — who writes heroic fantasy — commented that she’d noticed a “…larger than usual number of horror-type stories” being submitted for critique, and could we possibly cut down on that because she and several other members don’t ‘get’ horror. When prompted for further comment, she also admitted that she’s read “…some Stephen King” but otherwise tends to read almost exclusively in the field of — you guessed it — heroic fantasy.

She is not alone in this; members who write exclusively mystery fiction have quit the group because they didn’t ‘get’ fantasy, and the science fiction folks didn’t ‘get’ mystery.

What’s to ‘get’? Somebody explain this to me — on second thought, please don’t, it wasn’t an actual request.

It doesn’t matter a damn if your story is horror, or mainstream, or fantasy, or erotica, or any other genre or sub-genre — it is, must be, must always be, first and foremost a good story.

Why don’t more readers and writers understand that? Have we become so tunnel-visioned in our expectations that we have given up the hope of ever seeing any genre attempt something new and/or different? Or have we been trained through a steady diet of the same old same-old to want nothing more than journeyman-level storytelling, storytelling that challenges neither the mind nor the heart (forget about those “traditional boundaries” I mentioned earlier)?

If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, I think it’s quite possible that you’re the type of reader or writer who’s come to think in terms of “genre” far too much for your own good.

Far too many writers — both new and established — think too much in terms of the type of story they’re writing — and what’s worse, far too many of them read almost exclusively in the field in which they want to publish. While it is important to be be well-read in your chosen field, it’s vital that you read outside that field as much as possible, otherwise you’ll eventually be writing nothing more than a hip imitation of a pastiche of a rip-off of something that was original two decades ago but has now fallen far too deep into a well-worn groove to offer a challenge to either writers or readers.

I read all over the place, and do not restrict my influences to those giants in the field from under whose shadows I hope to emerge.

As a result, yes, both of my recent works are and aren’t horror; they’re both also fantasy and not; each is and isn’t a mystery, a romance, a mainstream character study. What they are, are two pieces of which I am very proud because they were the best stories I could make them … because I followed my own advice and Forgot Genre.

Approach any work as being simply a story, and you’ll always “get” it; think only in terms of “genre” and you’ll have a hobbled story by the third paragraph.

That is the best piece of advice that I have or will ever have for aspiring writers. I hope you found something useful contained here.

Now go read Theodore Sturgeon’s magnificent The Dreaming Jewels and put someone into brainlock when you ask them to tell you what kind of a novel it is.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

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