Any writer who heads out into the marketplace soon realizes that the marketplace is carved up into sections, organized by genre. Is your book science fiction? Fantasy? Steampunk? Women’s fiction? Literary fiction? Romance? Creative nonfiction? Biography? Historical fiction?
Roughly you can think of this as “Where would you look for this in the bookstore?”
This can be frustrating. Many authors of science fiction will claim, rightly, that their books have the same devotion to character and language that “literary fiction” does. And authors of literary fiction will say that their books have enough mystery, or romance, that they shouldn’t be lumped in with the highfalutin’. Most if not all authors believe that their books have at least a couple of these elements, and can appeal to readers accordingly.
Aha, you say. Bookstores are no longer physical spaces! We don’t need to choose one shelf on which to place a book. Online, every book can be in multiple categories!
But that’s not how it works. Online bookstores organize things into lists. Forums dedicated to books and reading focus on particular genres. Reviewers have preferences for genres they like to read. And most importantly, readers look for books in their genre (or avoid ones they don’t like). For an author, declaring a genre serves a purpose in a) getting readers to consider your book and b) setting their expectations for what they will find.
I don’t know if this will ever change. I’m just saying that it hasn’t yet.
All of this is a lengthy prelude to what I really want to say. Because there is a different way to think of this. There is hope, people!First principle: there are many, many authors who say that they aren’t writing to fit within a particular genre. And there are many, many readers who say the same thing. There’s common ground here: authors want to put out the books, and the readers are eager to read them.
What unites them? Story.
Think I’m wrong? How would you complete these sentences:
Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for__________.
Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to_________.
I’m sure you can come up with answers to that. But I doubt any of them would be able to top these:
Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for a good story.
Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to tell a story.
Right? It’s the story that matters. That’s the simplest, purest way to put it. Get that right, and everything else will click into place. Readers and writers will be united in that happy communion we call reading.
So that’s it: storytelling! The magic and the wonder! Feel the power!
And there’s more! Not only does storytelling have the power to unite, it has the power to inform. Maria Popova puts it this way:
A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.
There’s a longer essay on her site, which you should all go read. Or you can have it read to you by Popova herself, along with these lovely animations: