Monday, March 2, 2015

Genres Revisited: What Genre Do I Write?

So what genre would you assign
to this book?  Oh, I know!
It has to be about an
exterminator named
Ki'shto'ba who labors at
destroying termite colonies
 by abducting their Queens! 
What genre is this?
Hmm ... hard to tell from the cover.
In fact, I call it speculative
literary science fiction, future 
history, psychological fiction, plus a 
rumination on future religions.
With a provocative theme and
 great characters-- 
don't forget that!
March 2-7, 2015
All My Books
are 50% off,
so none is over

Jane Dougherty recently wrote a blog post entitled Does Literary Have to Mean Dull and Boring?  She defines literary fiction as "something that could never be accused of being genre fiction."  She goes on to say, "since authors are obliged to fit their work into a genre when pitching it to publishers and agents, or just to sell it on Amazon," anything that didn't fit in a genre was disqualified as poor literary production, in effect. "In the label 'genre' writing there is an implicit sneer," she says.  She mentions "magical realism," saying, "our magical realism is just plain fantasy (I wrote that with a sneer)."
       In her final paragraph she says, "Why can't we go back to the good old days when there were just books and children's books?  I like to think I write books.  I don't like to think that they are so similar to other people's books that there is a handy tag for them."
       I couldn't agree more, Jane!  And I want to elaborate on this idea a bit.  I originally planned to become a college professor of English literature, so I spent the early part of my career reading "literary" fiction.  Frankly, I didn't even know that was what I was reading -- books by Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Joyce, William Faulkner -- they were all "just books."  I daresay those authors are all considered writers of literary fiction.  But they are definitely not boring, for starters!  Lately, I've read several books that are "literary" -- The Great Gatsby, for one, and a recent book by Simon Gough (a grandnephew of Robert Graves) entitled The White Goddess, in which Graves is a main character. (The links take you to my reviews of these books.) Boring? Not on your life!  (Parenthetically, I should point out again that I consider all significant books to contain elements of fantasy -- see my post Defining Fantasy According to TermiteWriter.  To impart a shiver of wonder can only enrich any "genre.")
       In midlife I discovered Tolkien (is he literary enough for you?) and I started to write somewhat similar fantasy.  I also started to read a lot of fantasy and finally got into science fiction.  It never occurred to me that I was somehow betraying my educational background -- that I had sunk low in matters of taste.  I was just looking for good books and I kept the same standards.  Thus, although I read a good deal of Marion Zimmer Bradley, I considered her a pretty pedestrian writer.  But then there is Ursula K. LeGuin, who is one of the most skillful writers around.  And there  was C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams (one of the Inklings)  and other older writers like E.R. Eddison (The Worm Ourobouros et al.) and William Morris (The Well at the World's End) and ... well, I could go on and on.  They definitely cross genre lines and nobody seems to condemn them for it.
       As for "magical realism," I've only read one example -- Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits.  It's full of fantastical elements, of course, but it's also very dark and not particularly comfortable to read.  It's never boring, though.  I would say, if having seriousness of purpose makes a book boring for you, well, then most literary fiction would fall in that category.  And most of my books have a serious purpose, even the termite epic, so I guess I have the only literary termite people in existence!
       When I started to write again in 2000, it never occurred to me to worry about the genre I was writing.  I didn't realize at that time that I was supposed to fit my fiction into a category.  I was just trying to write exciting and fascinating books. I happened to enjoy both science fiction and fantasy, and obviously a tale laid in the 30th century with extraterrestrials who are giant intelligent termites cast The Termite Queen in the SF mold.  But it also includes the tale of Kaitrin Oliva and her enigmatic lover.  One early reviewer called my works literary science fiction and stated that they reminded him of Mary Doria Russell (I see Wikipedia calls her a writer of "speculative fiction" novels -- I presume that designation elicits more respect.)
       I was always taught not to write in cliches, so why in the world would I want to pump out books that were carbon copies of other people's books?  My aim was never to get rich selling millions of books to thoughtless readers looking only for sensation or escape -- I wanted to attract some attention for my ideas and gain some respect and a following.  Those are still my goals.  I wouldn't even know how to write a stereotypical vampire romance or a nasty zombie tale or a cliched space opera or one of these sword-and-sorcery Tolkien rip-offs.  If I tried, the characters would soon develop all kinds of psychological complexities and gain a back story to explain it, and probably the outcome of the whole thing would be tragic.  Even my termite characters fit that picture.  It's just the way I write, and I have no intention of changing.

If you're interested, I addressed this genre question before, way back in 2012, from a slightly different perspective in a blog piece called What Genre Do I Write and Whom Do I Write For?


  1. We share similar literary tastes, Lorinda, The Worm Ourobouros, The White Goddess, and The Well at the World's End I read when I was in my mid-teens, and I share your opinions on Zimmer Bradley (vastly over rated) and Le Guin (fantastic). It wasn't necessary in the past to categorise books, so why do we have to do it now? I can see booksellers wanting to put certain books togerther, like crime series and romance series where the books are written with the express intention of following a formula, but I don't admit that publishers should immediately exclude from their notion of 'literary' well-written, imaginative and original works that happen to have an element of a despised 'genre'.

    1. Right! As I've said elsewhere, I think elements of fantasy in literary writing only help to enhance the quality! Thank you for stopping by!