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On the tyranny of genre, and the art we lose between the cracks
Something I said in my first piece resonated with a lot of other writers.
It was this bit: I felt like my writing was better than ever, but that genuinely boundary-pushing, genre-defying, creatively ambitious work wasn’t getting published, because of the market.
I was not expecting my DMs to be flooded with authors (many of whom are huge New York Times bestsellers) who’ve had the same experiences. Projects shelved because they were too strange, because they wouldn’t fit into any one mould, even though the writers knew it was their best ever work.
It was cathartic and validating—but also frustrating—to read.
When I was on submission with my first adult novel back in 2021, the feedback cycle went something like this: editor falls in love. Editor shares with other editors, who also fall in love. Gleeful cheering ensues. ‘It is brilliant! It is art! It moved something deep inside me!’ Editors excitedly take it to acquisitions, only to be asked by bemused sales bods: ‘but, erm, what genre is it?’
The answer was . . . we don’t know? It’s too literary to be SF/F but too fast-paced to be literary, and too literary to be a speculative thriller but also too speculative thriller-y to be SF/F, but it’s definitely SF/F because otherwise wtf? But also probably literary. Except too much stuff happens so it can’t be.
And so I never got past acquisitions, because nobody could quite agree on where it would sit on a shelf. In the end, I got one rejections that said: ‘this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I cannot publish it.’
It almost broke me, creatively.
If I weren’t so stubborn, I could’ve revised it so that it sat more squarely in one genre. I could’ve taken out the mythology and the pantheon of deranged gods so that it could just be a speculative thriller. Or I could’ve taken out the plot so that it could just be a literary novel about art and connection.
But what do we lose when we sand off those sharp edges? When did publishing become so afraid of strangeness?
Now, no shade to sales bods. I worked in sales and marketing for ten years. I understand their job completely, and I understand the need for positioning, for market context.
How do you know which readers will like the book without those genre indicators? How do you reach readers at all if you don’t know who they are?
I get it. I promise I do. Genres exist for a reason.
And of course, readers rely on the shorthand of ‘romance’ or ‘historical’ or ‘murder mystery’ to find the kinds of stories they want to read. So that they have a place to start when they walk into a bookstore. So that they have something to tell the lovely bookseller who asks them what sort of thing they’re looking for.
I’m not arguing for the abolition of genre altogether.
But when I think of the books I enjoy most as a reader, they defy genre completely. And I don’t mean in that litfic ‘everyone-is-terrible-and-nothing-happens’ way. (I read and like litfic, but tell me I’m wrong.) I mean they draw from several genres to great effect.
Take The Unmaking of June Farrow by Adrienne Young, which came out last week. It moved me so profoundly that I still choke up thinking about it. It spoke so deeply on identity and motherhood and belonging and choices and fate. I loved it so much.
What genre is it? I have no idea.
It’s a murder mystery, but it’s also, at its heart, a love story. It falls somewhere between grounded fantasy, magical realism and science fiction. It takes place between present day and the 1950s, so it’s neither contemporary nor historical. The prose is beautiful and elegant, but the story has too many genre elements to be litfic.
I bought it online, because I follow the author on social media and like the way she talks about her work, so I have no idea where it sits on a traditional shelf.
Could that book have been stripped of certain elements—such as the time travel, or the murder mystery—so that it could be shoehorned into a certain section? Yes.
Would it be quite so astonishing? I truly don’t think so.
My big hope for the post-Bigolas Dickolas Era is that readers will embrace that kind of shrieking enthusiasm of ‘IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT IT’S ABOUT, JUST TRUST ME.’
For the four (4) of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, this single tweet changed the trajectory of a book’s life, landing it on the NYT Bestseller List years after its publication:
For me, this phenomenon proved that readers are more willing to take risks than publishing gives them credit for. Tens of thousands of people read that tweet and thought, okay, random shouting person, I won’t look it up, but I will buy it with my hard-earned money because I believe in raw enthusiasm.
Thanks to BookTok, so many readers have changed the way they find books. They’re watching a video of a reviewer whose taste they respect raving about a title, and they’re buying it with two clicks of a button from the comfort of their sofa, and then they’re reading it and loving it and screaming about it too.
(By ‘they’ I mean ‘I’. I am finding books this way. I am talking about books this way.)
So many genre-defying, completely and utterly weird books are finding new audiences like this. Mona Awad is everywhere. Split Tooth, which blends fiction, memoir, poetry and Inuit folklore, is big news. And of course, the Bigolas Dickolas of it all: a literary time travel novel about two star-crossed lesbians, which actually doesn’t make any sense but is completely beautiful, became a viral sensation.
Readers are clamouring for strange shit, but the tyranny of genre means often the very best strange shit never makes it over the line.
But maybe, with other ways to discover books besides the rigid columns of bricks-and-mortar bookshops, we can take greater risks in what we publish.
(Another caveat: I am obviously not advocating against bricks-and-mortar bookshops. They’re my very favourite things in the world. And indies, in particular, are doing great work in handselling ‘weird’ books. Just not necessarily in the huge numbers traditional publishing responds to.)
In thinking beyond genre, publishing would also open up so many different cultural styles of storytelling that don’t conform to the Western structures we’ve come to expect from our fiction. We could carve out a bigger space for authors from different ethnic backgrounds, for translated works from foreign markets.
We could excite readers in new ways, expand horizons, push the edges of taste. We could give writers permission to be bolder, braver, weirder.
We could use genres as handy shortcuts, not as rigid rules.
And maybe we would stop losing so much art between the cracks.
One of the things I’m most excited about re the big Our Infinite Fates deal is that this book does not have a clear genre. It’s being pitched as fantasy romance, which is likely closest, but it’s also kind of a speculative thriller, but also a murder mystery (albeit a whydunnit, not a whodunnit). The writing style is literary and lyrical, and it is experimental in structure (it spans a millennium, after all). It was hilariously difficult to try and sum it up for the deal announcement.
I really hope readers respond to that. I really hope they’ll scream at their friends, ‘IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT IT’S ABOUT, JUST TRUST ME.’
For me, that would be the highest form of compliment.