Is Genre Dying?

Death of GenreBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

At the Writer’s Digest conference in New York last January, superstar literary agent Donald Maass proclaimed the death of genre. After the conference, my co-writer Lisa Hall-Wilson even wrote about her impressions of his talk on our now defunct Girls With Pens blog. Maass devotes an entire chapter to the same topic in his recently released book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

My guess is that when you read the words “the death of genre,” you had one of two reactions. You either panicked because you write genre fiction like romance, thrillers, or science fiction, or you felt a surge of excitement because you’ve always felt like your book defied genre conventions and couldn’t be classified.

But if you’re a genre writer, you have no need for panic. Genres aren’t going anywhere. They help readers find what they want.

And if you’re not sure how to categorize your book, you might not have reason to celebrate. Just because your book defies categorization doesn’t mean you’re succeeding where strict genre writers fail.

Here’s what I’ve figured out after mulling over not only what Maass said so many months ago, but also reading through the chapter on the death of genre multiple times.

“The death of genre” is a misnomer. It’s not about the death of genre at all. It’s about the evolution of genre, the next leap forward the same way our world experienced a technology boom in the late 90s.

Maass’ call to action is for all writers—genre writers, literary writers, and those who feel like their book doesn’t fit a category.

It’s not about categories. It’s about writing a book that will become a classic.

Genre writers need to learn beautiful writing from literary writers, and literary writers need to learn captivating storylines from genre writers. Story and art become equals rather than adversaries.

Maass writes, “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (13).

When the two come together, whether you call the book genre fiction or mainstream/literary fiction, it doesn’t matter because you’ve laid the foundation for what Maass calls high impact fiction. The kind that stays on the bestseller lists for months rather than weeks at a time.

As long as you add one secret ingredient to bind them together—powerful emotion.

Believable characters are the vessels for carrying emotion because through them we’re able to face themes that touch the rawest core of our beings.

This is one of the reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable. Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Part of what made the Harry Potter series popular was we could still relate to the stories even though we couldn’t perform magic and would never need to fight a dark wizard. The stories and characters transcended the details of the magical world to tell a story of a boy who longed for a family that loved him, who just wanted to fit in, who struggled to figure out the line between right and wrong, and who learned that some things are worth fighting and dying for.

The lessons in Harry Potter, while secondary to an entertaining story, are what made it so loved by people who wouldn’t otherwise read a fantasy. It’s also what makes them re-readable.

What all this really means is that we stand at a time of amazing potential. Not because of indie publishing, not because of social media—though those help amazing stories spread—but because we could be the next generation’s Dickens, or Austen, or Hemingway.

What it will take is the courage to not settle for writing books that are good enough. And settling for “good enough” is one of the major dangers we face as writers now that self-publishing is not only a viable option but a smart one for many writers.

Each of us has a decision to make. Maybe you don’t care about whether your book is high impact fiction as long as it sells.

But if you do care, before you consider sending your book to an agent or putting it out yourself, take an honest look at whether it has the four elements it needs.  

Beautiful prose.

A compelling plot.

Believable characters.

Themes that touch hearts.

I think when we make it our aim to hit all four of those elements, category will be less important to us and everyone who reads our book. And I think that is the phenomenon we’re seeing now.

I’d love to know what you think about all this. Do you think I’m right? Wrong? Will genre eventually die out completely? Which of these four elements do you find the most difficult to get right?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Image Credit: Melodi T (via Stock.xchnge)