Genre Isn’t a Dirty Word

I read an article by Alan Jacobs, published in The Atlantic, called A Defense of Stephen King, Master of the Decisive Moment and it resonated me deeply. It also brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend and colleague of mine.

Searching out magazines to submit her (beautifully written) short stories, she came across the rule on most of them: No genre allowed. Not having been exposed to the biased literary world, she asked me – “What is genre, exactly?”

I told her not to worry, her pieces are literary, and that genre was something like Romance, or Sci-Fi, or Horror.

She said she knew what a genre was, just didn’t understand why most of the magazines say, “No Genre Allowed.”

And because I am often a smart… mouth… I barely managed to bite back my comments about genre writers being forced to pick up their food from the back  doors of the popular restaurants. But my reply to her was this:

That same question stumps me. I think it is a bit of literary snobbery to tell you the truth, and (our fiction instructor) showed us first hand what that looked like.

He said genre like it was a dirty word. “That time I sold out, and wrote genre…”
“Stay away from him, Mabel, he writes genre.”
Nobody in the Harrison family spoke their uncle’s name since he cut loose and started to write genre.

So… My name is Michelle, and I write genre.

I generally enjoy reading genre over literary fiction (isn’t that a genre in itself? Just saying). Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I identify more with genre. It speaks to me.

But it wasn’t until I read Mr. Jacobs’ article that I truly felt comfortable coming out of the literary closet. Because genre isn’t a dirty word. It is simply a classification used to guide readers to the type of stories they like best.

How about you? Do you prefer genre or literary? Had anyone snub you because of your dirty genre habit? Share your stories – I’d love to hear from you.


14 comments on “Genre Isn’t a Dirty Word

  1. Become popular enough and you become literary. Think Charles Dickens! There was a piece in the New Yorker on this:

    • Thanks for the link to the piece! Though I found it hard to read, as it seems to be one, giant paragraph, (editor’s bane). But a good commentary on the stigma of genre’s rapid disintegration.

  2. AWD says:

    I like well-written [insert genre, here] and I like a good story. I like getting lost in the pages and caught up in characters. I like Isaac Singer’s quote (in Richard Russo’s intro to The Best American Short Stories, 2010). Someone asked Mr. Singer what is the purpose of literature. His answer: “The purpose of literature, is to entertain and to instruct.” And he went on to underscore that “entertain” was primary. So… literary? genre? There is room for all, on my bookshelf–just don’t be boring.

  3. D Sault says:

    Ummmm . . . not quite sure how to say this, but my life IS genre. I don’t live in flowery descriptions, inbued with creative essence and finger-in-the-air wine sniffing. I run across a dusty field, following my frantic dogs in hope of shooting a pheasant for dinner. When I trip over that branch in the grass, my palms dig into gravel and bits of skin peel back leaving tiny rocks imbedded below trickles of blood. In other words, genre, for me, is “real.” Yeah, I know it may be fiction, but it “feels” real and I can emotionally connect with the character and story.

  4. Jane says:

    I must admit I’ve never seen a blaring “No genre allowed,” but I think I’ve figured out what you’re saying. Some markets are completely genre-based (creative non-fiction, fantasy, life writing, etc.). Does that mean “literary” is everything else? Like a good old short story or novel? I’m currently writing a memoir for a thesis project, so I read a lot in that genre; when I want to take a break, I’m a literary reader. No preference…just different. 🙂 Jane

    • Hi Jane, short stories can be genre also, though I think that if you are a literary reader, the kinds of places in which you look for stories are likely literary. Thanks for joining the conversation!

  5. I am well aware of the literary vs. genre dilemma. It is something that has plagued the local writing guild for many years, but we ‘genre-writing hippies’ are turning the tides. There are more of us on the board and we’re trying our best to convince the others to provide programming and workshops in different genres to accommodate and, hopefully, draw in more writers to become members. We are of the mind that as long as a writer tells an interesting story, whether set in a fantasy world, on a distant planet, alternate reality or some other imaginary place with characters who are human, alien, vampire, werewolf or whatever, the genre should not matter. 🙂

  6. The prejudice which bothers me most about genre is the idea that only “literary” works can have deeper meaning or bring a message to light. Genre is intended to entertain; literature is intended to enlighten. And yet… some of the most powerful messages I’ve encountered in reading come from books which are also incredibly entertaining.

    Where can we find a more powerful message about the evils of war and oppression than in the “Hunger Games?” Or about the danger of addiction than in Holly Black’s “Valiant?” Or about forgiveness than in A.M. Jenkins “Night Road?” Or about the twisted line between right and wrong than Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” or Holly Black’s “White Cat” series?

    To me, the best kind of “ah-ha” moments come when you aren’t expecting them—when you’re having so much fun with a story, and you care so much about the characters, that the deeper meaning is imbedded in the experience. Sure, literary works can do that for you, but genre can do it, too!

    Great post, Michelle! I thoroughly enjoyed Footloose Killer, and look forward to the next in the series. Also looking forward to meeting you at the SCWW conference in October.

    ~ Paula H.

    • Thank you Paula! You have some very good points, and those are all things that bother me about the prejudice. There are so many incredible messages within all of literature if one is open to receiving them.
      I am so glad you enjoyed the book! And I look forward to seeing you in October 🙂 I’m so excited about the conference!

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