Are you burger or filet? The dilemma of genre

I’ve had quite a few stories published in online and print literary journals in the last five years.

And quite a few not published.

I recently received a rejection from a publication that provides brief feedback in return for a small contribution when you submit. As I read the comments, it became apparent that the editor had completely missed what kind of story it was.

The editor expected this… (Photo Credit: Robspinella, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps I could have made the style more obvious. (I have been accused of leaving too much to the reader’s imagination.) Perhaps I committed that cardinal sin of submitting to a publication that wasn’t right for my story (although I did my research using Duotrope).

Whatever the explanation, the incident got me thinking about an idea some writers embrace fulsomely and some treat like a necessary evil: genre.

Containers are context and shortcut

When you go to a fast food restaurant, you expect a quick, predictable meal that offers calories but doesn’t necessarily rate high on the nutrition chart. At a high-end steak house, you expect high-quality meat expertly prepared—in keeping with the prices on the menu.

I think the editor read my story expecting filet mignon and was perplexed by the fast-food hamburger. Or the other way around. Any marketer knows that meeting—and often exceeding—expectations plays a big role satisfying consumers.

…and ended up with this. (Photo credit: Lionel Allorge, via Wikimedia Commons)

In fiction, genre can be a container that sets the reader’s expectations, as Kristen Lamb’s recent post about genre points out.

Genre is like packaging. It tells you what to expect inside. If you sell a cheap knock-off watch in a Cartier box, buyers will be angry (and you may be prosecuted for fraud). If you package your Cartier like a Timex, no one will want to spend what you’re asking. It’s not that an expensive watch is inherently better or worse than a cheap one. It’s just that they’re aimed at different audiences with different needs and desires.

The same goes for writing, media, and entertainment.

You go to Gizmodo for different kinds of stories than you’ll get at the The Economist. You won’t find the same kind of stories in the New Yorker as you’ll find in Terraform. Buyers don’t like to be surprised and they want a shortcut to finding what they like.

Categories matter

That’s why categories matter so much on Amazon. It’s why there’s the BISAC system. It’s why physical bookstores divide their shelves into fiction and nonfiction and then affix little signs like “Romance” or “Sci-Fi” and “Religion and Spirituality.”

The Strand Bookstore in New York City

At its worst, of course, the packaging of concepts and ideas can lead us further into our filter bubbles, dividing us even further depending on whether we listen to NPR or watch Fox News.

But do we really want a world in which everything is part of a big soup of entropic chaos without guideposts?

As artists and producers, we need to strive for balance.

Don’t fool your consumers. Don’t sell them a literary novel masquerading as steampunk or a cozy mystery claiming to be a thriller. But maybe you can entice readers and viewers to try a flavor they haven’t yet sampled or stretch a little beyond their comfort zones, to taste some historical fiction when they’ve only ever read sci-fi or try some magical realism if they’re devotees of realistic fiction.

And readers, maybe you can bust out of your categories now and then. Put down the steak knife and grab the bun with both hands!

The debate continues

The debate between devotees of genre (sometimes referred to as commercial) fiction and literary fiction rages on.

Alice Hoffman and Tom Perrotta discuss differences between “literary” and “commercial” fiction.

If you’re a reader, do you pick sides? If you’re a writer, how do you categorize your writing?

7 thoughts on “Are you burger or filet? The dilemma of genre

Add yours

  1. This is a great post that addresses a lot of things I’ve wondered about for a long time. I’ve tried my hand at a couple of genres, including weird fiction/cosmic horror, military sci-fi and a (as yet unpublished) weird western. Cosmic horror was the first genre I wrote in, though,so everything I write tends to contain at least a hint of it.

    I did once try writing a story that deliberately appeared to be one sort of story and, towards the end, revealed itself to be a completely different sort. Maybe a crazy thing to do, but I thought it was an interesting experiment. It was the sort of story where I felt I had some license to “trick” the reader.

    In general, I’ve always had a hard time following rules unless I see a good reason for them to exist, so I generally try to subvert genre whenever I see a chance. I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but it’s definitely a very strong impulse in my personality. I get a lot of my ideas from looking at standard genre tropes and wondering, “Now how could I turn that on its head?”


  2. Thanks for your post, and for the interview with Hoffman and Perrota. It’s been a problem for my books. I’m with Tom – “writing is so hard…I’ve no time to be calculating”! Your recent book seems quite the filet. I think we both write literary fiction, character- and language-based. And mine is historical fiction as well. So between genres? Then Tory categorized my latest book was literary, not historical, but re-designed my cover so that it looks commercial. Still working on this!


  3. Excellent post. We need to try to sell only what’s there, because if someone goes into a genre book expecting the deep introspection of literary fiction, they’ll be disappointed. Their reviews will reflect it too. That’s why when I read a book outside my usual genre (thrillers), I try not to approach my review as I would had I read a thriller. Different genres deliver different elements, and literary fiction often delivers something else entirely.


    1. Well said! Sometimes it seems as if readers/reviewers don’t quite get this. Leopards are not tigers are not house cats, and reviewing one by the standards of another isn’t fair.


      1. Readers come into books with different expectations. I suppose that’s what explains the range of ratings on books, including those that have won major awards. One reader’s 5-star is another one’s 1-star.


Tell me what you really think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: