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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?