Fear of the Genre

I have a deep fear of writing ‘genre’ fiction. This fear has been beaten into me over time. During my time as an English major undergraduate student writing anything that was not considered ‘literary’ work wasn’t just frowned on, it was outright forbidden to be workshopped in class or to really even be discussed.

I remember one lovely young woman in a class of mine who brought in a romance story. While it was rough and needed work, it didn’t need to be chopped into microscopic pieces and twisted and forced into becoming a totally different story, all because it wasn’t seen as ‘literary’ enough.

I had one professor of mine talk about how one of my stories was ‘horror genre crap’ and was not at all at the level or work that an almost senior should be writing at. I panicked. I wanted more than anything to be a great writer, for my professor to love my work, to be the golden student. I edited, tweaked, changed my work, changed my entire writing style. I could flirt with being Southern Gothic but had to toe an invisible line between that and Horror–a line I couldn’t even see.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy with my writing voice. It’s taken me a long time to feel I have a distinctive voice, but that fear of genre still lingers. The second I begin writing something that I don’t consider ‘literary’ I panic. I start thinking ‘This is utter crap. It’s not me. I’m better than this. Why am I writing this?’ Which is totally insane.

There is nothing wrong with genre books, in fact 90% of my favorite books of all time are genre. I hate that there is even a distinction between a literary work and a genre work, and half of the time I don’t anyone even has a clear definition of what those differences are.

I still am having trouble getting over this sheer panic when I write something that I see as genre. I have re-outlined and re-plotted one single novel four times due to that panic.

So, to try to conquer that panic I am stepping over into one of my first writing loves: romance. Yes, romance. It’s already proving to be a struggle, but by throwing it out here to you all I’m hoping that will keep me on track. A lot of pressure for you all right?

What are you all working on? Do you have any fears about genre writing?

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17 Comments »

  1. R.S. Hunter Said:

    When I was in college I kind of felt left out because all my peers loved literary fiction. I hadn’t read the same “classics” or fancy theorists they’d read. I knew a ton about genre fiction, but that didn’t amount too much. Not when we were reading Milton or something. Luckily I got to write about science fiction for my bachelor’s thesis.

    I write what I like to read. Maybe none of my stuff will never have a “literary” bent, but that shouldn’t matter. I think you’re on the right track by trying to squash that inner critic. Write what you want to write and what you like to read. It’ll end up being better than something unnatural that you’re trying to force.

    • So very jealous that you were able to work with sci-fi piece for your thesis! We actually had parts in the class rules that said ‘No fantasy, no science-fiction, etc.’ It was incredibly frustrating. I had a few professors who let me go outside literary (though only by a toe) and now that I don’t have those professors anymore I’m seeing just how deeply they altered my writing perspective. So now I’m working to get back to writing what I love whether that’s literary, genre or something else. I’m writing for me, not them.

      • Laura Said:

        That makes me angry. This is why I am deliberatly not studying creative writing in college. I do not want to fit my style to please a professor. But while I’ve come across distate/disdain for genre fiction from professors, I don’t think any of them would actually prohibit me from writing “genre.” I mean, they might not give me an A, but yikes, at least it’s not forbidden. 😦

    • Now, see, I’d call Milton speculative fiction/fantastika. He wasn’t exactly writing about “real life,” now was he…

      • So many of the classics were not this narrow ‘literary’ that everyone puts them into. A good story is a good story whether it’s fantasy, horror, literary, romance, whatever.

  2. I can’t say I have any fears similar to yours. Literary fiction has never been my cup of tea, even if I did enjoy some of the books I “had to” read in high school. I mostly read books that were meant to be entertaining, and most of them are Fantasy or Alternative History books. As such, I have little difficulty writing Fantasy myself, since it’s what I’m used to reading.

    Also, what is and isn’t considered literary is a bit subjective. A lot of works that were considered trash by literary critics upon release decades ago are considered works of art today.

    I don’t think your panic is justified. There is nothing wrong with writing genre fiction. Why are you writing? To satisfy a bunch of professors you no longer have anything to do with? Or because you enjoy telling stories? I’m guessing the latter, and a story does not need to be literary to be enjoyable.

    • So true. A story does not have to be ‘literary’ to be enjoyable and the stories I want to tell are not what any of my old professors would consider literary. This totally irrational panic is driving me out of my mind. It is helping me learnhow to shut up my little inner critic and just kept moving forward which I suppose is a good thing in the long run.

      I love genre fiction! Fantasy, romance, sci-fi, steampunk, horror, I read anything and everything I can get my hands on!

    • Laura Said:

      You’re right; perceptions change over time. Shakespeare did not win literary approval from everyone in his lifetime (Marlowe was their golden child. But he died in a bar fight and we only have 6 of his plays…) But years later, people love Shakespeare’s ambiguity and criticize Marlowe’s moralizing, clear-cut endings. Poe was another writer who wasn’t recognized in his time. And Emily Dickenson. If you counted them all up, it would probably be a pretty long list. And then think—the “literature” popular now will probably be out of favor by the end of the century.

  3. One thing that I like to point out to people who denigrate “genre” fiction is that “literary” is ALSO a genre. What we call “literary fiction” is, in fact, a genre to itself, with the same relatively unyielding rules and edicts regarding what has to be written – for the most part, it has to be self-referential, cyclical or circular, mostly character-driven with very little plot, and extremely introspective. In most cases, it also deals with the home life and disappointments of a WASP.

    …it is every bit as constraining as “genre” fiction, and “genre” fiction is every bit as legitimate. HOW something like that came to be considered the only thing worth writing, I’ll never understand.

    • I won’t ever understand either. When people start looking down on say fantasy novels I just want to yell, “Shakespeare wrote fantasy too!” Good writing is good writing no matter what its topic is about, or what the plot is. It drives me crazy that the attitude of my professors has burrowed its way so deeply under my skin.

      • It’s hard not to let that happen, though. You’re certainly not the only one. I have a friend who’s doing an MFA in writing just now, and she’s SO frustrated by the attitudes towards popular fiction…

      • I’m a bit afraid of going into my MFA for that reason. I’m focusing in poetry for that exact reason. Poetry doesn’t seem to have quite that seperation between the literary and the genre. It still exists, but not as dramatically.

  4. Laura Said:

    The only difference between literary and genre fiction is Critical Approval. From the Critics. They used to hide out in a dark castle in Transylvania, but now they’re based in a secret underground lair in New York City. Their induction rites are rigorous, involving tests of one’s narrow-mindedness and sarcasm. They worship the gods of Literature and pray to the saints of Established Authors. In dire straits, they have also been known to devour their young.

    Anyway, I think the literary-genre distinction is complete BS. For one, some of the books I had to read in high school—and in college—that were supposed to be “literary” were really just bad: not well-written or constructed; contrived; high on metawhores and with greater priority on showing off the author’s insight/philosophizing than on the actual writing.

    Then there’s the fact that within genres, there are works considered “literary”–literary science fiction, horror, fantasy, romance, even erotica. Literature doesn’t have to be realistic fiction. Also, some genre writers, like Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, or JK Rowling, write “genre fiction” but use “literary” writing styles. To me, good writing is good writing.

    • That’s a really good point – there’s “literary subgenres” all over the place. One of our books, EREKOS, has actually been panned by a few reviewers for being too “literary” and not having enough action. There’s dreamy, gorgeous language to be had in every genre…nothing says that a horror writer can’t use beautiful language, or that a fantasy author can’t be as adept with the language as someone who’s writing books that only English professors read…

      • Yes, I read Lisa Mannetti’s The Gentling Box and it is one of the most beautifully written pieces of work I have ever read. But my professors would consider it horror and not literary. It’s such a frustrating line. Something doesn’t have to be classified as literary to be well written.

  5. thegreatgonzo26 Said:

    I have this nagging fear that whatever I’m writing is turning into fanfiction, my worst enemy. Because to me, Fan Fiction=Mary Sues; Mary Sues=bad writing; bad writing=failure as a writer.


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