Disclaimer: This is a rhetorical question. I offer no answer.
From a marketing standpoint, I understand the need for defined genres. If customers want to read romance novels, your book store has to put romance novels on its shelves. Your police procedural needs to have cops and corpses, not alien spaceships. A literary novel about a woman moving on after her husband leaves her is wise to avoid a subplot about demonic possession.
From an artistic standpoint, I reject everything I just said.
My biggest “failing” as a fiction writer is my lack of regard for categories. I state on my About page here that I write horror, dark sci-fi, and supernatural fiction, but that’s mostly for self-marketing purposes. I just seem to have better luck getting read when I work in those genres. Most of the time, though, I just think up an idea and start typing, and what comes out is often impossible to categorize.
Lately I’ve come to resent being restricted by the word “genre.” I read an interview the other day with a literary agent who advised writers to stick with one area, be it fantasy, mystery, or something else. She said people who try to pitch hybrid works can’t decide what kind of writers they want to be and, therefore, are not ready to be published.
Perhaps she was trying to offer sound, practical advice, but I think it’s a pretty awful thing to say. How many great books would never have been published if the writers had followed her recommendation?
For example, have you read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut? It’s one of my all-time favorite novels and exists outside any genre I can imagine. To wit, it’s an end-of-the-world adventure, a political satire, and a literary love story in one 50,000-word book. Certainly not what you’d call commercial fiction, yet, what do you know, Cat’s Cradle has been in print since 1963!
I’ve been toying around with a novelette for a few months that I intended as a crime drama but became a contemporary urban-noir supernatural romantic comedy as I was writing it. Best of luck pitching that puppy, eh?
If you have ever tried to place your short fiction in print or online, you’ve come across the statement, “Please familiarize yourself with our [magazine, online fiction journal, anthology] before submitting so you know that your story is of interest to our readership.” I’m not sure what that means. As a reader, I’m simply interested in something well written, whether it’s a police procedural with aliens or a literary drama about divorced women and demons. Or all of the above.
Obviously, if the journal is for and about model railroad builders and the editors only want model-railroad fiction, I’m not sending a story about vampire newscasters. But, for rags that do general fiction, wouldn’t stepping out of their comfort zone, for once, be exciting?
I’m keeping my eyes open for editors who say, “Send us your best stuff. We don’t care what it is,” and, so far, I’ve found a few. That doesn’t mean what I wrote is good enough for publication – or that anyone who straddles genres is going to be the next Kurt Vonnegut. But how will we know if we can’t try?
What are your thoughts, Hobson?