What’s the Difference between One Genre and Another?
By Eric M. Witchey
Lame joke? Not really.
I’m in a unique position to discuss this issue because I have sold short stories into a number of different genres. I have, at the time of this writing, sold stories into the following genres: Literary, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Erotica, Outdoor Adventure, Crime, and Young Adult.
In spite of the excellent advice of my betters, who tell me I should pick a genre and work to establish an audience, I have always felt compelled to serve the story I am writing. Certainly, I could decide that I am “a fantasy author,” or some other type of author. I just can’t abandon the stories that need to be literary, horror, romance, or whatever.
Having sold into all of these different marketing designations, and they are just that, I have come to a few interesting conclusions. First, I use exactly the same techniques in all genres. I tell stories, and telling stories is pretty much the same unless I am working to create experimental fiction, in which case I am working in reaction to the techniques I would otherwise use.
Oh, yeah. I’ve sold experimental fiction, too. I forgot.
To me, a story is a story. I have exactly one writing rule. Here it is:
Rule #1: Affect the emotions of the reader.
I have no other rules. I have lots and lots of techniques. Some, I learned by studying. Some, I learned by reading. Some, I learned by listening to teachers. Some, I came by through accidental insights. In the end, they all go in the same toolbox, and I trot them out as needed in the service of Rule #1.
You see, I don’t often sit down at the keyboard and think, “Hm… I think I’ll write a literary story today.” What I do is sit down to write. While I’m working on a story, I am open to it taking on any form it needs to take on in order to serve Rule #1.
Sometimes, a story comes out as a literary story because that’s how it needs to be told. Sometimes, a story comes out as a fantasy because that’s how it needs to be told.
So, what does “that’s how it needs to be told” mean? Does it mean that the story somehow speaks to me?
No. Not exactly.
Rather, it means that while writing, I am always seeking the right tool to create leverage in the heart and mind of the reader. If I feel like I need to create a metaphorical construct of a thematic element, I might very well end up in a fantasy world where demons are incarnate rather than abstract psychological obstacles to character growth. If I feel like the story needs to have the trappings of our normal world in order to contrast or reinforce the internals states of characters, I might end up writing a literary story.
At no point do I think, “This has to be genre X.”
What I do instead is finish the story. Then, I try to figure out where to sell it. Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Sometimes, it is not so obvious. Here are a couple of notable examples.
I wrote a story called “El Bosque Circular.” It started life as a scene where a man and his son were ploughing a field. They used a burro and a single blade plow to prepare the field for beans. I think I had recently reread The Milagro Bean Field War. I don’t remember. The point is that I very quickly began to see the potential to develop a sort of fable in which both the love and the fear of each generation are passed on the next. The story ended up being a bit of magical realism and a weak homage to one of my favorite authors, Gorge Luis Borges. After rejection by a number of fantasy markets where I thought the story would find a home, the story won an award and was purchased by a literary market.
Another story I wrote had no explicit magic in it at all, and a retired City Desk editor from the New York Times made a point of contacting me after he read the story. He told me how wonderfully literary the story was, and he asked me why it had been published in a fantasy magazine. That story was “The Tao of Flynn.”
I have other examples of stories ending up in unexpected places. I once wrote a ghost story that ended up in romance magazine’s Valentine’s Day special. I once wrote an outdoor adventure story that ended up in a treasure hunting magazine. I once wrote a piece of magical realism that I thought was particularly literary, but it ended up in a mainstay fantasy magazine.
I once heard a literary editor on a panel go on at length about how the interior lives of characters are displayed through layered conflict, deft narrative, and corresponding symbolism and metaphor. They said that cultural issues of gender, race, religion, sexuality, and family dynamics are the appropriate thematic arenas for literary fiction. The really funny thing is that only two weeks later I heard another editor say almost word-for-word the same things at the World Fantasy Convention.
My personal experience is that once I understand the true nature of a tale, the mix of techniques shifts, but that is not as much a genre choice as it is a story choice—a Rule #1 choice.
I can say that when I read literary fiction, it is often, but not always, the case that the narrator and interior psychological states of characters get more real estate on the page. Of course, that also holds true for every romance ever written.
Ah, people tell me, but the choices of language are more sophisticated, more elegant, more poetic in literary fiction.
Except that no matter what the genre, the point of view character determines diction and vocabulary. Perhaps the reader is more forgiving of an intrusive narrative character in literary fiction.
Except, I don’t really believe that.
I have a friend who claims that the only difference between literary fiction and all the commercial genres is that literary fiction includes a component of self-congratulation for the reader. That is, she believes that in order to sell to literary markets, she needs to allow the reader to see just enough of the mechanisms of her story telling to allow them to believe in their own cleverness for seeing that mechanism. She claims genre readers won’t tolerate that. They want to be completely immersed in the experience of character.
Nah. I don’t believe that either.
I believe in Rule #1.
If the reader’s heart and mind are sucked in, the genre is determined by the magazine, anthology, publisher, small press, or e-magazine that pays for the story and puts it in the front of the reader.
So, when people ask me what the difference between one genre and another is, I come back to that lame joke. The editor. The person who buys the story puts that story out in a market space, and that market space decides the genre of the story.