S.G. Browne is the author of the novels Breathers, Fated, Lucky Bastard, and Big Egos, as well as the novella I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus. His short story collection, Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel, is available as an eBook.
by S.G. Browne
They say confession is good for the soul. In that case, I had a Rick Springfield mullet in high school, I was handcuffed naked to an anchor in college, and I watch Waterworld every time it plays on cable.
Also, while I don’t consider myself a genre author, I write in multiple genres.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a genre author. I have numerous friends who are authors of horror, mystery, and sci-fi. And I cut my teeth reading and writing supernatural horror ala King, Straub, and McCammon in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s just that I have a love/hate relationship with labels. And when it comes to fiction, labeling starts with genre.
Genre began as a literary classification system in ancient Greece. Didn’t everything begin in ancient Greece? Anyway, five thousand years ago your poetry and prose would likely be considered drama, comedy, romance, satire, tragedy, or tragicomedy. Even four hundred years ago Shakespeare was still writing in the same genres.
But when most of us discuss genre, we’re talking about today’s popular fiction labels: horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, crime, thriller, suspense, romance, and western. I left out sub-genres like urban fantasy, which probably raised the ire of some Internet troll, but I can’t worry about who’s trip-trapping on my blog post.
And just so we’re clear: I did not get an MFA from the University of Iowa nor am I an expert in genre theory. I got a Bachelor of Science in business management from the University of the Pacific and I did a lot of my research about genres on Wikipedia.
But back to my love/hate relationship with genres and labels.
I write dark comedy and social satire with a supernatural or fantastic element. Unfortunately you can’t find that section in your local bookstore or listed anywhere on Amazon, so my novels get categorized in multiple genres: horror, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and satire. And my second novel was inadvertently listed as contemporary romance by my publisher for six months.
This can be a problem when you’re trying to build a fan base.
To be fair, my first novel (Breathers) is about zombies, my second (Fated) narrated by Fate, my third (Lucky Bastard) deals with a private detective who steals luck, and my fourth (Big Egos) is titled after a fictional futuristic role-playing game. So it’s not like I’m exactly running away from genre. But I still don’t write genre. I just like using it as a medium to deliver my social satire.
I’m not a genrephobe. I appreciate sci-fi and horror as much as the next guy. And genres and labels are great when it comes to helping people find new books and new authors. Looking for something in mystery or thriller? We have that section over there. A fan of sci-fi and fantasy? Right this way. You want a good romance novel? Here you go.
Genres create a sense of familiarity, something that resonates within the reader and lets them know what to expect. That’s why people like romantic comedies. They want to see a happy ending where the boy and girl end up together. When that doesn’t happen, the audience is usually disappointed. Romantic comedies are a formula. And when it comes to certain genres, formula is what people want. It’s a constant they can depend on when their own lives are in turmoil.
While Manhattan publishers don’t tend to be as predictable as Hollywood studios when it comes to formulaic endings, there are still reader expectations when someone picks up a romance or a horror novel or a cozy mystery. And when those expectations aren’t met-not by the quality of the writing or the story but rather by the conventions of the genre-then you have a disappointed reader.
To me, this is the dark side of genre: the limitations of expectations. This is especially true when you’re an author who is known for writing in a specific genre and you want to try something new. You write sci-fi and now you’ve written a mystery that doesn’t involve aliens or time travel? No thanks. You write horror novels and now you want to try your hand at gothic literature? Not what I expected from you. You’re a romance novelist and you want me to read your new non-romantic thriller? I don’t think so.
While some authors are allowed to genre hop and spread their literary wings, once you’ve been labeled and put into a box, it’s not easy getting back out.
After my first novel, my editor at Random House passed on my second novel, which had to do with fate, destiny, and the consumer culture. She wanted me to write another book about zombies, but I didn’t have another zombie novel in me at the time and I didn’t want to get labeled as a zombie author. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a zombie author. There are plenty of authors who make a good living at it. It’s just not the path I wanted to take. And I didn’t want to end up in a box.
True, my zombie novel didn’t exactly stick to the standard mythology. I went against a lot of your typical zombie stories at the time, with sentient zombies and self-help meetings and a zombie romance, which isn’t something your zombie traditionalist expects. They like their reanimated corpses mindless and plodding and tend to get somewhat Dr. Seuss Green Eggs and Ham about their zombies.
They do not like them when they run. They do not like them if they’re fun. They do not like them to be smart. They do not like them with a heart.
And that’s okay. I respect their passion for what they want in a zombie story. But I recall one reviewer who read my novel and mentioned how he hated it when writers or filmmakers tried to do something different with the genre. That’s one of the ills of genre I’m talking about: when readers don’t want to be open to the possibility that a novel can be something more than just horror or science fiction or fantasy; something different than what they’re expecting.
The problem with genre expectation is not only that it can be limiting to the author writing in the genre, but it can be limiting to the genre itself. To me, the best genre writing doesn’t adhere to the conventions of the genre, but transcends the genre and helps the genre to evolve rather than remaining stagnant. Otherwise, you just end up with people telling the same stories over and over.
guest post, genre labels, S.G. Browne,