[GUEST POST] Kameron Hurley on 5 Things I Learned When I Stopped Worrying About Genre

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

Thundercats Ho! 5 Things I Learned When I Stopped Worrying About Genre

by Kameron Hurley

I get a lot of questions about what genre my books are. I mean, what do you call a book with space ships and magicians and shape shifters and aliens? (oh my!) How about a book with organic energy swords, satellites, empresses, orphaned scullery girls, blood magic and parallel worlds, like my latest book, The Mirror Empire?

In truth, I didn’t think too much about the genre of these books while I was writing them. With my God’s War Trilogy I chose to market it as the thing it was most like – science fiction. Maybe science fiction noir, like Blade Runner. And with The Mirror Empire, I did the same – it’s most like epic fantasy.

But for all intents and purposes, the genre of my work doesn’t really matter, especially while I’m writing it. If you asked me, honestly, what genre I wrote, I’d say it’s science-fantasy. It’s Thundercats. It’s Wonder Woman riding a kangaroo through space. I mean, what genre is that, really?

Here’s five things I learned when I stopped worrying about genre and just wrote the fricking stuff I love to write.

1) Genre only matters when the book is finished.

Genre exists to market our work. It’s there for publishers, for editors, for book buyers, and for readers so we can say, “This thing I have is like this other successful thing you liked.” It’s there to connect us with like things, even if what we’ve written isn’t… quite like anything else. The truth is, what genre a book is only matters when it’s finished. And to be dead honest: readers and publishers and editors will forgive you if your thing isn’t actually quite what you say it is. Find a “sorta like” box after you’re done. That’s the only time it matters.

2) Worrying about genre while writing limits the imagination.

Let’s be honest, here. If I think about genre while I’m writing a book, I’m going to limit my choices. I’m going to think, “Well, this is epic fantasy, so I need… umm… orcs and evil and swords and stuff, right?” We’ve been taught that “epic fantasy” is a particular set of things, and “hard science fiction” is another. If I start writing a book thinking about genre, I’ve immediately limited my choices. And that’s pretty much the worst thing one can do as an imaginative writer.

3) I don’t actually care about genre as much as I thought I did.

When I stopped worrying about genre, I found out I cared a lot less about it than I thought. I’m very particular about what I read, myself, but I couldn’t tell you what that was. Grimweirdy sorts of books, maybe. Secondary world fantasies with lush writing. Is there a genre for lush, evocative writing with solid characters and fantastic world building? Not really. There are books within all sorts of genre categories that do that, and I find that I often have to hunt them down. Where they’re shelved in the bookstore doesn’t help me.

4) Writing outside the genre box also helps me think outside it.

When I stopped worrying about what genre I was writing in, and started writing more imaginative fiction, it actually helped me look at the world differently, too. That might sound wild, but that’s what great fiction does. It’s why people want to ban books all the time. Books can help us empathize with people who are unlike us, people that media may say we should hate. Fiction challenges our idea of the status quo, of “normal,” of how things “should” be. Great writing, great world building, great work says “we made this all up. I dare you to go out into the world and make it all different, too.” Not worrying about what category I fit in while I’m writing helped me uncover the truth of the world – that it’s all fiction. That we can, indeed, remake it as we go along.

5) Readers don’t care as much about genre as they say they do.

This is the really contentious one, because I can see readers throwing up their hands in the comments already, saying this isn’t so. But the fact is that once I’ve connected readers to a work via the genre box and they’re into a work, once they read it, it turns out that only a few really vocal folks care so much that your bugpunk noir science fiction mercenary novel with shape shifters was shelved as “hard SF” in the local bookstore. The fact is that the folks who found is that way and loved it don’t care that it had very little science in it at all. They care that it was a good story. They care that they had a good time, and that they thought about the book, and the characters, long after they’d finished the final pages.

4 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Kameron Hurley on 5 Things I Learned When I Stopped Worrying About Genre”

  1. In some ways, Kameron, I disagree with you. Being aware of Genre as you’re right makes you much more aware about genre tropes–to use, subvert, avoid.

    I don’t think that Humans, the species that categorizes everything, is going to stop categorizing genre, or even *should*. Can obsession and concerns with genre go far when it hurts story or discovery of books, though? Absolutely.

  2. Typical genre definitions are fences. I don’t like fences. In the European tradition, literature has always been divided between Romance* and Not Romance (serious, improving, didactic, depending on the era). Nowadays, Not Romance is known as literary fiction and Romance has been subdivided into lots of fenced yards, each carefully (and often erroneously) labeled. Any work that fits neatly into one of those fenced yards is almost invariably inferior to works that knock down at least a fence or two. The labels are the work of lazy marketers and beloved of lazy readers and of that peculiar class of people who prefer to spend their time arguing over the labels instead of reading the dang books. *Romance does not, of course, mean “love story.”

  3. Genre is impermanent. Once there were no genres, or maybe just a few that were very different from our current categories. New genres come into being and then fade away.

    Genre isn’t worth worrying about, but it is interesting to consider. Some writers are pretty much a genre unto themselves, like R. A. Lafferty or Cordwainer Smith. Why do some works become such big deals from a marketing standpoint that they create (or coalesce) a new genre? Why did groundbreaking works like Mythago Wood and China Mountain Zhang not spawn new genres when other groundbreaking works like Neuromancer and Perdido Street Station did? Why did the urban fantasy of de Lint, Bull and Lindholm get superseded by the dark fantasy/paranormal romance brand of urban fantasy? Why did John Brunner’s near future collapse novels only produce a mild genre wave when The Hunger Games made “post-apocalyptic” huge?

    There is a matrix of factors including originality, literary qualities, the hopes and fears of the era, the diversity of publishing outlets, etc., that can explain the answers to some of these questions, so they are worth pondering–but most likely not when you’re in the middle of writing your own story.

  4. I agree that thinking too hard about genre boxes can stifle creativity in a writer. When a writer becomes successful enough, they are their own genre. Of course… you have to get there first!

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