Genre: A Glorious
by James Thayer
Before he began writing The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
told his friend J.R.R. Tolkien that “there is too little of what we
really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try to write
What do readers like in a novel? Reliable entertainment. Most book
buyers already know the kind of story they are looking for before
they begin to browse. They want a certain category, a story with a
particular content that has entertained them in the past. In other
words, a genre novel.
is a loaded word. George V. Higgins and Raymond Chandler despised
being labeled genre novelists. But writing a genre novel—more
charitably called commercial fiction—has huge advantages.
Look at the fiction
best seller lists, or the best seller table at your neighborhood
bookstore. Almost every title fits into a genre. Agents and
publishers understand this, and when they look at your query letter
or proposal, their first questions are usually, “What is this? How
does this fit into the market?”
If they conclude the manuscript is from a new writer who is
attempting to break into literature’s fourth dimension, most often
your query letter or submission will be rejected out of hand.
Agents and editors think in terms of genre because of market
necessity. Literary agent Peter Rubie says that the development of
genres was “basically to help you more easily find what [the book
buying public] is looking for. They are also guides that let you
know, generally, what you can expect to find in a certain type of
book.” A genre book can make a writer a bestseller. “Breakout
novels can be written in any genre,” says literary agent Donald
Even legendary writers knew that the tried-and-true sells. “It is
better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating," Oscar
Genres aren’t passing
fads. Clive Bloom notes that ‘the most popular genres at the end of
the twentieth century were virtually the same as at the beginning.”
Virtually anything you want to write is in a genre anyway.
“Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose
is deemed to be ‘genre fiction,’” says B. R. Myers.
We’ve got mainstream,
romantic comedy, romance, comedy, detective, thriller, science
fiction, fantasy, western, sports, woman’s (also known as chick
lit), horror, and historic, and others. Even authors considered
America’s preeminent men and women of letters write in a genre
called literary fiction.
Excellence is found in genre fiction.
Patrick O’Brian wrote
thrillers, or perhaps they were historicals. Raymond Chandler wrote
detective novels. H.P. Lovecraft wrote horror. J.R.R. Tolkein
wrote fantasy. (Lord of the Rings has been called “one of
the few twentieth-century novels likely to endure.”) John LeCarre
writes thrillers. Edgar Allan Poe not only wrote in all genres, but
is said to have invented all of them. If your goal is to enter
posterity, writing in a genre will not bar your way.
Writing in a genre does not mean pounding out hack work. B. R. Myers
says that “intellectual content can be reconciled with a vigorous,
fast-moving plot,” and he gives as examples Budd Schulberg’s What
Makes Sammy Run? and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra.
Smart people reads the genres.
in a genre will not diminish the quality of your readership. A
strong argument can be made that Teddy Roosevelt brought more mental
horsepower to the presidency than anyone before or since, and he was
an avid reader of dime novels. And among Franklin Roosevelt’s
favorite writers was Craig Rice, author of hard-boiled detective
A genre novel is not imitative.
Writing in a genre doesn’t mean the writer needs to fear her plot
has been done before. It’s all been done before. One school of
thought is that there are only five plots (man against man, man
against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man
against God) and
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
novels are derivatives of these five. Donald Maass says, “There are
certainly no new plots. Not a one. There are also no settings that
have not been used, and no professions that have not been given to
Kurt Vonnegut plotted our novel: “Somebody gets into trouble, and
then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back;
somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the
skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each
other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person
is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be
virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails;
a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits
fornication . . . . I guarantee you that no modern story scheme,
even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless
one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
So whatever we write, we won’t be the first, and we shouldn’t worry
about it. Edith Wharton said the fear of imitation is immature.
We can learn the craft from the genre.
Writing in a genre will help plot the novel, and help avoid mistakes
that lead to failed manuscripts. All the genres have conventions.
Roger Ebert calls them “the ancient story machinery groaning away
below the deck” that makes us smile. Readers—and, as a result,
agents and editors—are looking for the unexpected, but also the
What is expected in a romance novel, for example? A little research
offers a lot of guidance for the writer. The Romance Writers of
America say a romance novel is a “love story with an optimistic and
emotionally satisfying ending.” Isn’t that great to know in advance
of writing? If we write a romance novel where the heroine is in
despair at the end, we’ve wasted our time.
But wait. There’s more. Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz write
that “The reader trusts the writer to create and recreate for her a
vision of a fictional world that is free of moral ambiguity, a
larger-than-life domain in which such ideals as courage, justice,
honor, loyalty and love are challenged and upheld.” And Nora
Roberts says, “The books are about the celebration of falling in
love and emotion and commitment, and all those things we really
want.” Paul Gray says that readers do not want a heroine who is “a
passive office temp with an eating disorder and the man of her
dreams a philandering salesman with a wife and three kids in
Certain conventions for a genre are specific. For a romance novel
Jude Deveraux says, “A lot of new writers come to me and say; ‘I’m
going to give the reader two romances in one book’. My response is
always: ‘You couldn’t come up with enough plot for one, right, so
you’re going to stick a second one in?’ Well, that’s a taboo.
People who read romances only care about the hero or heroine.’”
Your chosen genre will offer lessons in how to do it right.
Going to write a novel? Pick a genre. The benefits are many. Mark
Twain agreed: “My books are water; those of the great geniuses are
wine—everybody drinks water.”
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing