How to transcend a genre

Last night I came home from work, collapsed on the couch (it’s tough sitting at a computer all day long) and cracked open a book. Hubby came into the living room and asked, “Why do you write romance?”

So much for a Friday night of mindless vegging. Knowing my husband’s prejudices against romance novels, I was immediately a bit on the defense. “Why not romance? It’s what I spent my teenage years reading, and it’s the form stories take when they pop into my brain. If I’d grown up reading sci-fi, I’d probably write sci-fi. Ditto mysteries.”

He shook his head. “But why genre fiction when you could write literary fiction?”

A few points you need to know before we go further. 1) My husband’s a PhD candidate studying American literature (in London. I know, it doesn’t make much sense). 2) I got my BA in English lit, so when we first met we traded books by Margaret Atwood and WG Sebald. 3) I’d asked him to read the first four chapters of my work-in-progress this week, which he did yesterday.

I started to feel flattered that he thought I could write literary fiction. Then I realized we were back to that old conversation, one I have with most of my literature-loving friends, where genre fiction is a poor relation to literary fiction. And to top it off, he said he thought I was taking a decent idea and shoehorning it into a romance novel mold. An interesting point, and something I’ll certainly be on the look-out for as I continue to write and shape my story.

It got us talking about people like Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler who wrote in a particular genre and transcend it.

Here are my initial thoughts on how they do this. I’d love it if you added yours in the comments.

1. They focus on language.

We often hear about the importance of story and character. Craft is also a buzz word, but I think that focuses more on the techniques of putting a story together.

Language is the selection of words and images used to tell a story. A tightly honed sentence is a thing of beauty. A series of them, making up a passage, is worth getting out of bed for. My husband pointed out two of my sentences that really impressed him. In both cases, I was again hit by the sense of pride I first experienced when they wiggled their way out of my fingers and onto my keyboard. I’ll be going through my WIP with a tea-strainer to sift out more such nuggets.

2. They turn tropes on their heads.

Tropes are those well-worn paths plots tread in genre fiction. In detective fiction, it’s the guilty butler, or the shady yet vulnerable dame who walks into a private dick’s office.

Romance has so many of them, they could overflow the pools at the Playboy mansion. The virgin and the rake; the boss and his secretary; the inconvenient pregnancy that becomes oh so convenient; the billionaire and the financially insecure woman; the mistaken prostitute…

This is what my husband was referring to when he said I was trying to take a story and make it fit the genre. A couple of the decisions my characters made didn’t ring true to human behavior, and when he asked why I chose to include them in the plot, I didn’t have a good answer.

Writers who transcend the genre they’re writing in either avoid these tropes or use them in a way that’s fresh and unexpected. Fahrenheit 451 has destructive villains, but instead of torching nuclear plants or nursery schools, they burn books.

As I said, these are just initial thoughts. Anything to add?

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5 Comments

Filed under Love your language, Thoughtfulness, Writer's toolbox

5 responses to “How to transcend a genre

  1. Great post, Katrina! Romance vs literary. IMO, one of the biggest differences is that in romance a nice, tidy, happy ending is required. By having all those doors neatly shut, the reader can put the story aside, foget it, and move on to the next one. How many romance endings do you remember in detail? How many literary? And then there’s the intrusion of detail in romances–over-romanticising, over-angsting, over- internalizing. Every thought and action is spelled out so the reader knows exactly how to react. More often, literary works just put it out there and let you figure it out. If that sounds like I’m putting down romance–I’m not. Romance is a great way for a writer to break into publishing since almost half the books bought are romance and you’ve got an avid readership just waiting for the next book. My advice (for what it’s worth)–push the romance envelope as far as you can. Make it a thinking woman’s romance (with a few plot points not focused just on the bedroom), and you’ll be halfway there. (See how much smarter I’ve become in just seven weeks? Amazing.)

    • Katrina

      Well said, Kaki! I think romance is essentially two things: a focus on the development of a relationship, and a happy ending. How they get there and how the journey is described ranges widely, and that’s the pleasure (or agony) of reading romance. I think there’s something to be said for writing a brilliant novel that stays within the confines of traditional romance; I don’t think they should automatically be considered second-rate just because they have a happy ending. They should definitely be considered second-rate if the writing and story are trite.

      BTW, I read someone commenting on Pieces of Sky (maybe on your blog? Swiss cheese brain can’t remember) that they gave it to their dad to read. To me, that’s a sign of transcending romance. I’ve got my copy of it ready to fling at my husband if he ever gives me another chance to show why I read romance.

  2. If it helps, I know of at least a dozen men who have read it, and none of them have had their “man cards” revoked or grown breasts, although two of them are losing their hair. Coincidence? You decide.

    BTW, do you know if the Northern Lights show up in England, or more specifically, in Scotland?

    • Katrina

      I’ll let him know.
      Not sure about the Northern Lights. They might, but I’d imagine it’s rare and only in the far north of Scotland. I’ve got a friend from Aberdeen, which is pretty far north; I can ask him. Planning a trip or doing research?

  3. Research. But I’d love to visit someday.

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