How Genre Gave Me Confidence

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Did you know that “family saga” is a genre of literature? I didn’t until last month when a research project sent me looking into the world of literary agents and I saw it listed as one of the genres a particular agent was interested in. It was the quintessential “light bulb” moment for me. I’ve been writing variations of family sagas for years, but didn’t have a way to describe what I wrote. To say I was excited would have been an understatement.

See, I’ve spent most of my serious writing life as a “not-quite-this-genre” writer. My old childhood novel was dystopian, but it’s not that kind of dystopian. At one point I described one of my novels as a sci-fi murder mystery, which still wasn’t completely accurate. I’ve written stories (mostly short stories) that are just one or two genres, but when it came to my larger aspirations, it was like I was describing a pile of sundry items that would eventually come together into a legitimate and interesting story.

It also seemed, of course, that no other writer I knew had this problem. People wrote fascinating characters, tried out unique formats, and decided to forgo traditional storytelling rules—but all within genres that were well-known and well-loved. They had friends who also wrote genres they loved; they garnered lots of fans who would pick up their story because of the genre posted at the top of the description; they recommended new books that fell into their favorite genres, and those books became popular. But then there was my string of adjectives—where did it belong? Or, rather, where did I belong? I never felt ashamed of what I loved to write, but I didn’t want to feel isolated either.

That’s where genre came in: first learning the difference between literary and commercial fiction, and then finding out about family sagas. From what I understand, literary fiction focuses on the art or theme of the story while commercial fiction focuses on the characters and readability of the story. Neither one is inherently bad or lesser than the other—their goals and focuses are simply different. But I had spent years attempting to fit myself into the category of commercial fiction when all along I wanted to write literary fiction. I felt out of place because I was, but I had put myself in that position by not exploring the possibilities.

I realized that many of my favorite stories were literary; I realized that there was a whole world of literature from all time periods that I had never tapped into; and I realized that “literary” was the key word missing from my list of adjectives. The category of “literary fiction” was like a box to put all of my sundry adjectives in. Once I didn’t feel the pressure to write like other authors I saw, I felt free to pursue a different path. And, I was free to love commercial fiction for what it was meant to be instead of what I wished it was. The angst I had felt, even around my writer friends, disappeared.

Then I happened upon the term “family saga” during that research project I mentioned at the beginning of the post. My curiosity was piqued—it sounded so familiar, but why hadn’t I heard of it before? One Google search and I realized that I’d found the missing item for my collection. I had been writing family sagas or variations of the genre for years, but had always described it like if you took a television drama and put it down in book form. Now, I not only had an easy way to describe it to others, but I had examples to show them too.

However, I learned something far more substantial throughout this genre journey—even if I hadn’t found genres that fit my stories, my stories were still valid and interesting. I had been too caught up in comparing myself to other writers and had bought into the lie that what I was creating wasn’t good enough because a few people around me didn’t want the same thing. But that clearly isn’t true. It’s pure silliness and pride to look at a world brimming with art and filled with history and think I’m the only one who likes a certain thing. That was made clear to me when I found the genres that I love most and saw how many other people loved them too.

One of my favorite writing quotes is by C. S. Lewis: “Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else.” The popularity or conventions of a genre aren’t what make a good story—the passion and joy of the author does. In fact, a good story crosses over genres. So the genres that I found and love so dearly now are not names to drop, badges to display, or labels to divide the good stories from the bad ones. They are tools to help us understand the stories we have. They are seeds of camaraderie. They are reminders that we aren’t alone.

Finding my genres gave me confidence—now it’s my job to use them as tools to grow my writing journey.

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