Genre Snobbery

Approximately nine years ago, after sending a manuscript to just about every mainstream publisher, I was eventually told that the only way I would find the right publisher and actually have my work looked at seriously was to present my material through a literary agent. I then went about systematically, submitting the manuscript to every single literary agent I could find. Take into account that this was at a time when everything had to be submitted in hard copy and very few agents could be located through the internet; it is enough to say that it was not an inexpensive exercise.

The tone of the responses varied greatly; from, what sounded like, a well intentioned, personally written rejection:

• “While I can see that you have something worth pursuing and, with a definite trend in that genre at the moment, a potentially successful book; unfortunately, this agency only handles literary fiction. We do wish you every success with your literary endeavours and finding suitable, literary representation.”

That may have been the nicest rejection I ever received; the following being two of the worst:

• “Not for me!” was returned to me, scrawled across my carefully written request for representation.

• “I don’t handle genre!” printed on an inch wide strip of paper.

Mostly though, if they answered at all, they were, quite obviously, standard rejection letters. Before, my approaching literary agents experience, I wasn’t really aware of the level of snobbery at large within the literary industry.

Genre classifications

The difference between the genres is often fluid, not always clear, as they frequently cross over, and some of the genre distinctions still confuse me a little; with the help of my fellow IU members, I am beginning to get my head around them. The easy ones are the ones that have had handles forever and a day.

Writers in the following genres please forgive me, there is obviously more to them than my one short sentence descriptions but it gives a general, if somewhat vague sort of picture.

Science Fiction: a genre of fiction with more or less plausible content such as settings in the future, with futuristic technology, space travel, parallel universes, aliens and paranormal activity et cetera.

Fantasy: mostly has a fantastic element, the characters often have magical qualities; generally good versus evil and usually, although it may take five books to get there, good triumphs over evil in the end.

Mystery: typically has a puzzle to unravel, that the protagonist and the reader get to work out together.

Horror: may be subtle or overt, spine tingling or utterly terrifying, and good doesn’t always win out over evil.

Romance: is romantic; a romantic love story of some description where, after trials and tribulations, there is some kind of happy resolve.

Thrillers: are thrilling in some way or other, with a fair degree of tension most of the way through the story, tension that is usually, but not always, driven by action.

I’ve barely touched on the preceding few genres and they have worn those labels for at least as long as I can remember.

There now seem to be an ever-growing splintering of the genres, including Paranormal, Supernatural (and I’m not even sure whether these two are the same or different), Speculative Fiction, Magic Realism (and I know for sure they aren’t what I once thought they were) and many more, and that’s without getting into cross genre labels like: Paranormal/Romance and the like.

Genre fiction is generally described as plot driven, and often dismissed by literary critics as being pure escapism, clichéd, and of poor quality prose; so much for literary critics.

The term, ‘literary fiction’, only came into common usage in the early 1960s, and was used principally to describe literary works that critics regarded as having literary merit, compared to say popular fiction, which they regarded as without any literary merit. However, with these ever splintering genre categories, ironically, literary fiction is, more and more, being referred to as the genre of literary fiction. Now that has me more confused than ever.

Literary Fiction, supposedly, focuses on narrative to create introspective character studies, cares less about plot than the inner story of the characters, and with elegantly written, lyrical, layered prose unhurriedly drives the plot along.

What I truly believe is that, while once literary authors and genre authors walked very different paths, where never the twain would meet (except when the literary writer produced a book of genre fiction hiding behind a pseudonym), they are now, sometimes uncomfortably, shuffling along the same trail. For instance, personally, I love to get into my characters’ heads, and I’ve even had my writing called character driven. I know there are many genre writers who do the same, because I read them. And while I am definitely not a poet, although there are plenty of genre writers who are, I do however rejoice in silent acclaim when my prose flow effortlessly and even, on occasion, waxes lyrical.

By the same token, many, so called, literary writers are writing in various genres now; does that then mean they forget all their highbrow ideas of narrative introspection and flowing prose?… I don’t think so! In fact I know they don’t because

I read them.

I could never, by any stretch of the imagination, as a reader or a writer, be referred to as a literary snob; but I do enjoy my genre fare well written, with depth of character portrayal. Conversely, I do enjoy my literary fare with some pace and plot.

So although the book sellers and distributors will continue to slot us into genres for the sake, they say, of easy access for the reader; if we are to continue improving our lot, as writers, as authors, is it not about time that we ended the snobbery.

After all, if it is written in words it is, quite literally, literature. I mean good writing is good writing and that is the only thing that should define us, is it not?

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Genre Snobbery”

  1. Interesting, TD, thank you! I love the blending that’s going on. Although (speaking a little selfishly, I suppose), general adult fiction (think Tom Perotta, Anne Tyler, John Irving) is often swept under the rug as a category. Some online presences want to lump anything without a well-identified genre into this category, including literary fiction. But I agree with you that good writing is good writing. And raising the bar is good for every category!

    1. I don’t know whether I’m for it or against it, Laurie, the endless categories, but I believe they should be very lose affiliations for purposes of marketing perhaps; however, sometimes there is a stigma attached, and there shouldn’t be. Some one who writes excellent prose, should not be castigated for choosing to write Paranormal/Romance, for instance.

  2. I can understand some of the genre classifications. The big ones (fantasy, sci-fi, etc) all make sense. I’ll even accept an additional subset based on time period. Beyond that, I think we’ve gone too far with these categories. To be honest, I’m still trying to find solid definitions for them and what I’m finding doesn’t sound different enough to garner a separation.

    I wish it ended with agents and publishing companies. Even the online reviewers have gotten into this trend of “I only read speculative fiction.” In the end, it is what it is. I will continue to read whatever book is handed to me (or recommended as an ebook) and the majority of people will run to their overly specific genres, to the point of being a spoiler, and read away.

    1. I’m so sorry, Nicholas, I did respond to your well thought out comments, in quite some detail, but it doesn’t seem to have registered. It was well into the wee hours when I started responding to comments and I mustn’t have made sure it had taken properly; my apologies, Nicholas.

      Having said that, I cannot now remember what exactly I did say in response; but you are right on all counts and I totally agree with you on the, ‘to the point of being a spoiler’, comment. However, I can see that it sometimes comes about through frustration (the multitudinous genre categories) because, as Yvonne stated, we can get lost in genre pigeonholes that we don’t quite fit, and to our book’s detriment.

      We should either eliminate the categories altogether or, to pressure them to minimise to a very broad description based genre, just for the sake of shelving (real or virtual), as I said responding Carol’s comment, we could completely flood the market with our own genre portrayals.

      Thank you very much for dropping by and commenting, Nicholas.

  3. While I decry the ‘boxing in’ and splintering of categories and genres for the very reasons you, Laurie and Nicholas have described, not knowing how to classify a book makes it very difficult to find the target audience for it. I do believe it is one reason mine have not sold more.

  4. Well said TD! Like you I read all sorts of novels and the one thing I ask is that they be well written. But that’s only the ‘how’ of it. I have a couple of novels I simply can’t finish reading because the actual story is so thin. I guess I’m a bit of a snob in reverse!

    1. Just so, Meeks, wonderful, lyrical prose go just so far, and help you enjoy the journey; however, without pace and plot it can get rather pointless. After all what’s the point of a journey if it doesn’t take you anywhere?

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Meeks.

  5. Well written. I agree, that should be the only criteria. As one who has wondered away from the ‘YA’ (whatever that is) stable and is now writing ‘adult’ fiction, I am FED up of having to find classifications for my work for Indies and the dreaded Zon.I have now taken to calling the latest book Gothic Historical Crime Thriller Pastiche. Nope, I don’t understand what that is either. Can’t people just read it….

    1. I agree with Lois, I love that category, Carol. Now that is a great idea! We should all put mysteriously sounding names to our work. They want categories, we’ll give em categories!

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Carol.

  6. Wonderful post, TD.
    I, like you, read all sorts of books. You have put into words what I feel is a foolish attempt by gatekeepers and others to denigrate everything that isn’t classified as literary fiction.
    The plot must be engaging. As to characters, I like layers of strengths, weaknesses, etc., that give them dimension. This makes them more realistic and interesting to follow. 🙂

    1. We see things very similarly, Lois, as, it appears, does everyone who has left a comment here today. I was hoping there would be some who would see it my way, but it appears that it’s me who sees it they way most discerning writers do.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to drop by today, Lois.

  7. Hi! I’m a brand new author and just published my first ebook. I’ve not yet submitted any inquiries to publishers or agents, but that is my goal. I write Young Adult Fiction, but my book has several different elements and could be considered “Inspirational,” “Romance,” etc. I actually had a hard time categorizing it in a way that truly describes what it is. I love this post, and completely agree that the literary world has gotten carried away with these genre categories! Especially as a new writer, I wish it were simpler. Thanks for the insight!

    1. Welcome Emily, and good luck with your book. Although I was half joking with my reply to Carol’s excellent comment, perhaps we should indeed inundate the market with our own genre descriptions; stir up the powers that be a bit.

      Thank you so much for dropping by Emily.

  8. T.D. thanks so much for this post.

    As a new writer, I’ve been confused by the general reliance on genre as for me, at least before I started writing, I considered books to be…well… books.

    I understand genre labels do make it easier for readers to search for fiction they’ll enjoy; however, for those of us to whom “literary fiction” seems the only possible genre label, it is both intimidating and slightly grandiose.

    Your points are all well taken. I especially like your note here: “I do enjoy my genre fare well written, with depth of character portrayal. Conversely, I do enjoy my literary fare with some pace and plot.” Me too!


    1. I whole heartedly agree with you, Jo-Anne, and it can be intimidating. As you said, the labelling may make it easier for those readers who stick to a particular genre, to locate the type of fiction they are looking for, and I guess we, the writers, have to put up with being pigeonholed, at least initially, until we manage to establish ourselves and can then have our own shelves; genre notwithstanding.

  9. Thanks for the post—I’m a creative non-fiction writer who decided to self publish, after just a few varying rejections, and one that said “Not for me!” That rude response came from a prominent agent/entertainment lawyer who previously had requested I notify him the minute I finished my manuscript. I’ve now had enormous success with printed books and international speaking engagements yielding tons of sales. I thank my lucky stars I took the indie route—who needs patronizing rude behavior from a dying group of swans?

    1. Good for you, Ester, and I love the: ‘who needs patronizing rude behavior from a dying group of swans?’ Indies Rule!

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Ester.

  10. I really enjoy your posts. I respect the effort you make to respond to everyone—it’s the incredible sharing taking place that’s improving the idie image and writing standards. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you very for that, Ester, it makes all the difference knowing you are appreciated. I value all the people who take the time to make a comment on my posts.

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