Tell Me a Story

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it seems like every fifth indie author I meet is writing some kind of genre fiction – sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, romance….

Oh, wait. Apparently I’m not that far off the mark. The Guardian ran a story this week about how indie books accounted for more than twenty percent of the genre e-books sold in the UK last year. The stats come from Bowker Market Research, which ought to know a thing or two about book sales and distribution.

Bowker says trad-pubbed books still dominate when dead-tree volumes are included – just two percent of all books sold in the UK last year were published by indies. But when only e-book sales are tallied, the percentage of indie books pops up fast. And when you look at only genre fiction, we indies own a healthy slice of the marketplace.

And no wonder genre – particularly romance – is big. Sixty-eight percent of the buyers of indie e-books in the UK are women, when fifty-eight percent of book buyers there overall are women.

None of this is news, really. A quick glance around any writer’s group on Facebook will reveal a preponderance of indies writing speculative fiction, romance, thrillers, or humor. Heck, I’ve pretty much just covered the collected works of the IU minions with that statement.

The more interesting question for me – and it’s one the statistics don’t cover – is why that’s so. Genre fiction has always been the red-headed stepchild of the publishing industry; publishers have been glad enough to support their families on their earnings from it, even as they loftily proclaimed their true calling was to publish serious literature (you know – the stuff that doesn’t sell as well).

Why do so many of us write genre fiction? The easy answer, I suppose, is that it’s what most of us read, and the writing coaches keep telling us to write what we know. But we know the classics, too – or did, when we were in school.

Of course, a number of those revered authors would be reclassified as genre writers if they were working today. Mark Twain wrote humor. So did Jane Austen – and she wrote romance, to boot. Charlotte Bronte crafted a happy ending for Jane Eyre, so I guess that makes her a romance writer, too. Edgar Allan Poe not only wrote horror, but he is also widely credited with penning the first modern detective story (although fans of Willkie Collins would beg to differ). Kafka wrote humor, albeit black humor – what else would you call a story in which an ordinary guy transforms into a giant cockroach overnight? And Jules Verne? H.G. Wells? They pretty much invented science fiction.

If Don Quixote wasn’t living in a fantasy world, I don’t know what else you’d call it. And Beowulf might well have been the first epic fantasy ever.

So hold your heads up high, fellow genre writers! We carry on a proud tradition that dates back centuries, to the very dawn of storytelling. We’re not only writing stories that we ourselves enjoy reading, but we’re also writing the kind of thing that has entertained and educated humanity for thousands of years.

Tell me: Do you write genre fiction? And if so, why?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Tell Me a Story”

  1. I’m one of those “other” writers—although plenty of us write regular old “commercial fiction”—but I love reading genre fiction, because it’s fun and challenging. It takes me out of my comfort zone of automatically reaching for literary or historical fiction. It’s good to stretch those literary muscles.

  2. I write what I LOVE to read. Thrillers/suspense, sometimes with a little romance thrown in. I’d probably be bored to death trying to write something else. And probably be really bad at it, too 🙂 Just as I want to escape for a few hours when I read, I want the same when I write. (although, I do read ‘literary’ fiction on occasion)

    The fact that genre writing is considered the ‘red-headed stepchild’ makes me want to write it even more. I’ve got no time for literary snobs. Life’s too short.

  3. Shakespeare alone wrote horror (Macbeth), fantasy (The Tempest), romance (Romeo and Juliet) and comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), so we’re good. 😉

  4. “The fact that genre writing is considered the ‘red-headed stepchild’ makes me want to write it even more.” I wish I’d written that DV!

    I’m no historian, but I think there has always been a cultural divide between ‘serious’ literature [however you define that] and popular literature. The same applies to ‘classical’ music and popular music. The thing that makes me smile is that the books and music once disdained as ‘for the masses’ is now lauded as classical. Like the Strauss Waltz. Or Dickens. Or Shakespeare.

    Back in his day, Shakespeare wrote and produced baudy plays that appealed to both the aristocracy AND the unwashed masses. We tend to gloss over that.

    Only future generations will decide what is literature and what is not. All we can do is write what we love. And keep our fingers crossed. 🙂

  5. What a lovely article, Lynne, and right on the money. We all seem to agree that what are widely regarded as the classics of literary fiction were once genre fiction, and pooh poohed by the so-called literary critics of the day.

  6. The best quote I ever heard on the difference between genre fiction and literature was that “if you reach chapter two and nothing has happened, that’s literature.” That’s why I write genre fiction – I like telling an entertaining story, not illuminating a Message of great Significance.

    1. I honestly don’t think it’s an either/or thing, but the best quote I read on the distinction was Stephen King’s, and to paraphrase: literary fiction is ordinary things happening to extraordinary people, while genre fiction is extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.

  7. I enjoy reading from a variety of genre, and enjoy the escape. One agent told me she liked my book but didn’t know what genre to place it into. I called it historical romance with a twist and plonked it into Amazon as romance, with historical and suspense subs. It works for me. 🙂

  8. Almost all of my books belong in the broad category of mystery – cozies, suspense novels, and an espionage novel. The only book I’ve published that could possibly be considered “literary” is Spring Decision – Stories of Appalachia. It’s not selling well, but I felt the need to publish it for personal reasons. Maybe it’s my age, but I feel writing should be enjoyable, or I don’t want to do it. And writing mysteries is fun!

  9. The Genre Reader

    There are people who write beautifully, but that isn’t what I need right now.

    There are people who write movingly, but that isn’t what I need right now.

    There are people who write encouragingly, and though I might need that, I am grumpy enough not to want it right now.

    There are people who write exhorting me to be better, challenging me to be different, calling me to try harder, but I am too tired for that right now.

    Right now, I need rest, play, escape from my daily striving, a stroking of my brain akin to my hand along the curve of my dog’s face, a reassurance that isn’t explicit or advice-y or superior.

    I need a storyteller, an old-fashioned storyteller who keeps me on the edge of my seat, who steals my breath and doesn’t give it back until after the crescendo, the gifted storyteller who sneaks beauty and emotion and encouragement and moral and exhortation into the story that carries me along.

    That storyteller can plant things in my mind that stay and grow and bloom and change me even though I am resistant to those others. That storyteller changes the world while people like me think they’re only being entertained.

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