By: Emily Dilworth
I, like many young readers, discovered fairly early in life what genres I preferred to read. Since middle school, I’ve been a sucker for Young Adult Fiction. As my vocabulary grew and I matured, I discovered a love for historical fiction as well. As a writing major, I’ve dabbled in many other genres, including memoir, poetry, short fiction, and fantasy. However, my go-to is still always a YA or historical fiction novel. When I get to a book store, I immediately beeline for these sections. A few days ago I was perusing my shelves looking for my next read, and I noticed that my personal book collection was pretty much the same across the board. There was absolutely no diversity to my shelves whatsoever. Why? Because I’d gotten stuck into the black hole that is genre convention.
Western literary tradition has been defining, interpreting, and evaluating literary works based on their respective genre for centuries. Today, those traditional genres are becoming more fluid, with many authors combining genres or boycotting the idea of genre altogether. Giving literary works a strict definition and set of identifying features may be helpful in certain areas of scholarship – for research perhaps – but in many cases, defining genres so strictly becomes a source of containment for the author. The novel is one of the oldest and most-widely recognized literary genres in the world, and it could arguably be assumed that this title has led to the most change. Surprisingly, the definition of the novel has not seen much significant change at all. This static structure, despite the various cultural changes within the literary world and beyond that have developed around it, is just one example of western literary tradition’s obsession with placing works in strict, unchanging boxes.
As previously stated, this system may help scholars, but does giving a strict definition, or any definition at all, to the novel add anything to the reading or writing experience? Most modern authors would say no. If a reader was to go into a bookstore, their journey to find what they were looking for, regardless of whether or not they had a specific title in mind, would rely heavily on genre. First, books are distinguished by the “main” genre categories: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Next, books are separated by “subgenres” that usually relate to length, such as distinguishing the novel from the novella or the short story. Once the reader finally makes it to the subgenre of “novel” there are even more distinctions to be made according to content: romance, science fiction, historical fiction, and so on.
If the process is so daunting for the reader who may not be sure what they want to read, imagine how daunting the process is for the writer, who may initially be able to label their own work according to what they believe it is, but will ultimately be overruled by a publisher who will determine where the work “fits” best to produce the most revenue. Labeling works primarily based on genre harms readers and writers alike, because labels largely influence the way we read, interpret, and evaluate works of literature. This process often causes works that do not “fit” into these genres to be overlooked or undervalued. Perhaps a personal opinion is more important than remaining contained by strict definitions anyway. After all, the success of a work is determined by whether or not people like it, not by what literary critics and scholars define it as.
At the end of the day, what is most important about a work is the author’s intentions and the reader’s interpretations. If strict definitions didn’t exist, works could be evaluated equally, solely based on the work themselves, and not according to what genre they fit in. Creating genres limits the possibilities of comparing works to one another because society automatically assumes a memoir and a short story cannot be compared because they are fundamentally different.
Authors and readers are also limited in their abilities to create and interpret because of strict definitions.Unfortunately, many authors do not have the freedom to simply ignore genre conventions, either because they are stuck in conventional methods of thinking about genre themselves or because of the fear that editors will disregard their works if they do not fit perfectly into a specific genre.
Society at large, but more specifically the literary community (including authors, scholars, and readers alike), need to become more comfortable with the idea of not immediately trying to define a work. If this idea of fluid forms was adopted, the literary community could focus its efforts on evaluating works for the aspects that really matter, such as technique. It’s easy to dismiss such an idea by arguing that doing so would eliminate the possibility of “quality” critique and analysis of literary works. This is simply not true. While the methods may need to change, evaluating works based on all of the traditional characteristics we already judge literature by such as plot, voice, imagery, characterization, vocabulary and sentence structure, etc. is still not only possible but will, in fact, become easier. Without the traditional limiting conventions of genre, new characterizations can emerge, which can allow works of literature to be judged on a more fluid scale. Authors would be able to create without the limitations of defining their work before they even begin, which would create a truly freeing experience. Readers could also benefit because destroying genre conventions would open the doors for a wider variety of text to be reached by mainstream culture.
Who knows what piece of “untraditional” literature could become popular if it were not forced to remain under an unpopular genre. Readers could expand their reading pallets, and discover a love for pieces they might have never considered reading before. Destroying genre means freeing the creative mind, expanding the conversation, and giving undervalued voices a seat at the literary table. Perhaps, if a divergence from traditional values is accomplished, it won’t even be a table.