Flexible Instruments: Writing in Different Genres

About our guest blogger:

Joe L. Murr has lived on every continent except Antarctica.  He now divides his time between the Netherlands and Finland.  His stories have been published in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chizine, Noir Nation and here at Cecile’s Writers, and are forthcoming in Helsinki Noir (Akashic Books) and The Summer of Lovecraft (Chaosium).  For more stories and ruminations, visit www.joelmurrauthor.com

Flexible Instruments: Writing in Different Genres

Every act of definition means imposing limitations.

Case in point: consider “genre fiction.”  Take a moment.  Define it.

All done?

Now define “literary fiction.”

Okay.  Keep those definitions in mind.  Let’s roll.

My House of Stories

I write what some people call genre fiction – specifically, crime, horror, and a bit of fantasy when I’m in the mood.  I also write what some people call literary fiction – experimental, mainly.  My published stories (about 30 to date) are all very different.

I like being eclectic.  Writing is my Father’s house and in this house there are many rooms.  Those who live here are called Legion.  (They berate me for not being more productive.)

So that’s me.  Hi.

When I was asked to blog about my experiences of writing and publishing genre and literary fiction, I said, Sure.

Thinking:  how hard can it be?

It turned out to be much harder than I thought.

Because (this sentence will be familiar to you) every act of definition means imposing limitations.

Talking About the Pigeonholing Blues

Now, how did you define literary and genre fiction?

If you said that they’re marketing categories, or something along those lines, have a cookie.  You can skip ahead to the next section if you want.

However, if your definitions are anything like this, we need to have a good long talk:  “The best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality.  Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”  (Thank you, Steven Petite and HuffPo, bastion of great cultural commentary.)

See what I did there? I quoted one of the most specious examples of the tired genre vs. literary debate that I could find online.  Petite’s little article is easy to mock.  A symphony of words. Uh-huh.

However, all-too many critics and readers tend to fall in line with the same tired ideas.  Genre is escapist and disposable.  Literary is meaningful and challenging.  You’ve heard it all before.  People have wasted months of their lives debating these terms – but their conclusions tend to be predetermined by tribal/class affiliations, cherry-picked sample sets, and middle-class anxieties about good taste.

Truth is, just as there is an awful lot of ultra-formulaic “literary” writing being published in lit journals, there is also a wealth of rich, vital “genre” writing out there.  It’s easy to find if you keep an open mind.

Definitions, man …

Let’s move on.

Free Your Mind and Your Stories Will Follow

I hope you enjoyed your cookie.  Or weren’t too exhausted by that long-ass digression.  As the case may be.

You can see why this turned out to be much harder than I thought.  To write about this topic, I had to examine the terms and the assumptions behind them.

Here’s my take.

As far as I’m concerned, the issue of genre vs. literary is irrelevant.  There’s good writing, bad writing, and indifferent writing.

Here’s what I’m looking for in a story: vitality, intelligence and sharp prose.  That’s all.  Any other criteria would be too restrictive.  Because my Father’s house has many rooms, I believe that as I wander through it, I must keep my eyes open and cultivate a beginner’s mind, both as a reader and as a writer.

And for that reason, I want to try writing stories in as many styles as I can.

Every one of my stories starts with a vague concept or image.  I mull over it and jot down ideas and draw little sketches.  Like we all do.  What happens then – well, that depends on what kind of structure suggests itself.

For instance, I could develop the same concept as a slice-of-life snapshot or a pulp horror tale.  Which approach I choose depends partly on my mood and partly on finding a suitable market.  Sometimes I just know that a certain story idea would be an ideal fit for a certain magazine.  So I go for it.

Whichever narrative approach I decide on, the writing process is the same.  The differences are all in the emphases of the story – approach to character, pacing, selection of tropes, etc.  I’m a formalist at heart and enjoy tinkering with these elements.

There’s one consistent thread in my writing.  Whatever I do, I try to subvert the story somehow – what you see isn’t what you get.  Subtext is important and I assume that the reader is an active participant rather than passive consumer.

I see all these different narrative styles as flexible instruments.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses – but, if you keep an open mind, you can make them do anything you want.

So keep your definitions loose and write on.


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