Genre dilettante

Even though I’ve been out of it this last week (sorry about that), I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora’s and Rachel’s posts on the boom in urban fantasy and the benefits of Twilight’s or Harry Potter’s popularity.

Spiral Hunt is pretty solidly urban fantasy.  And, if I think about how it got started, there’s a very good case to be made that I was chasing a new boom in the genre.  I remember reading a few of the urban fantasy novels that were out a while back and thinking “huh, that was fun, I wonder if I can do something similar.”  Eventually, the setting and the characters came together, but I wonder if I’d have written it without that first reaction.

Did I write it hoping to cash in on a new fad?  No — not consciously, at least.  But that doesn’t make a difference once the book’s out, and if interest in urban fantasy suddenly dwindles, those intentions won’t matter.

However, when I write short stories, I write in a number of different subgenres, and I don’t think I can bring myself to settle down in just one.  I like writing high secondary-world fantasy, pseudo-science fiction, historical fantasy, fairy tales . . . and often, I’ll be interested in these styles because I’ve been reading a lot of them lately.  The boom triggers interest, which triggers an idea, which shapes the story, etc., etc.  And not all of those subgenres are the kind that stay popular for a long time.

So how do I know that when I’m dabbling in a new subgenre whether it’ll be worth it when I’m done?  Will the steampunk story be finished only after steampunk has burnt itself out?  At what point — if there is one –do I become an urban fantasy author and stop being a writer in many different genres (and if that happens, how easy is it to change?)?

(This is also something that I notice now more than usual, because I’ve hit the dark night of the revision again, and there’s a substantial part of my brain that wants to be working on something other than this novel. ANYTHING. And that’s when all those other, shiny subgenres start looking awfully fun to play in . . .)

If I look at it as a writer, the basic answer — just write — is helpful for the matters at hand, but as Nora pointed out, I do have to think about the greater implications.  If I think about it as a reader, though, a whole new array of questions comes up.  When I’m reading a book by an author I’m familiar with, I’ll inevitably have a preconception of what sort of book it’ll be. And sometimes that gets in the way — sometimes even before I pick up the new book.  (“What?  Author X has written a military science fiction epic?  But he writes fluffy fantasy!  Is this just going to be unicorns in space?” and so on.  No, I didn’t say this was a rational reaction.)

The thing is, at some point I can’t let myself worry about this. How an author perceives the genre of their work may be completely at odds with how either the reader or the publisher sees it. I might convince myself that I’m writing a noir pastiche, only to find that it’s read as high fantasy, or attempt to set a contemporary fantasy in a trailer park and discover later on that I’ve written horror. If my track record of judging my own work’s genre is anything to go by, then I shouldn’t worry about whether my maneating squid story will be too late for the SquidLit Manifesto, because chances are it’s actually a period romance.

I’m afraid this is a pretty disjointed post, but what I’m getting at (I think) is this: how much does an author’s prior work influence how you read their new work?  I know it’s possible to compartmentalize — I can’t think of The Curse of Chalion in the same headspace as Shards of Honor, much as I like both, and the same goes for “Sandkings” and A Game of Thrones.   But I also know that it does have an effect on how I buy books.

And is it possible to keep steampunk alive at least till I finish the girl-and-her-stamping-press story?

6 Responses to “Genre dilettante”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    September 9, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    We pigeonhole our artists, from painters to actors to writers. When these artists step out of genre, they can’t just be good, they have to be GREAT! Jim Carey in The Truman Show. Stephen King’s, On Writing. (For my life I cannot think of an example for painters!) But like every story, if it’s good, it’s good and that initial hestiation vanishes. It’s getting your readers to take that leap of faith and buy the book that’s the hard part.

  2. 2 Ilasir Maroa
    September 10, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I don’t really judge a writer by genre. If they want to try out something new, I don’t get all wound up in whether they can make the shift. Maybe that’s because I enjoy writing and reading in so many different subgenres of sf/f. I figure if I am doing it, I have no right to criticize a published author who does it. That doesn’t mean I won’t form an opinion *after* I read the book. If it is bad, *then* I will start forming preconceptions on that writer’s work in the particular genre in question.

    As for steampunk, classic steampunk (as much as there is such a thing) might die off a bit, but I think that–much like cyberpunk–the *influences* of the genre will cotinue on for a very long time and as long as you can write a good story–as opposed to the people who clutch the surface trappings during a sub-genre boom–then you shouldn’t have a problem. I know I’m always on the lookout for a good new steampuk story. Compared to say, high fantasy, it is actully pretty hard to find good (or any) material in steampunk (and other smaller genres).

  3. 3 Emily
    September 10, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    I’d have to say that I am influenced by an author’s prior work. I try not to be; I’d rather take the work or genre on its own terms, rather than come in with preconceptions, but…

    Preconceptions are unavoidable. They get changed *while* reading, but when I’m looking to pick up a new book, either from the library or the bookstore? If I don’t have a recommendation, I’m going on the strength of author/genre/shiny cover illustration associations.

    I haven’t read Elizabeth Moon’s stuff that’s set in SPAAAAACE (ahem), though I loved Paksenarrion; just can’t get past the genre boundaries. I know when I pick up a Stephen R. Donaldson that it’ll be thick, lovely but overwrought prose with lots of moral ambiguity–whether it’s a fantasy setting, a set of short stories, or IN SPAAAAACE.

  4. 4 mlronald
    September 11, 2009 at 5:24 am

    It’s easy to pigeonhole a writer without even realizing that I’m doing it. Like you said, Terri-Lynne, it’s that initial hesitation, and once the book’s started it disappears. But for me that first hesitation is part of what determines whether I buy a book — assuming I’m just going by author name and apparent genre, which is a heck of an assumption. (As for painters…hm. Perhaps those who’ve moved to sculpture, though that’s more a change of medium than genre. Or is it analogous…oh, now I’m going to be mulling that over all day.) Maybe I just need to follow a different instinct when I’m browsing.

    Ilasir, I agree that there’s no reason to judge a writer harshly for trying various genres, so long as they handle them well. I know I’ve benefitted from the different-genre habits of certain authors (love the Laundry series by Charles Stross, less enamored of the Merchant Princes series; even though I can tell it’s good it doesn’t hit the same buttons for me).

    And Emily, you bring up a good point: much of what I assume about an author’s work doesn’t have to do with genre at all. Maybe that’s what I’m reacting to — the general idea I have about an author’s style and how I think it’ll match up with the genre they’ve chosen.

    Now go say IN SPAAAAACE a few more times. I will go mull over the medium/genre distinction…in SPAAAAACE.

  5. October 9, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I heard a podcast with Jay Lake where he talked a bit about what he called “conversations between writers.” He was talking about how he was fascinated by what Mieville and Vandermeer were doing at the time and decided to write something sort of as a response. He called the whole thing “decadent urban fantasy.” The name that stuck on the sub-genre was “new weird.”

    I like the elements of Spiral hunt that make it VERY different than the other urban fantasy I’ve read. The magic is a magic of immigrants and thus has the strange disjointed mixture of old and new that makes immigrant populations fascinating to me. Some ideas are frozen in amber from when the main wave of immigration happened. Some ideas evolve along a new path. Some ideas are born out of the melting pot. I like the facebook feeling of old friends popping into the story that is comforting and lived in and a distinctly different feel than other books.

    I read spiral hunt without regard to it’s genre. I like your short fiction and I may eventually pigeonhole you, but for now I just look forward to following how you grow as a writer.

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