the happy death of “genre vs literary” in the world of the Technorenaissance



cross-posted at Storytellers Unplugged


I was hanging out in a writer’s forum and came across the age-old question of how do you define genre and literary? which always turns into genre vs literary: genre types bash the literati for lacking plot (which is absurd), while the literati bash the genre-ati for lacking everything else (equally absurd).

One person said you could recognize a genre novel by its “shallow theme and simple characters”. He wasn’t trashing genre novels; he considered himself a ‘genre’ writer writing a ‘genre’ novel. He had given himself an ‘out’ when it came to considering things like theme or characterization.

I thought, Wow. There’s someone who will never ever be published.

Personally, I think rather than defining ‘genre’ or ‘mainstream’ novels by their artlessness — as this person did here — literary novels, by far the smaller group of the two, should be defined by their ‘literariness’.

Literary is not a genre so much as a sensibility. It’s a feel for language, a complexity of theme and character, a general overarching intelligence that informs the novel. It can apply to any and all of the genres.

If you say that genre/mainstream novels are characterized by artlessness, you’re also saying that most readers want an ‘artless’ experience — and that, as an aspiring writer, you can get away with writing an ‘artless’ novel. But in today’s “brutal” marketplace, where an agent will complain about”passing on really good novels because currently I believe that really good might not be good enough in today’s market“, how successful is a writer likely to be if she thinks it’s acceptable to be ‘artless’?

This is the part where someone says, But there’s so much crap on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. There’s so much crap on the bestseller lists.

Those books managed the difficult feat of publication because enough people loved them to spend time and money developing them and putting them into the marketplace.

And just like the public didn’t understand why Julia Roberts married that quirky-looking country dude, you don’t need to understand why some people love Dan Brown or James Patterson…only that they do.

Which doesn’t mean they’ll also love you.


What writers tend to forget is that ‘genre’ is a marketing term as much as anything else.

Booksellers want to know where to put the books so that the people most likely to buy them can find them. The people who want to read about space aliens can go to one section and the people who want to read about forensic investigators tracking serial killers can go to another section and the people who want to read about young women coming of age in the city while wearing fabulous shoes can go to yet another section.

No one decides, “I’m looking for an Artless story. Where’s the Artless section?”

In fact, many of the ‘genre’ writers who rise to the bestseller lists bring a literary quality to their novels, like Dennis Lehane, who started out writing experimental short fiction in an MFA program. He established himself with a series of critically acclaimed mystery novels, then broke onto the bestseller lists with a novel called MYSTIC RIVER that was so bleak and ‘literary’ people had predicted it would end his career.

Martin Scorsese is now making a movie based on Lehane’s novel SHUTTER ISLAND. Starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Many ‘literary’ writers write books that have a strong and riveting sense of story (I challenge you to put down Ian McEwan’s much-praised ATONEMENT once you get past the first 50 pages).

In his introduction to Poe’s Children, Peter Straub acknowledges this kind of crossover when he mentions “literary” writers such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem “who have no problem embracing their inner Poe.” He also lists the wave of fantasy/horror/SF writers (Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Graham Joyce) who are “literary and genre writers at the same time”.

I like that: literary and genre writer at the same time.

As a reader, that’s what I look for. That would be a perfect world. Some books would be better than others, no question, and art would still range from ‘high’ to ‘low’. But writers, with the exception of those so experimental in nature they resist any categorization except ‘literary’, would be literary and genre at the same time. Novels wouldn’t respect such a clear cut division between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’. That division would cease to exist.


Publishing is changing. We’re witnessing a revolution and entering the digital age, where writers will still write and readers will still find them but the middleman might just get eliminated. This is the age of tribes, personal brands, author platforms and “1000 True Fans”.

Dean Koontz once remarked — way back in the 80s, when a Kindle was a thing in science fiction movies — on his publishers’ insistence that he write his different genre novels under different pen names in order “not to confuse the reader”.

What Koontz discovered, he went on, was that his publishers were wrong. Readers who really like your stuff “will follow you anywhere”.

Ultimately we love our favorite writers not for the type of stories they write but their voice, their worldview, the way they bring their characters into existence so that we may develop relationships with them and, through them, touch the writer’s mind.

I’m reminded of a fan of Poppy Z Brite’s who said, when she found out that Brite had a blog, “now I can have Poppy every day!” She didn’t care that Brite’s blog doesn’t chronicle vampires (from her early work) or chefs running a New Orleans restaurant (her later work). She craves Poppy’s voice, that mash-up of style and thought and personality that defines Poppy’s work and marks it apart from everybody else’s.

In the digital age, as writers are forced to grapple with blogs and Facebook and Twitter, and develop an author platform alongside their body of work, our ‘voice’ will define us more than ever before. Our ‘voice’ becomes our ‘brand’, and readers connect with it — and us — directly.

According to the theory by Kevin Kelly, in order to survive, artists only need 1000 True Fans who will buy anything he or she does (because if each fan spends $100 a year…).

True Fans are the ones “who will follow us anywhere.”

And with that kind of access to us and our work, do we have to adhere to such rigid genre categories?

In fact, might it be kind of dangerous to do so? In a world as cluttered and chaotic as the Web — where anyone can upload a manuscript and set up a blog and call themselves a novelist without having to deal with the age-old filters of agent, editor and publisher — how can any writer develop enough ‘pull’ so that readers will single him or her out from the competition?

I think Seth Godin had it right: in this age of overabundance and oversupply, where the reader’s time and attention are at a premium, the way to survive is to be remarkable.

To use your voice to tell your stories your way, in the best way you know how.

And in a world where readers increasingly flock to author-brands online — and build tribes around them — maybe the emphasis will no longer be on what genre you belong in but the genres you bring together to form what Koontz (who did it himself, with great success, before the Internet was even born) a “cross-genre novel” that isn’t like anything else in the marketplace.


Copyblogger compares the Internet to the Renaissance, creating what this blogger calls a Technorenaissance:

The Renaissance was one of the most innovative eras in human history, and many credit the Medici family as the catalyst that made it possible. By attracting talented souls from so many different fields and cultures, the Medicis caused these varied artists and scientists to come in contact with one another, trade ideas, and discover the intersections that allowed for giant leaps in creativity and innovation.

…allowing people to seek and find the connections between different disciplines and cultures led to an explosion of exceptional ideas. This intersection of ideas produced huge advances in literature, philosophy, art, politics and science from the 14th through the 17th century, starting in Italy and spreading throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

The Internet isn’t about neat little boxes and tidy definitions. The Internet has become, like Florence in the era of the Medicis, a place of access, opportunity and creative convergence. The Internet is a crossroads where ideas from different worlds can meet and synthesize. It’s where you smash old boundaries and let the new stuff in; read and write across the disciplines; be both literary and genre at the same time.

I like to play with the idea of what the first ‘true’ bestselling 21st century writer will look like, a writer who rises from the online world as well as traditional print publishing. I don’t think they’ll rise from some box marked ‘mystery’ or ‘thriller’ or ‘science fiction’ but, instead, those places where the genres intersect. They will give us what we hunger for: something accessible and engaging, yet innovative and new.

The emphasis won’t be on what genre.

The emphasis will be on great storytelling.


Nov 20, 2009

13 comments · Add Yours

Thank you very much for this excellent post.
I loved it so much I read it twice.
Thank you for sharing!
All the best,


yay. thank you for your message — and thank you for tweeting the link to this post, I was delighted. :)


I honestly didn’t think about “genre vs. literary” until I decided to actually get serious about my writing, because the marketing culture defined serious as literary. But I quickly forgot about it again. Picking a “type” of book to write ahead of time seemed…what’s a nice word…counter-productive.

As much of a neophyte as I am (although lately I’ve had just enough ego to maybe possibly start considering thinking about the label “journeyman”), I’ve actually had a few people ask my advice about that: “How do I write a Science Fiction/Fantasy/Other Bookstore Section/Novel?”

My limited experience had given me only one piece of genuinely good and pithy advice, which I passed on: “Don’t ‘Write A Novel,’ tell a story.” In my opinion, the ones who understood the difference were invariably better writers than the ones who didn’t.

I really hope you’re right about the shift in emphasis. And about a Florentine Internet, I dig that idea. Although…it’s difficult to poison people over TCP/IP, so perhaps the metaphor only goes so far.


You’re homing in on the experience, which is where it’s at now. Or, rather, a better term might be ‘the connection’. That’s what it was always about, from artist to audience (only now we’re both!) where the point of contact occurs. Communicating a relationship with world is the deal. Now that obstacles (the middle) are showing cracks, instead of pass the message down the line and hope it works, it’s just down to the two dots to connect.

And those middlers made it a high and low art proposition. But now, what’s wrong with shallow, simple, crass or artless? I so want to go there, because there’s another dimension now, a dimension of depth, or maybe it’s the discovery of time itself (open eye, closed eye). Literary and genre might end up being sketches of the jars we’ll actually use to separate out and store tendencies.

Does it even have to be about sales, or “I write good now” filters? What if we’ve all been serving a dysfunctional system, a re-bar stuck in our leg, and now we have to pull it out and learn to walk again? Train our minds to think in terms of not just limp, but walk, run, jump? Remarkable is one way of putting it, but what if remarkable is just another way of saying “fun now”, which is a subjective thing–like a particle that becomes what it is depending upon the observer?

Okay okay, I’ll back it up from “Get ready to rock get ready to roll”. Only certain types of categories could play, and everything else didn’t count so it doesn’t exist. Couldn’t even enter the narrowly framed terms of discussion. All that stuff was off the table, as Seth Godin might say.

Now it’s on the table, and it seems to look like what matters is the connection. What experience are you offering and how do you communicate that to people checking you out? Being honest and up-front with who you are and what you’ve got is part of that. Maybe the term shouldn’t be ‘hook’ anymore, or perhaps hook for a third, scent for another third, and buzz for another.

Not just “what’s your book about”, but perhaps something along the lines of “what’s your book about and what do readers do?”



I’d add simply that the “1000 True Fans” concept should assume 1000 well-connected fans; it’s fine to have that many folks who will spend an average of $100/yr on your content, but it’s even better to strive for a core of fans who will talk about your work in their own online circles.


my workshop leader was stressing the same kind of point, albeit with a slightly different emphasis — “just tell the fucking story!”

in any case, it’s often the marketplace that decides what ‘genre’ you are. a writer has less control over this then he or she tends to think.

and I think being literary is a lot like being intelligent — if you have to *tell* people you’re smart, chances are you’re not.


I love your response and I’m mulling it over. I was thinking about that too as I wrote it — “what’s wrong with artless?” — and the answer is: nothing. I just think even an ‘artless’ or ‘crass’ novel that is still ENTERTAINING is a lot more difficult to write than people would think…In general I just think you need to throw yourself into storytelling with all of your skill and passion and ability, and to think you can get away with doing anything less just because you’re not trying to be Tolstoy only gives you a massive disadvantage. Not to mention your potential readers.

The experience, the connection. Yes. I was just thinking what an amazing tool a blog is — a blog post becomes so much more valuable when readers contribute their thoughts & conversation — if a novel is a kind of unspoken contract between writer and reader, a blog is a very ‘spoken’ kind of collaboration — the writer becomes the reader/audience and the reader/audience becomes the writer. Where else does that even happen?


That would help grow an audience, no question. But I’m not sure how you can deliberately “strive” for that outside of networking, putting your work in the right place at the right time, etc. — you can bring two people together but you can’t make them fall in love, and becoming a True Fan is a kind of falling in love. Your Fans will end up being exactly who they end up being, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a published novelist and blogger it’s about how difficult it is to get someone’s attention & willingness to take a chance on you. What point I’m making here, I’m not sure — maybe just the fact that to have any fans at all is a thing of wonder — and maybe 100 weak links add up to one ‘influential’ link — I think the vast majority of readers will end up online in some form or other….You do your work and put it out there, and the rest is beyond your control.


That’s the whole point too–entertaining–or perhaps more simply, “fun”. Does it deliver “fun now”? That’s where your formula of delivery does matter. What’s the Musk “Special Sauce”? Those ingredients you bring to the table in how you mix a formula (going all out), an alchemical brew that gives a specific flavor, a certain kind of fun.

That’s where I think that while even though anything goes now, you won’t be able to escape developing a functional formula to deliver that fun effectively to the reader expectation. There’s still work to do on an individual level to make progress. However, the formula can still be simple as long as it’s effective!

I would say the social contract between writer/reader, and blogger/visitor differ in that blogs have better designed formulas. The “We agree to get together in this way and have a shared creative imaginary space” is better designed and allows for additional kinds of fun to appear. You can still have the traditional writer-writes-and-reader-reads one-way transmission (e.g., I’ll turn comments off and anyone who wants to listen to me can). Some people want to be told what to do! Lurking is listening is participation.

I see people creating special sauce ingredients all over the place, trying stuff out and making adjustments. For example, I notice you break up post thought-trains with little numbers, which is interesting to me but might annoy someone else. That’s a delivery mechanism, a technique.

Other people might do it, but if I don’t know where they are or if they are who cares? Or their use is not the same. People don’t have time to waste, they’re seeking out what attracts them, moving from person to person and place to place, leaving behind marks scrabbled on the walls or stones on cairns at crossroads. When they find promising signs, they start paying attention. More than they would a physical object like a newspaper or magazine.

What? Someone’s asking questions I find interesting? Does that carry over into their work? A book about an escape from a supernatural cycle of abuse and I get to see similar questions asked and an attempt made to answer them? Yeah, okay I’ll play that once.


Enjoyable read!


Justine, thanks for the link/mention and I’m glad you find my definition of the Technorenaissance useful. Cheers!


I hope to be shiny enough to attract your attention and substantial enough to keep it. :)


My pleasure, absolutely. Thanks for being so clever and erudite that I could borrow it from you.



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