When I was in middle school, one of the ways that kids sorted each other out was by identifying with a particular kind of music. There were the metalheads who listened to heavy metal and wore Metallica t-shirts and ripped blue jeans, the yos who listened to hip hop and were decked out in Cross Colours, and the hicks (yes, that’s what they called themselves – would I make this up?) who listened to country and wore John Deere hats. The important thing about all of this self classification was that you STAY WITH YOUR GROUP. When somebody would switch from one of these groups to another one, there was a real sense of betrayal. How can we trust someone who used to listen to one kind of music but now prefers another? In the end, it really wasn’t about the music, or the style of clothing, but about how we viewed the world. Life is scary when there aren’t boxes to easily fit ourselves into. As much as we all thought we were rebelling and sticking it to the man, we were really just craving the comfort of imposed structure and limits. Structure isn’t always a bad thing, but when it comes to creativity, the wrong kind of structure can choke the life out of you.
All the conventional wisdom amongst writers today seems to suggest that we ought to pick a genre and stick to it. Doing that helps you identify your fan base and allows you to really learn how to identify with them. I totally get why that’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s not what I do, for the same reason that by the time I was in high school I had shed my clutching adherence to a single kind of music. There is more going on inside of me than can easily fit into one subcategory. And I have a feeling, there’s more going on inside of you that way too.
This is not to criticize those authors who decide to work within the confines of a single genre. There are good reasons, both pragmatic and artistic, why an author might choose to go that route. What concerns me is not the choice to stick within one genre but the plain insistence that your genre is what determines your identity, either as a writer or as a reader. If I am a science fiction writer, then I write for science fiction audiences. If I am a literary writer, then I write for a literary audience. But if I live in a world that has elements of both, why wouldn’t my audience be both? How reflexively dull we become when our palette is reduced to a single color.
The thing is, there is consistency in what I like to read and what I write, but it’s not at the level of genre. It’s much smaller details that bring these things to life for me, like the quality of the dialogue, the beauty of the language, and the kind of characters that populate the fictional landscape. Combine those things in the right quantity and I’ll be hooked, whether the backdrop is nineteenth century America, or some other planet, or something else that hasn’t even been dreamed of yet. Make me care about your characters, and I’m all in. Make me laugh and think, and I will be yours forever. What matters to me is the ingredients and how you cook them, not the label on the cookbook that gave you the recipe.