As writers, we are reminded to read similar works in our genre, pay attention to what’s hip in our genre, make sure we can define the genre that sums up our story, etc. Do a simple search for “fantasy books” in Amazon, and you’ll see no less than TEN subgenres. Agents and publishers need to know how to classify your story so they can sell it to the right readers. If you can’t classify it, who can?
Diana Wynne Jones spoke about the problem of genre in her address to the New England Science Fiction Association:
[Each genre] has hunkered down inside what it believes to be its own boundaries, and inside those boundaries the Rules for Being Of That Genre have proliferated and hardened until almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s OK. That’s fine. That’s Genre.
The Rules add that if you do cross these boundaries, what you have written will be called “Not Really Horror—or Science Fiction or whatsoever” and nobody will want to know.
“A Talk About Rules,” 1994
Twenty years ago, Jones rightly nailed the fear so many of us aspiring writers face. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed or a repeat of what’s already been done, but look at those sales records! The marketing is so easy for a book that clearly hits all the same markers as its predecessors. Give people more of what they want, right?
Jones takes this concept of Genre Rules and creates two marvelous things: The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The latter is a dictionary of sorts, listing all the possible people, places, and things one encounters in a fantasy novel. Here is an example:
HOVELS are small, squalid dwellings, either in a village or occasionally up a mountain, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch etc. are the official clichés) and there is no such thing as a clean hovel. Indoors, the inhabitants eke out a wretched existence (another official cliché), which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning. This need not alarm you. The Tour will not allow you to enter a hovel that is inhabited. If you enter one at all, it will be long deserted (another official cliché) and there will be sanitary arrangements out the back.
Here is a writer who has written dozens of fantasy books, and yet has glorious fun poking at her own genre. She knows full well what people expect out of fantasy. She even takes it one step further and turns all of those clichés into a fantastic story. The Dark Lord of Derkholm isn’t really a dark lord at all—it’s just his job for the tourist season.
A nasty and quite powerful wizard took control of this magical world a long time ago; every year, he opens gateways to a nonmagical world to bring Pilgrim Parties through. These tourists expect to—what else—help the poor down-trodden souls break free from The Dark Lord. They must encounter pirates, or bandits, or both, and be hunted down by monsters, get help from wizard guides and glamourous enchantresses…all the things readers expect are what the tourists expect.
Except this magical world isn’t like that at all, so people are forced to role-play lest the nasty wizard bumps them off.
It’s a hilarious story that shows what happens when we writers take readers’ expectations far too seriously. We all want to be entertained, sure, and that may include an adventure, some battles, and a bit of love. But do we really have to all do it the same way? We fear agents/publishers/readers won’t “get” our work because they can’t fit it under a tidy shelf name in the bookstore. If we follow The Rules, we can belong.
And be just like everyone else.