“What kind of writing do you do?”
That’s the most common question I get, and I hate it. I know where it’s headed. When I reply that I write novels and short stories, it leads to the follow-up: “Oh, really? What kind of novels and short stories?”
The question about kind is not a kind one. The questioner seeks to put you in a box, to imprison your writing in a cell, to separate it from others types of literature. In short, the question implies the presence of genre, a word whose Latin root genus (“type” or “kind”), brings us close to the realm of biology, where creatures of different species or genera cannot interbreed without producing sterile monsters.
You can see why I flinch at the question.
Truth is, literary genres confuse me. We know the names: Romance, Humor, Chic Lit, Suspense, Fantasy, Science Fiction. These and other creatures scurry about the literary pantheon like lesser deities, kneeling before the altar of the august figure known as Literary Fiction, a.k.a. Serious Literature—the non-genre genre, the ungendered gender, the genre that generates all others.
My most recent book, This Jealous Earth (MG Press, slated to appear in January) is a collection of stories that belong, purportedly, to Serious Literature. But some of the stories bubble with humor (or so it seems to me), and others crackle with romance. A couple of them make detours into interior realms that can only be described as fantasy. I also have a novel coming out, Theory of Remainders, which draws considerably on the tools of suspense.
This blending of so-called genres ought not to surprise anyone. After all, our lives don’t respect the separation of genres: romance, humor, horror and suspense all bleed together in our everyday occupations. And, in fact, the careful sorting of literary beans into different cups is a relatively new phenomenon. An author like Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery single-handed; at the same time he wrote ghost stories and science fiction and fantasy and lyric poetry. Yet this literary colossus has lost his footing over the decades, eroded by the rising tide of genre.
Words once used as helpful labels have become targets to strive for. Amazon’s advanced search places each title within genres (they call them “subjects,” but don’t be fooled), one of which is selected to serve as the sole home for every book in their sprawling collection. Publishers reinforce the tradition, optioning new titles for their target markets, in a process that wears the groove deeper and deeper, turning it into a full-fledged rut.
Is there any way out? Happily, yes. Readers can support books that break out of the straitjacket of genre. And they can locate such titles in the happy gaps between the cogs of the publishing industry—such as in independent blogs by booklovers. Such as the one you are currently reading.
Scott Dominic Carpenter’s website is located at www.sdcarpenter.com.
This Jealous Earth is available in print and eBook formats from MG Press. Shop now (http://midwestgothic.com/2011/01/this-jealous-earth-by-scott-dominic-carpenter/).