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Part 3: A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres;
Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;
Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society

Read Part 1 at SF Signal
Read Part 2 at Debuts and Reviews

Part 3: For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres

Or do, but recognize the risk you’re taking.

Tia Nevitt wrote an interesting piece a short while ago, in which she gave advice to aspiring writers. I suggest you read it.

You’ll note that she offers advice principally to those writers about to embark on the great journey of authorship. And much of what she suggests is spot on. You SHOULD try to ride the wave of whatever the new popular thing is, if you can see the wave building. Trying to find a new hook on an old but popular subject is a great idea. And absolutely avoid, if at all possible, starting a book on a dying theme. I know, sometimes you just can’t help yourself. But these are all things to keep in mind if you hope ever to get your imaginative fiction published. But I want to offer a caveat based on all that we have been talking about above. And that is the first line of this now overwrought and over-thought essay.

So why shouldn’t you mix your genres? After all, some of the greatest works of art come from taking disparate themes and finding ways in which they work together. Thesis – antithesis – synthesis, right? Hey, I’m on your side. If I have been praised for anything, it has been my willingness to combine seemingly unrelated genres, including historical, fantasy, western, YA and (shudder) ‘literary’. I dearly love books that blur the edges, that make you see the fantasy in a six-gun as much as in a sword. I can’t for the life of me understand why a book’s having young protagonists makes it YA. And I believe that a great many of the tools of my ‘literary’ education can and should be appropriated for an imaginative audience.

Besides, you may well say, there are all sorts of books that have stood between genres and done fantastically well! Twilight (horror and YA), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (‘literary’ and fantasy), “The Dark Tower (fantasy, western, horror, romance), and all of Neil Gaiman’s books. Right you are, as usual! But again, this is a list of books for which things turned out all right. What about those books – some of which might be just great – that stand between genres, but you never heard of them? What happened to those books?

The thing is, if you write between genres you are pressing the buttons of prejudice in not one group, but in many groups, and maybe in all groups! You take the chance that bookstores are going to shelve you in a place where the readers who might have loved your work will be unable to find it (their zombie feet having taken them to some other section of the store). You inflict cover problems on yourself and your publisher, making it difficult to know how exactly to attract the eye of potential buyers (should it have a fantasy cover – metal bikini and all – or a romance cover – shirtless man embracing lady love on beach? It can’t be everything!). Reviewers on all sides may object to the very heart of your project, because they dislike one aspect. Others might make the assumption that it was never meant for them, and so not give it the time of day. You may, to make a long story short, find yourself slipping between fan-bases, and so between the cracks.

And who will help you pull yourself out? Sorry, but the fact is, unless you are already successful beyond the dreams of avarice, or somehow got a HUGE advance – which means that you are almost surely one of those overpaid ‘literary’ types discussed previously – most publishers simply do not have the personnel or patience necessary to make a long-term commitment to a book. Big publishers will normally devote about two weeks to a book, at which point they expect the blasted thing to be selling left and right, no more publicity needed. Big print media either reviews a book within that short time frame or it won’t look at it at all (I have never understood that, have you? A book about Theodore Roosevelt is just the same, whether read now or a year from now. And it’s just as obtainable as well. But I guess there’s no reason to throw logic upon the NYTBR now, is there?). Worst of all, for we lovers of imaginative literature, is the investment most publishing houses are now making in the realm of internet publicity – namely, virtually none whatever. At a symposium I attended not so long ago, a group of publicists from some major houses told the writers and agents present that they would no longer take any part in online publicity, that all internet activity would be left entirely up to authors. But if you are not on the ‘literary’ side, there is virtually NO publicity that is NOT on-line publicity. So what happens to the wonderful book by the little old man who has absolutely no computer or internet savvy? I think we all know the answer. Nothing happens to that book. It sits on shelves for a month, maybe two, and then is gone just as surely as if it had never been. We don’t even get a chance to judge whether it was any good. We’ve never heard of it.

So do yourself a favor and stay right in the middle of the publishing industry’s wheel-house. Throw them a nice fat pitch they can hit over the center-field wall. Give them a book with an obvious cover and a story that is immediately recognizable; one that won’t offend liberal New England schoolmarms with its depictions of guns or violence, or conservative Southern aristocrats and Western individualists with any themes suggesting ecological conservation or multicultural understanding. If at all possible, make your book ‘literary.’ That will ensure you the chance of at least one big payday. And if you just can’t force yourself to do that, then sell it as the opening volume of some long-running and meandering series. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t write a book that blends western, fantasy, ’literary,’ YA, adventure, multi-cultural and historical fiction, like this one purports to do. It is just too much work convincing potential readers that there might be something in there that they would like.

Of course, maybe you’ll want to do that work. It is rewarding, believe me, to chase after that “synthesis” you thought of earlier. As a writer between genres you can be your own boss, ignoring and embracing the usual tropes and traditions of the movements in whose shadows you walk. You can work toward a uniquely American vision of fantasy, horror, or romance – casting off the shackles of the old world with a shout of “Live Free or Die!” Or you can damn America with your metaphor. You have the chance to write your way through uncharted territory, to say something ABOUT literature, both imaginative and ‘literary.’ At times you may even astonish yourself. And there is a great thrill whenever someone says to you – ‘I was so surprised by your novel. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.’

If you want to embark on such a journey, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And heck, you might wake up one morning and find yourself famous and rich beyond your wildest dreams. It COULD happen (probably won’t, but why not dream?). Should you decide that is your path, go forth with my best wishes for luck and happiness. And when your book comes out, send me a note. I will be the first in line to buy it!

By way of closing, let me say only that the above essay was written exclusively for the purposes of entertainment, and not as some call to take up arms in defense of the little guys of imaginative fiction. In no wise do I advocate the bloody overthrow of the New York Times Book Review, big publishing houses, chain bookstore executives, or reviewers of any denomination (Of course, if you have an army of robots and a secret lair from which you are ready to launch them, please let me know!).

I only advocate keeping your eyes and ears open and keeping your own prejudices in check as much as you possibly can. I shall certainly try to do so myself.

About the Author, Justin Allen

Year_ofthe_Horse_HRJustin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of “Year of the Horse,” an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?), BN.com, or Amazon.com.

Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.

He can be contacted via justin-allen.com.