Literary Hub

Be a Better Reader: Get Outside Your Genre Comfort Zone

danger zone

It’s a rule of publishing that you don’t complain about your blurbs. If a fellow author is going to take the time and effort to read your book and offer a quote, you accept their words gratefully and graciously. So, I kept my mouth shut when I got a gorgeously worded blurb that also used the word “suspense” in it. It didn’t call my book suspense—it praised it for having the element of suspense. But, my book isn’t suspense, I thought nervously. What if people who otherwise would be reading Liane Moriarty or Tana French pick up my book, thinking it’s a novel of suspense because that word is in a blurb, and then they are wildly disappointed because while my book has suspenseful elements, it is definitely not suspense?

Needless to say, having a book come out a year after finishing revisions gives ample time for every anxious bug to burrow its way into my marrow.

As a debut author who has spent his career in the publishing industry, I have a complicated relationship to the categorization of books and authors. Authors understandably can bristle at the labels a publisher sticks on a book, while the publisher does so because that’s one of the main ways a book gets traction in a wildly oversaturated marketplace.

There are adjectives the Copy Department is going to use to describe a military thriller, for example, and very few of them would also describe literary fiction. The designs won’t be alike. The marketing will be drastically different. If an author sees his book being described as pulse-pounding and he instead wants it to be called lyrical, the schism will not only sour the relationship between author and publisher, but will confuse the reading public as well. This goes for any form of entertainment: before we know what the “brand” of the work is (Marvel=Superhero movie; Grisham=legal thriller) we find the categorization helpful in guiding us to our sweet spots. I know I already love reading x, so I will probably enjoy reading y.

It seems to me, though, that the real danger of placing authors and books into boxes is for the reader. It is surprisingly easy to read homogenously. As soon as readers don’t set out to read romance, or mysteries, or science fiction, or literary fiction, then the books they do read start all coming from a single, similar box. It doesn’t even need to be an active rejection of a genre, just a passive acceptance that by tending to read one type of book, it can come at the expense of others. By staying in the box an industry creates, a reader will see similar approaches and similar tropes, explore similar experiences and similar results. The hope and aim of reading, drilled into us as students, is that it broadens horizons, but that aspiration then gets undercut as soon as we start reading for fun. Our literary diets narrow, then ossify. By tuning out books from other genres, we cut ourselves off from important parts of the literary conversation.

When I wrote my first novel, I wrote without genre in mind. From absorbing the structure of genre lit as an editor, I constantly went back and asked myself the simple question of “what is going on in this scene?” If the scene wasn’t furthering a plot in the book, I revised or cut it. This sort of revision is how so much romance and suspense gets developed, because pacing and plotting are the driving forces of the narrative. But I was also undeniably writing what gets labeled as literary fiction. I knew from my first page that however much I considered my book a love story, it would not look anything like a romance. However much suspense I injected into the plot, it will not get reviewed by the those genre-specific blogs. Every part of the packaging of my book is designed to get a particular subgroup of the reading public to gravitate toward it. The greater hope is that those laser-targeted readers will then recommend my book to their friends, and the book will get that much sought cross-over appeal. The impetus is on the reader to promote a book outside of its box, which makes it all the more difficult to encourage people to read from a broader set of genres.

“By tuning out books from other genres, we cut ourselves off from important parts of the literary conversation.”

I’m making a different argument here than one advocating for reading authors from diverse backgrounds. That too is vital, and racial, ethnic, gender, and all other aspects of diversity often dovetail with specific genres. The entire publishing ecosystem, from authors to publishers to bookstores to readers, frequently have blind spots that separate stories out in ways that exclude readers.

For readers who want their personal library to show a healthy variety, finding books outside of your preferred genre is how you can broaden your tastes and discover terrific new talent. However much you ignore comic book movies, you missed out on a major piece of the cultural conversation if you skipped Black Panther.

However much you eschew romance, you’re poorer as a reader for having never read Jill Shalvis. Reading broadly can also uncover those gems that expose you to new stories, and the magic of books that don’t operate within any set of lines. If you’re a fan of mysteries, read Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, because it’s a historical mystery that builds tension in every scene, even while winning a determinedly literary (and Canadian) award in the Giller. If you go straight to literary fiction, try expanding your palate to The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen, a lyrically beautiful romance. Love paperback romances? Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has one of our greatest living prose stylists penning a spellbinding love story.

Really, anything that feels a few towns over from where your reading life lives will gift you a new perspective. Because so much of the process before a book reaches your hands is designed to build that box, by simply venturing to another section of the bookstore, you’ll get to experience worlds you otherwise would never have known existed.

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