This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.
It’s an interesting word, genre, a bit snooty sounding. It means kind or type. If someone asks what sort of writing you do, they expect a genre answer.
The question frequently stumps me. My first mystery was recently published, so you’d think I’d answer “mystery,” but the word tends to stick in my throat. There’s a hesitation there, because I don’t want this asker to think that’s all I write – I’m broader than that. I don’t want her to think that’s all I read, either. Yeah, I’m broader and, dare I say, more beautiful than that, too, because of the poetry. It’s true I always have a mystery waiting on the table, under the lamp, but often, in a mad fever of rebellion, I’ll give in to my cheating heart. Here’s my confession.
Books like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” seduced me into the historical fiction genre with its violent beauty, ancient cultural patterns, and the universal revulsion for cruel injustice. In like manner. Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan” pulled me in and begged me to experience the old Chinese practice of foot binding. It was dreadful and fascinating and sent me searching like a mad women for authentic images (which I found). It also made me cringe and give thanks for being born elsewhere and in another time.
Hugh Howey’s “Wool” whipped me below the surface of the earth and made me wander through a future where everyone lives like a mole. Science fiction. I rarely read it but I could hardly lay “Wool” down. I tried. Then, every time my e-reader gave up the ghost on one installment, I had to tap-tap and get the next. So what if it was two in the morning? This is what cheating does to you, and I’m not sure I’m ashamed. Don’t judge.
After the pleasing, near erotic, diversion of any number of other genres I scamper happily back to Janet Evanovich, P.D. James, Lee Child, and Elizabeth George – old flames, brief passions, or current crushes all from my long days of delicious mystery reading. I’m excited. I feel like I have things to tell them – tales and imaginings from these other worlds I’ve discovered. I’ll gladly grab their hands and set out the picnic blanket if they’re only willing to listen, to broaden out, too.
Where can we go for a glass of wine and good brie to discuss the dark secrets revealed in the back alleys of nineteenth century London? Do they have any idea how strangely wonderful Tibetan butter tea is? And then what kind of dirty secrets might I pull from these masters about their wildly popular inspectors, detectives, or bumbling amateurs?
And who have they cheated on – these masters? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. Let’s make a deal.
Once we’re settled down and begin courting true insight, another phenomenon bubbles up. In veering off (a gentle term for cheating) into other genres, writers can become green with envy in so many productive ways. At first we chasten ourselves for not coming up with this brilliant plot twist or that sublime syntax more readily than Mr. #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Self flagellation looms. But in short order we get mad – as in mental – in a way far greater than simply red in the face. The mind whirls. The pen flies. Our writing scales new heights and heads for Alpha Centauri because our cheating heart has brought home the goods. And when, at last, that pen is laid to rest, we collapse into sobbing.
“Why didn’t I stray before? What was wrong with me?”
The old flame, brief passion, and current crush smile. What I didn’t know is that they know what it’s like – they’ve cheated, too. And so they forgive, hand over a hanky, and pour me more wine. Sure, I’m no longer pure, but I’m better, wiser and more able to forgive myself and others. The glorious blooming must come next. It’s a wonderful thing.
Now, tell me, what has your cheating heart been up to lately?
Susan is a freelance writer and mystery novelist. The first book in her series, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Untreed Reads, and from the publisher, Mainly Murder Press. Follow her at her blog.
I’ve thought about this topic (although not in such wonderful detail) and I hate to be defined by saying I write one genre. For like you, I write so many things, and like them all for different reasons.
Good post, Susan!
I’m glad you found something of value here, kindred soul. Thanks for your comment1
Great read, Susan. Interesting points to ponder. 🙂
T. Lloyd Reilly
Well said! I have always thought that dwelling in a single genre would impede my passion and dull both my senses and abilities. I tend to believe that the genre I am in is whatever the genre is in the book in front of me, or the story that I am penning at the time. I learned early that words are my passion and the arrangement of words are where I want to dwell. My love of reading was encouraged by my favorite uncle who many in my family always said would read a matchbook cover if nothing else were available. I purposefully and intentionally inherited that habit. Cultivating that ideal has given me many thousands of hours of solace and excitement. Focusing on a single literary denomination lessens the magic, or might possibly make it go away. a singular attitude on literature can and , in me, create a feeling of imprisonment. My resolve in writing must be constantly nurtured in order to perpetuate the wonder of the story, either in front of me or coming out of me. To pigeonhole oneself into a single restrictive region of literature is nothing short if incarceration of the soul.
Great post and well written. Thank you!
You are so welcome, Lloyd. Let the pigeons have the holes. I’m so glad you found some merit in my words.
That was a truly amazing read. Thank you
I’m humbled to read that, Jordan. Thank you for reading.
Excellent article, Susan! It’s okay to cheat on your genre every once in awhile, it could bring spice, and different angles to your writing. I find some genres publish seasonally, and readers flock to those during that season. The beach reads and the genre material usually comes out starting around May, such as romance. If you have a book that comes out around a certain period such as a Valentine’s Day murder then you’re going to do it in February, even though it seems like everything is sweet and nice.
Anita, I’m so glad to have your thoughts! I have a “beach read” coming out on August 1st. A little late perhaps, but like my first book it’s a comic cozy and perfect for the last lazy days of summer. I hope you have a good one.
Susan, your post inspired me to move beyond my genre — business writing (yawn) — and try to pen a mystery novel. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Thanks for the inspiration.
Val, you comment really heartens me. All the best as you begin your next writing adventure!
Thanks for the incentive, Susan!
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