Know your genre…or your classics? Or both?

One of the pieces of writing advice I have heard frequently is to “Know your genre.” “Read deeply in your genre,” people say. “Know what has been written, and how your work differs from others.” When I talk to science fiction and fantasy fans, they are often amazed by how many sci-fi/fantasy books I haven’t read: I’m just now reading The Sword of Shannara, and I haven’t read any Robert Jordan, J. K. Rowling, or George R. R. Martin. My science fiction list is also rather limited, with Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card and only a few of the many books by Timothy Zahn making the most of the entries.

However, I’ve read a great many classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Trollope, Dickens, Dumas, and Austen, as well as those by somewhat lesser-known authors like Elizabeth Gaskill, Elizabeth Inchbald, Maria Edgeworth, and Samuel Richardson (none of whom are obscure, but they rarely appear on most people’s classic reading lists). Year by year, the list of classics which I haven’t read diminishes, and the list of fantasy and science fiction I haven’t touched (or at least, haven’t gotten past the descriptions) still grows. While I’m sure many of you have recommendations for books I haven’t read (which I readily welcome: I’m always in the hunt for good books), the question as it pertains to writers is which kind of reading helps one’s writing the most: classics or genre-specific novels, selected from lists of what are currently popular?

I’ve found that you truly need a little of each. To rebuff the advice of all those who say you need to know your genre would be sheer naïveté. You do need to know what has been written because you need to know what readers enjoy. In genre fiction especially, the readers of the other books in that genre are the very readers you are trying to reach, and knowing what made them enjoy (and not enjoy) a book is invaluable information because you do have to know your market (at least, if you are actually wanting to reach that market: if you are writing for yourself, you can find the most convenient hobbit hole in your area and move into it with the writing implements of your choice).

However, I think there is much to be said for knowing your classics as well, because these are the works that have lasted, and I don’t believe they gained their status just because someone decided they were part of a good education. Classics become classics because people read them, and bought them, and talked about them, and made movies out of them, and chose to keep them alive long after their authors were gone. The history of literature shows that, to be part of this group, one doesn’t have to be the most popular writer of one’s current generation, but one has to write well, to tell a story with characters that readers can care about even when the words you use to tell the story have long gone out of style.

These are the works that have the greatest impact in the course of time, though, leaving other “popular” works in the darkness of obscurity and honorable-mention in history books. They are the writers people know by last name alone, the writers that we assign to our children to read, and I think aspiring writers should study the technique of these masters just as much as that of the genre in which you write, especially in the quickly changing times in which we live. After all, in half a lifetime, what difference will it make if your writing was trendily in tune with that of the genre-as-a-whole when the genre-as-a-whole will have changed?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

3 thoughts on “Know your genre…or your classics? Or both?

  1. That’s marvelous point about not wanting to be merely trendy. I think I agree. And really, Tolkien didn’t just read fantasy since he practically invented the genre himself. He and people like C. S. Lewis drew on myth and history and Medieval literature and such, which is not exactly in their genre.

    Did they think in terms of genre at that time period or is that a more modern result of the way we publish and market?

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    1. I think the genres were still being defined but that they did seem to think in terms of audience, with novels of a certain type intended for a certain readership. Thus, Louisa May Alcott wrote a book for girls and we ended up with Little Women, and the reason for all the comments about “gentle readers” in books from the 1800s.

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