The Shame of Genre

I’m a firm believer in drawing life lessons from various places, and then applying them to completely different topics. Call me the Miss Marple of the blog world, sans the mystery solving thing. (If you don’t know what that means, then you need to read some Agatha Christie).

So, HIM, a rock/pop band from Finland, fronted by Ville Valo, has recently released their newest album, Screamworks. The reviews I’ve read of it, and even my own thoughts on it, have prompted me to think about genre writing a good deal. One thing I’ve been thinking about is that there seems to be an element of “shame” associated with some genres, such as Romance or Vampires/paranormal (And watch out if you put those together!). It’s as if you should be embarrassed to write them because they aren’t “real” enough. In fact, one friend of mine said “Let me know when you write something real, and I’ll buy that.”

Because of this shameful stigma, I think a lot of would be genre writers try their hardest to stay away from the genre’s that they’re really the happiest writing, or they try to package their genre book as something else. They manipulate the description to turn it into anything but what it really is, they might even edit it to inject bits of something else between the paragraphs, to try to fool their readers. But, no one’s fooled at all.

This makes me think of the band HIM because out of the many, many interviews and videos I’ve enjoyed, one thing always stands out. Poor Ville wants nothing more than to be the front man in a metal band. He’s even tried to call their brand of music Love Metal, and the music to many of the songs has an almost metal edge, but no matter what he does, no matter how he packages it, it all goes back to a catchy synthpop with lyrics about love, death, graves and tombs because, deep down, this is what Ville is good at. This is how his mind works, and it’s probably the thing that really appeals to him, especially considering he sights Poe and Baudelaire as some of his favorite works. But, like many writing genres, there’s definitely a stigma attached to a man in his thirties who is writing synthpop about broken hearts and tombstones.

Or is there?

HIM is the first Finish band to have a gold album in the United States. In it’s first week, their new album debuted at number 25 on the Billboard 200 and the album before debuted at number 12 – and that’s just in America. My point? For being a “genre” band with “nothing to say” they seem to have a lot of fans, and not just any fans, either. HIM fans seem to me to be some of the most obsessive, intensely loyal, nearly fanatical fans I’ve ever come in contact with.  That says to me that they must be doing something right.

And it’s not just HIM.  Look at genre book fans; Twilight, anyone? Whether you’re a fan or not, you’ve surely noticed the thousands of fan groups, email signatures, icon graphics and more that are plastered on every corner of the internet. They sure don’t think that genre fiction is anything to be ashamed of, so why do genre writers let other people tell us that it is?  Why do some of us try so hard to be something – anything – else, like Owen Wilson’s character in Marley and Me who was a natural columnist and yet spent the entire movie trying to be a journalist just because “a columnist isn’t a ‘real’ journalist”.

Well, who decides what’s real? Someone sitting on a stack of dusty literary, socially relevant books that people buy just to look good in their bookcase? Or someone who is writing books that people enjoy, even if they list them as a “guilty pleasure”? Though, the question does arise, why must they be a “guilty” pleasure? Is it because the reader has also been shamed by our literary minded society, so that they’re embarrassed to admit what they like?

Back to the new HIM album. All the reviews I’ve read say the same thing, that this album is “like their other albums” and that they are like several other bands out there (I beg to differ on this one, but then I’m looking only at the lyrics, not the whole package). All of the reviewers say this as if it’s a BAD thing, and as a consumer we tend to draw the same conclusion:

“Oh dear, more of the same old, same old.”

But, you know what? When they mixed it up in Venus Doom, most of the HIM fans were crying in their heartagram hoodies because it wasn’t what they wanted. They say “Man, we want something fresh”, but they don’t really. They want more of the same old, same old, because that same old is what they liked about the band in the first place!

The same goes with genre books. It’s as if every vampire or romance or mystery book that is written is expected to “rewrite the genre” and if it doesn’t, it’s chalked up as “same old, same old”. Let’s completely overlook the fact that everything that can be done has been done (Even that amazing movie Avatar that everyone is so rightly praising as original and amazing has the same old, same old storyline!) and go straight to this question: If you’ve rewritten the genre, then does that mean it’s even a part of that genre anymore? Doesn’t that make it its own genre?

Maybe I’m just too literal. I’ve been accused of that before, but I don’t think so. I know if I go looking for a romance novel there are several things I expect to see, and if I don’t then I’m disappointed. The same goes for vampires. I don’t want the author to try to be clever and make her vampires sparkle in daylight (sorry, I just can not embrace that), I want a good old vampire that turns to ashes in sunlight. I want some blood, I want some gore, I want some sex, and I want some good old fashioned fighting and, if they can work it in, I’d like to see some emo winging. Maybe I’m just paranormally-old-fashioned, but I don’t think being compared to Anne Rice is a bad thing! I happen to think that’s pretty damn spectacular, since I think she’s got some of the best vampires going.

So, why, if everyone really wants the same thing, do they complain that everything is so “unoriginal”? Why is the “same old” romance or mystery or thriller or vampire formula frowned on? Why should every book rewrite the genre, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the genre in the first place? Am I the only one in the world thinking, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

4 thoughts on “The Shame of Genre

  1. Stephannie Beman February 23, 2010 / 2:52 pm

    I liked this post. It is so true what you said about some people, me included somedays, striving for something so hard only to find we really didn’t like it or it didn’t really make us happy in the end. Sometimes we just need to do what makes us happy and screw everyone who wants us to do differently.

    • joleenenaylor February 24, 2010 / 6:58 am

      Yep! I fell into the same hole; I kept thinking “no, no! I can;t be a romance author! Not romance! Anything but vampire romance!” but the book is pretty much a vampire romance. i added thriller on the advice of someone who said it had too much gore and not a definitive conclusion to their romance, aka no happily ever after, so i needed to put it somewhere else, but really, that’s where it goes. it’s fascinating sometimes how hard it is to accept ourselves the way we are.

  2. ruthannnordin February 23, 2010 / 11:57 pm

    That’s probably one of the hardest parts about being an author. People’s tastes vary so widely that there’s bound to be a critic in the crowd. The problem is that the author has to write the book, and if the book doesn’t come from the heart, then what’s the point? The book will come out flat. Maybe that’s why a plot can sound interesting to me but when I start reading the book, I lose interest. As subtle as it is, I think the books written with passion are those that grab the reader the most.

    As for romance, vampires, and other taboo topics, there is a reason why those sell well. And regardless of what those “enlightened” (aka snobby) people might want to believe, I think the majority of people have much more fun reading the story than most of us realize. There’s a reason why romance and paranormals sell as well as they do.

    It really gets under my skin when people give me the “Oh, romance…and you include…it?” spiel. I’m sure you get the same thing with a vampire romance. I’ve seen blogs dedicated to anti-vampire-anything sentiment, so you have to have it worse than me. 🙂

    • joleenenaylor February 24, 2010 / 7:01 am

      Ha ha! yes, and twilight, for all the boost it supposedly gave the vampire genre, really made it worse because before when you said vampire people at least thought of Anne Rice and Laurel K. hamilton and now they automatically think “Twilight” and try to package my book as some junior high romance. I don’t know how many parents of twelve year olds I have said, “Um, you should read it first” to. Though hubby told me to shut up because it is cutting into my sales, LOL! (I think he was joking…)

      Exactly! Like I was telling hubby the other day, people want things that transport them away from the reality they’re in, especially the worse the economy gets. And those hard hitting, literary books are nice, but they don’t exactly deliver that. It’s the “guilty pleasure” books that do!

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