A hierarchy of genres?

A few weeks ago I commented on Cindy Dyson’s breakout from nonfiction to fiction, which led to a nice thread on whether there’s a hierarchy of genres. For the record, Dyson wrote in what’s generally a work-for-hire field: series biographies for young readers. So her breakout was from contract work to selling a novel on spec, which is at the very least a whole different ball of wax.

There’s nothing wrong with work for hire – I’ve done it myself and will do it again as I need cash. But all things being equal, I’d rather write something more creative and challenging. For me, that’s fiction. For someone else, it might be essays or poetry. Others love the multiple challenges (and the sometimes more dependable income) of freelancing and contract work.

With no space to linger and every word at a premium, short forms like essays, poetry, or even picture books for children are tough. Still, it’s a plain fact that, all things being equal, a poet will produce more poems and an essayist more essays than a novelist will produce books. Since it takes so long to write – and as David Stevenson points out, there are so many ways to go wrong – is the novel ultimately superior to the short story? Is there an assumptions that essayists must secretly aspire to book-length nonfiction?

Then there’s writing for children – obviously a breeze, since celebrities crank out kids’ books right and left. Literary vs. commercial? MFA snobbery? Shut the door, quick, because now we’re treading over dark and sticky ground.

At 49 writers, we aim to cover all genres, promoting inclusion rather than exclusion. That being said, tiptoeing around perceived hierarchies and prejudices serves only to prolong them. Writers, have you found yourselves stammering an almost-apology for writing “only” in a certain genre? If you write in one genre but aspire to another, is that evidence the hierarchy is alive and well? Are some genres harder to write? More challenging to read? Will we – or should we – ever stamp out the notion that some kinds of writing are better – or harder – than others?

4 thoughts on “A hierarchy of genres?”

  1. For me, the difference between an essay and a full-length nonfiction book is largely a matter of focus. Is the topic interesting (and yielding) enough to keep my attention for several years? Structurally, transitioning from essay to “full-length” (the bias even creeps into this hyphenated phrase) nonfiction is not a problem: the essay paragraph functions like and looks similar to the book chapter. (I don’t know if the same holds for the dynamic between short story and novel.)

    As a writer of not “just” (see, again: I really have to watch myself) nonfiction but of “narrative nonfiction,” I am borrowing narrative / stylistic techniques from fiction — as such, creative nonfiction really is a hybrid genre. (And sometimes I can’t help thinking that our lot is the harder one. We have to stick to “the facts,” while fictionistas can always “make up stuff.” (I know this is oversimplification, as much fiction is also thoroughly researched and some nonfiction, some of the best, actually, very short on “hard facts.”)

    I think the genre you preferentially work in is mostly a reflection of your artistic temperament / interests and as such helps with your self-definition as a writer. You can expand within that genre — by experimenting — or by branching out into another.

  2. Certainly much of the dialogue and decision-making reflects temperment and interests, but I suspect there are value judgments as well. I know smart, avid readers who deplore fiction. Why waste your time reading (or writing, by implication) something that’s not true, they reason.

    I also suspect some of us write other stuff as we make our way to our preferred genres, mostly out of necessity but sometimes because we’re scrambling to find where we fit.

    I do think nonfiction is more practical because you can pitch a proposal instead of a finished project. Beginning novelists – and sometimes even the well-pubbed – have to fumble around with whole books at a time, with no guarantee of a contract.

  3. Deb,

    My understanding was that novelists, too, can get away with pitching sample chapters and outlines of the rest of the chapters in a proposal? (Which may change significantly in the final form.)

    I find the comment about “truth” rather hackneyed: the truth to be found in fiction is of a different kind. I read fiction voraciously, in part to distract myself from my own kind of writing, but also to learn some new tricks. (Among other reasons.)

  4. Some novelists can pitch a partial. Sometimes. But I have good friends, much better pubbed than I, earning hefty advances, whose editors make them finish even optioned books before offering contracts. Some even have to rewrite on spec. Especially in this market.

    Yesterday agent Nathan Bransford’s blog consisted of a one-word post: NO. Which answered the question posed in the post title: Can an unpublished novelist submit an unfinished manuscript?

    Different answer if the question assumes an unpublished writer with a nonfiction proposal, though with nonfiction the question of the writer’s expertise (in the subject) enters in. The lucky fiction writer just has to be an expert at making things up.

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