Writers and genre pigeonholes

Considering the fact that a few short days ago I'd stated we were going to go over dealing with being stuck in specific genres as writers, I was excited when a rather timely article appeared yesterday on Flavorwire titled, 10 Great Authors We Should All Stop Pigeonholing. In the article, Ms. Temple highlights ten authors whom most readers and writers alike are very familiar with (including Ray Bradberry, Jack London, and C.S. Lewis).  She points out that though we have labeled them in our minds and in the marketplace (some for many decades), all ten writers could have (and did/do) write/sell work in other genres.

I looked up the word "pigeonhole", just to see what kind of definition would come up. Oxford's online  dictionary actually uses a writer as one of its examples:


[with object]
  • 1assign to a particular category, typically an overly restrictive one:I was pigeonholed as a ‘youth writer’
  • 2put (a document) in a pigeonhole:he pigeonholed his charts and notes
  • put aside for future consideration:she pigeonholed her worry about him

Notice how the category is described? ...typically an overly restrictive one. I guess in a way, it's nice to know that this problem isn't new--writers have been dealing with the lack of categorical freedom for a long time. (Because in the long run--and the short run, too--it's all about the way to make the most profit. And not necessarily for the author.) That doesn't exactly make it any easier, however. Does it? I came across a few articles while going over this, and thought I'd share two.

First, quite a while back I watched a documentary on type-casting. The director featured famous actors--some who had been stuck in the same stereotypical role for a long time, and others who'd been able to step over that "pigeonhole labeling" category and move on to something different (and many times, even better). Now, I can't remember many of the actors anymore (it really has a been a while since I watched it), but I'll never forget this guy:
Stephen Tobolowsky Picture

(picture courtesy of Todd Wilson/ IMDB)

Recognize him? His name is Stephen Tobolowsky. More often than not, he's played quirky, awkward characters who never had a chance at much of a social life.

The documentary pointed out that though Mr. Tobolowsky was a great actor, he had definitely been type-cast, and that action wasn't an easy thing for him to reverse. Some of you may not know Mr. Tobolowsky's face, but he has a very distinct voice. And things have obviously changed over the past few years, because he is now the voice of the Discover Card's 5% cashback commercials. Doesn't sound awkward at all in those commercials to me! You go, Mr. Tobolowsky!

So see, no one is doomed to be type-cast forever! Same goes for writing. The problem is, we writers usually don't get to make that choice.

Back in September, author Dan Thompson posted a blog titled "Avoiding the Genre Trap"  on his blog, Making It Up As I Go. He specifically talks "the literary equivalent of type-casting". The part that really stood out to me is below:

One author described how his advances became something of a trap, because he felt he could no longer afford to branch out and try a different genre or experiment with some of his stranger ideas. While it might make a fabulous novel, even a commercially successful one, he knew he could never sell something that different on a proposal. So he stuck with what he knew, living from one advance to the next.
Most of all that, of course, is second or third hand information, but I confess that this is one of the things that pushed me towards self-publishing. I did not want to find myself in the position of writing a particular book simply because it was a lot like the last one. That’s hardly the only reason I went that way, but it did enter into my thinking.

This is exactly what so many authors are stuck with, worrying about, or trying to determine whether or not they want to push through on their own without the help of a traditional publisher. It's kind of the same problem I am having--PITY ISN'T AN OPTION is dystopian, technically, and yet agents have specifically told me that it is "not dystopian enough". Here's the deal, though. I do not want to make it any more dystopian. Therefore, we're at an impasse... because unless the entire storyline changes (taking away from the whole point of it in the first place), PITY has to stay like it is. (Am I holding anything against these agents for their comments? No. It's not their fault the market is labeled so black and white, nor is it their fault that I'm just another anonymous person out in the writerly world trying to get my book into people's hearts.)

So it looks as though more and more writers are going to go self-pub. To think that writing one way actually inhibits you to write another later on is strange. To think that writing what you love makes it difficult to share is just plain sad.

Funny how, even five years ago, this was more faux pas than it is now. Funny how, in a few short weeks, you can go from editing the last draft of your manuscript to publishing it on a website, and boom.... There it is for all to digitally purchase and read. Funny how agents and (famous) writers alike like to say, don't worry about a specific genre or if it's insanely marketable, "write what you love!" (There are articles all over the internet but one example is here.*)  Then, they immediately tell you "Hey, yeah... I can't market this."

Okay, so it's really not that funny.

Way back when, people thought self-publishing was a curse. Interesting how now, writers all over the world consider it a blessing. (As do readers lately, it seems). Things are a-changing, my friends.

Consider what agent Sara Megibow, from Nelson Literary Agency, tweeted yesterday: If publishing becomes more like music (possible) then there will be a few HUGELY commercially successful authors (both trad and self pub)...

See, now, I'm fine with that. I think *most* writers who are struggling to get their work under readers' noses would be fine with that, too! The whole point of getting through the drafts and the words and the love and the angst of writing isn't to stuff it under a box and walk away, it's to allow others the gift of seeing the end of your journey!

So, friends, what is your take on all this? Would you 

a) write FOR the market, and in doing so, label your work a specific genre in order to have a higher chance of getting it to go somewhere (and/or even completely revise your work to have more of a chance at traditional publishing), 

b) write for your HEART, and then after all is said and edited, go about trying to squeeze it into one genre


c) try to do a little bit of both?

And if the genre label/type-cast/pigeonhole wasn't working for you, would you rewrite it all, or lean toward self-publishing in order to keep your story true?

I would love to see your responses (along with examples of genres people have used/bent themselves that aren't particularly traditional) below!


*I am in no way dogging this agent or her response to the question or her opinion on the matter... just showing one quick example of advice offered all over the interwebs from the literary world. 

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