The Problem with Literary Genres

Over the past half century, academia has become increasingly specialized. This is especially true for the humanities. While it’s obviously impossible to study literature in its entirety, graduate students studying English tend to focus on a narrower and narrower swath of literature.

Specialization is understandable and even helpful given the sheer amount of extant literature—an impossible amount to absorb—but specialization has spilled over into related fields where it not always useful. Creative writing is one of them.

At most creative writing programs, students are defined largely by genre. Poets take most of their classes primarily with other poets, fiction writers study with fiction writers, and so on. This has been true in most programs since the advent of the MFA. While most programs require a cross-genre class or two—as my program did—it’s not always enough to prevent writers from identifying with only that genre.*

That’s a problem. Literary publishing is a small enough enclave as it is, and if you restrict yourself to a specific subset of the field, you won’t do your career (or your work, I’d argue) any good. By expanding beyond one genre, you can land additional publications, develop skills to make your writing better, and you can even get paid (enough for beer money at least).

This should seem obvious, but too often, it doesn’t. (In my case, it certainly didn’t.) That’s because literary writers often treat each genre like an entirely different discipline. But that sort of thinking is silly. Poets are not doomed only to write poetry. Each genre is simply a different approach to the same game. When it comes to writing, the basic skills are universal.

There are significant real-world benefits to dabbling in different writing styles. Outside of the literary publishing world, there are all sorts of established magazines, websites and organizations that need well-written content, or other writing-related services, and they often pay. (If they don’t, publication can at least help your writing become more visible.)

And there are really all sorts of opportunities. Here are just a few of the many disparate examples out there:

You can submit an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post

Submit a piece to Slate or Salon or any of the other online culture magazines.

Do some journalism or get science-y. Pitch a freelance non-fiction piece to your local alternative paper, do some science writing, or consider sending writing an article for your state’s conservation magazine.

Pitch a story to a blog or website you frequent. Some (not many) pay, but even if they don’t, if a blog is well-known, it’s a nice way to get your work out there. Examples include McSweeney’s, The Nervous Breakdown, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Good Men Project. I’ve done this myself and it led me to start thinking about other venues to consider, and to expanding what (and how) I write.

Send (your best!) work to the slicks: The Atlantic or the New Republic or the New Yorker. (What can it hurt?)

Freelance edit a genre book; many new genre writers are actively looking for editors but don’t know how to locate them; such folks can often be found via local chapters of genre-related organizations such as the Romance Writers of America or Mystery Writers of America. If you’ve never edited before, it’s a good way to get a feel for the proces.

Believe it or not, you can even send a query to Cat Fancy.

While it takes research (and sometimes a bit of creativity) to identify some of these publishing options, there are many, many others. Nonetheless, when I suggest these types of options (Write for a music blog! Write a fashion article!) to genre-dependent friends, I almost invariably get a shocked response of “ But I’m not trained for that!”

My response always is: If you’re serious about reading and writing, you’re already trained. If your query or your piece gets shot down, so what? Tack the rejection to the wall with the others.

Besides, if you don’t write that freelance article or that blog post, someone else will be enjoying the check, and the beer money.



* While my evidence is admittedly anecdotal, this was certainly the case for me and the other MFA alums I’ve discussed this issue with. Nonetheless, please note that this isn’t an argument against MFA programs—or mine!—as I think they can be quite useful.



  • Melissa says:

    Lots of interesting stuff here. I had two main reactions: one, as a person who was too cowardly to take a poetry workshop during my MFA program, and is only now, a couple of years out, going to force myself to jump in the deep end by taking one this summer. It’s not to make myself more marketable– I just want to learn and to play around with it a bit (yes, to dabble– please hold the tomato throwing.)
    My second reaction, however, was as a person that runs a literary festival. That side of me wants lots of people to have published in various genres or have experience submitting work, pitching stories, leading workshops, etc in genres or subject areas outside of what they’d consider their specialty. As you say, it makes them more marketable because there are more ways I can utilize their skills, which leads to more ways they get to show off how well-rounded they are: reading from fiction but leading a nonfiction workshop and sitting on a panel discussion about pitching freelance articles to regional magazines. That’s cool for me and them. I like your statement that “if you’re serious about reading and writing, you’re already trained” but I also think that sometimes, specialization isn’t a bad thing. Some people are significantly better at writing one genre versus another, so maybe they should just continue to improve what they’re good at– and maybe become great at it.

  • Brett says:

    “…but I also think that sometimes, specialization isn’t a bad thing. Some people are significantly better at writing one genre versus another, so maybe they should just continue to improve what they’re good at– and maybe become great at it.”

    I don’t disagree here; I don’t think everyone should diversify. But if they want to, I don’t think genre should be the only thing holding them back.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I think it also enhances the work you do in your main area of focus (or genre or whatever) to stretch beyond it. It’s good to get away from what you normally do. It’s good to stretch a little. And when you’re working in that “other” area that isn’t where you usually work, the stakes can feel lower, allowing for more experimentation and risk taking, and the development of new ideas or strategies or techniques that you can then bring back to your regular area of focus. Good things often happen for me when it feels like I don’t quite know what I’m doing.

  • Great points made here, by everyone…..while I primarily am focused on poetry, recently I’ve begun work on a play, and I’m finding writing dialogue to be very exciting
    “Stretching” is indeed a good thing.

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