Storyville: 10 Hot, Emerging, and Underappreciated Genres
These days, quite often I find myself writing similar stories, with the same old protagonists and situations. So I’m always looking for a new way to build worlds, to fray emotions, to explore the darker sides of humanity. If you are also in a rut and want to try out something new, here are ten genres that are heating up—why not give them a whirl? Sure, in the end, you may end up sending them to the same fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary publications, but why not try something new, see where it takes you?
I did not read the classic Western novels growing up. You won’t find any Louis L’Amour on my bookshelves, or even much Elmore Leonard or Larry McMurtry, when they dabbled. No, when I think of Westerns, I think of two authors—Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King. Weird, huh? I mean, Cormac, sure, you can see how in a contemporary setting some of his work falls into this category, there are in fact cowboys and Indians (kind of) in Blood Meridian, all kinds of outlaws. But King? I guess when I think of Westerns, I always come back to the Dark Tower, with Roland, the Gunslinger. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to write a Western set in the 1800s. So for me, the only way to get there is to weird it up. I was encouraged, recently, by a serial short story by Nik Korpon, “A Hundred for the Crows,” over at The Big Adios. I guess in the way that blues and jazz influenced rock and roll which influenced country and western which influenced rap, it’s all connected, right? Noir is crime is western is horror is fantasy. So, dig in and see what you can come up with, and then slide that story to whatever market fits. Southern gothic is really contemporary Westerns, right? You can find plenty of stories by Stephen Graham Jones set in Texas, and McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men can also show you how to set a Western in modern times. Just write it, it’ll fit someplace.
If you’ve gotten bored with the traditional fantasy and science fiction, why not dip your toe in the world that is steampunk? What I love about this unique sub-genre is that it has a bunch of rules, and yet, you can do whatever the hell you want. Steam power is what defines it, a unique mix of past and present, but beyond that, you can really develop your worlds and mix it up however you see fit. Often these stories tap into an alternative history, either past or near future. What would have happened if the Germans won World War II? Mix in some British 19th century or even part of the American Wild West (see above) and then toss in a few airships and other strange mechanical devices. I always felt there was a bit of the steampunk in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, but more common examples of the genre are attributed to William Gibson (The Difference Engine), Scott Westerfield (Leviathan), Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl) and Cherie Priest (Boneshaker). Do some research, get your history right, and then see where it takes you. I don’t write a lot of what I’d call classic steampunk, because I don’t have a lot of faith in my science fiction. My story “Maker of Flight” at ChiZine is about close as I get, with a lone man making mechanical birds, trapped in a tower, as the world moves on around him.
3. Magical Realism
Now this is a genre I’ve been having a lot of fun writing lately. Depending on how you write your story or novel this work can work for fantasy, horror or literary publications. What makes it appealing to the literary world is that it’s typically grounded in reality. So it’s a familiar setting, familiar people, with a story that takes a strange turn someplace. I’m seeing more and more of these stories appearing not only in elite literary journals, but also the Best American Short Stories anthologies every year—it’s very encouraging. While many will cite Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the reference points, I prefer to look at more contemporary examples, such as Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell. A lot of this work will slip in and out of genres (see slipstream) with a wide range of voices—some magical, some weird, some surreal, and some dark. Two of my stories that come to mind are “Fireflies” and “Flowers for Jessica” because both have unexplained moments, such as the ghost of a woman made out of fireflies, wolves that have human traits, and a dead wife that comes back to life as a plant. Often these stories are not fully explained, letting the “magic” and a suspension of disbelief carry the story forward. Why couldn’t you wake up one day as a cockroach? Why couldn’t a girl be raised by wild animals? Maybe there really are vampires in the lemon grove. What I like about magical realism, as well, is quite often there is a lightness, a sense of love, nostalgia, and even romance at the center of the story. If you look at classic fairy tales, many rely on the children getting home safe, the wolf getting slaughtered, the witch getting caught, the troll getting killed, right? There is an element of hope, at times, that I like. Sure, the stories can go wrong, there is black magic, there is tragedy to be explored as well, but there seem to be more opportunities to play in the light, as well. Magic!
I don’t think I have to mention Fifty Shades of Grey to let you know that outside of the world of hardcore pornography there is a market for erotica. Those books sold to somebody, right? But this kind of writing has been around for a long time. You could look to D. H. Lawrence for a contemporary example of an author that wrote erotic fiction, as well as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin. But while there is certainly a market for erotic literature, you might be better served working those erotic moments into your other fiction, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, horror, or straight literary writing. Unless you really want to take on a market like E.L. James did with her work, there’s nothing wrong with bringing some heat to your stories or novels. But make sure that you don’t let the sex dissolve into pornography, there needs to be motivation behind the writing, and it has to fit your characters. I think of Mary Gaitskill as a perfect example (Bad Behavior) and the movie Secretary that was based on her story of the same name. You can touch on the deviations, the fetishes and secrets of your characters, it will give your story depth, and a rush of a thrill to your reader. As with any genre, there are rules, and ways to make the writing sing, so be careful about overdoing it, with insane descriptions of the male and female anatomy—pretty much leave it at cock and pussy, because I swear if you talk about her kitty or her cave of wonders, go on and on about his tallywacker or his one-eyed wonder worm, I’m going to start laughing. Sex is tricky to write, it’s all about the physical, the sensations, not a blow-by-blow account of the ins and outs of the bedroom business (puns intended).
I’ll just say that I’m not an expert on bizarre fiction, but there is definitely a bit of a cult following for these authors. Look to Bradley Sands, Carlton Mellick III, Jeremy C. Shipp, and D. Harlan Wilson if you want to get an idea of what to write. I believe that I’ve only written one story that I’d qualify as bizarro, about a couple that ended up getting animal body parts surgically attached in order to spice up their sex life. It was a funny story, quickly dissolving into the absurd, as in the end their flippers and elephant trunks rendered them cripples, unable to run away from the Japanese zookeeper that bought them online. You can get away with just about anything in bizarro, with stories being purposefully strange, absurd, and surreal. You can go dark, or you can go light. Often called the bastard sons of William S. Burroughs and Dr. Seuss, bizarro novels can have titles like Satan Burger, Angel Dust Apocalypse, Ass Goblins of Auschwitz and Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy. The work should be strange, but fun to read, thought provoking as well as satirical. Eraserhead Press and Raw Dog Screaming Press are at the center of this movement, so look them up, and dig deeper.
6. The Grotesque
This is a tricky sub-genre or subset, but definitely focuses on things that I enjoy writing—characters in tough situations, often these once-in-a-lifetime, crossroad moments, where things will never be the same. You can look at the grotesque as being the strange, the bizarre, the weird, the gross—imagine the circus sideshow for example, or underground sex clubs. It can be a secret, a hidden truth or wonder, something that taps into dark magic, urban legend, or spooky lore. Or it can be a Southern gothic, tapping into the freaks that Flannery O’Connor wrote about, a salesman willing to steal a girl’s wooden leg, a criminal on the run, a hermaphrodite lifting “his” skirt. These stories can also find a wide audience, leaning towards crime and noir, or the fantastic and magical, or straight literary. If you can find a way to rewrite Alice in Wonderland, then you’re on the right track. Also, see Brian Evenson, Matt Bell, Chuck Palahniuk, and Paul Tremblay.
I’m sure that you’re laughing, saying, “Richard, really, literary fiction is a hot, new genre?” Well, no. That’s not what I’m saying. What I mean by adding this category is that more and more authors who may have started writing genre fiction, whether as a reader growing up or an author just getting started, are finding ways to embrace the best of literary fiction, and tapping into that market. Just do a search on Duotrope and see how many literary markets there are compared to horror or crime or fantasy. (I found 1,738 literary markets, compared with 292 for horror, 365 for fantasy, 361 for science fiction, and 186 for crime/thrillers, with some overlap, I'm sure.) There is a huge audience out there for smart, layered stories that deal with universal issues. Think less plot focused, an elevated language, a slower pace, and a more thoughtful, serious tone. What’s been encouraging to me is that literary fiction is becoming more accepting of less conventional voices. While getting my MFA, I was always drawn to the dark sheep of the literary world—Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, and Haruki Murakami, for example. I’m seeing more and more literary fiction that isn’t afraid to write about sex, violence, loss, the fantastic, the magical, etc. In last year’s Best American Short Stories anthology, there were two stories accepted from Hobart, one by Roxane Gay, and one by Mike Meginnis. One deals with video games and the other with an African-American woman teaching in northern Michigan. Both tap into the humanity behind the unconventional settings. I can also remember recent work by Steven Millhauser and Eric Puchner that tapped into the fantasy and science fiction genres, using fable and myth. It’s very encouraging to see more and more literary publications accepting stories that ten years ago probably would have landed in a genre magazine.
I find this to be a very hard genre to write in, but often what it does is break the fourth wall and allow the author to be a part of the story, a story where the reader can shape the outcome, or a story where the book itself seeks interaction from the audience. I wrote a story called “Stephen King Ate My Brain” in which I was essentially the protagonist, going to meet King, where he eats part of my brain in order to stay young and brilliant, offering up a novel of his in return. When I wake up in a field in Conway, Arkansas, with a fuzzy memory and no book in hand, that’s the meta-fiction at work—crossing the lines between fiction and reality. I wrote another story that was essentially a “choose your own path” adventure story, “Splintered”, which ran in PANK. You could also look at House of Leaves as being a book that begs for your interaction. Play around with the various formats, see what’s been done before you, and then make it your own. Do your research and see how you can reinvent the short story, break barriers, and interact with your audience in a new way. It’s a fun way to break out of your usual story format and focus.
Now I don’t write a lot of humor, but if you do, then check out the concept known as satire. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but satire is essentially when you make fun of something. I can’t say it any better than Wikipedia: “Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement.” When I think of satire, I think of Kurt Vonnegut and several of his books, such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. You may also be reminded of Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World and Catch-22. Shoot, you might as well toss in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, Choke and Fight Club as well. But when it comes to short stories, I think of the work of George Saunders, and “Sea Oak” as well as the classic, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. Whatever your inspiration, take a look at the masters and see if there isn’t some way to make fun of, or point out the absurdity of current events—from politics and sexual inequality, to racism and homophobia, to the many ways that utopias and dystopias might unfold.
The final genre, or sub-genre, is slipstream. Closely related to magical realism, bizarro, surrealism, and the new weird (noird), it simply takes the best of fantasy, science fiction and literary writing to create a new hybrid of non-realistic fiction. Often the story will slip in and out of reality, so that you aren’t sure what is really happening on the page, and what is in the imagination of the protagonist. It’s been said that one trait of slipstream fiction is a “cognitive dissonance,” the discomfort of holding onto two contradictory beliefs at the same time. These can be emotions, beliefs, values or ideas. I’m a big fan of Steve Erickson, and think his novels fit nicely into this category, such as The Sea Came in at Midnight, as well as Crash by JG Ballard, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I think of films such as Memento, The Tree of Life, and even The Matrix. In the end, just have fun with the genre, study the stories, books and films that touch on it, and see where you can take your own work.
As I’ve said before, slapping labels on your work isn’t that important when you’re creating something, just write the story that you want to write. But if you can find inspiration by studying something different, then you can grow as an author. Knowing some of these terms can also help you if you ever see a call for fiction, and they specifically ask for something that is satire, magical realism, or steampunk. I hope that by stretching yourself as an artist, by discovering new voices, and pushing your own work to try new formats, voices, and settings, that you can keep challenging yourself, and never get bored with what you’re doing.
What new genres are you currently taking on?
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