Genre Bias and the Hurdles of Discovery

A few days ago, I was contacted by a reader who is currently enjoyed CONVERGENCE and is five chapters deep. We had a brief conversation over e-mail and she admitted that she was not really a fan of the sci-fi genre, but my book's description swayed her enough to give it a shot. First off, I was humbled and amazed. It was a great feeling to be contacted and to be able to converse a bit and learn more about her typical reading selections. I got to thinking about that genre divide that we, as readers, kind of build up on our own and curate with our own set of expectations. She said that maybe she just hadn't known what she was missing by passing up this genre, and I think that's a statement we can all take a moment to reflect on and ponder our own genre prejudices and why it's so important to, every once in a while, attempt to reach out and expose ourselves to unfamiliar things.

Now, I like and enjoy sci-fi in general. But, I also have a bit of a prejudicial streak when it comes to this genre. While I certainly like Star Wars and Star Trek, I will typically avoid these types of stories when I'm jonesing for a sci-fi book. I have a really hard time getting into alien cultures and fanciful names on page, so I typically eschew these literary works, leaving these elements for enjoyment on the silver screen or in video games. I am much more apt to lean towards Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series or his novel Thirteen, where we have a more conceptual sci-fi aspect to it, like advanced tech or future dystopias. When Joss Whedon was developing Firefly, one of the mandates was no aliens, if only because humans were antagonistic enough on their own and so varied in their cultures and beliefs that you didn't need to create exotic, heavily made-up stand-ins. While I'm certainly not looking for a documentarian approach to sci-fi, I do find the genre more palatable when it's a bit more grounded and Earth-based.

When I was writing CONVERGENCE, one of my main goals was to keep the story relatable and human. While the technology is advanced, it's not so far advanced as to be implausible (IMHO, but YMMV) and much of it is based on real-world tech. Some of this tech, if I can crib slightly from Max Headroom, is coming at you live 20 minutes into the future. But the settings, the motivations, the duplicity, the characters - all very human. In fact, as the story grew and the writing process went on, I sometimes had to remind myself that I was writing a sci-fi thriller, rather than just a thriller. Strip away the tech and the future setting, and it could easily be a modern-day thriller in the vein of Barry Eisler, Lee Child or Vince Flynn. But, tweak the world stage a little bit, toss into a future that's seemingly right around the corner along with tomorrow's technologies, and it's science fiction. For me, the science aspect of sci-fi was vital. Mostly, I just wasn't interested in telling a space-alien story, and I kind of have to remind myself that the sci-fi genre is certainly far more open and flexible than that single more commonly well-known approach. For some people, that's their bread and butter, and some authors pull it off with incredible finesse and skill. That's just not me, for the most part, but if the story is engaging and can suck me in, I'm happy to go along for the ride. In fact, I should broaden my exposure to sci-fi works simply in the hopes of finding those stories that challenge my expectations and break apart my own preconceived biases.

The thing is, though, I totally get where my reader was coming from when she reflects on not knowing what exactly she was missing by passing up the genre. Ten years ago I was privately scoffing some adults I knew who were reading the Harry Potter series. Until, of course, I became one of those readers and realized that the young adult genre does not automatically equate to kids stuff. And, really, as a comic book fan and video game player, I should have known better. How many people routinely besmirch adult comic book readers and gamers for enjoying "kid's stuff?" And how many of those people would blush and turn away if presented with any random page from Preacher or Transmetropolitan? Could they really so easily dismiss Mass Effect or the Call of Duty franchise? Yet, there I was, hyped up on my own sense of self-importance as to what qualifies as worthwhile in the literary sphere and making blind judgement calls on works simply based on a vague, hazy, ill-defined genre label. It's important to experience new things, but it's even more important to just get the hell over yourself enough to be willing to try new things.

Whether or not we realize it, we are prejudiced readers. In fact, it's important that we do realize this simply so that we can work to overcome it and expose ourselves to a greater sampling of the works available to us. Recently, I read THE WAKING DARK, which if had not known it was young adult I would have automatically listed it as a horror novel. Chuck Wendig's cornpunk trilogy, starting with UNDER THE EMPYREAN SKY, is another one I probably would have passed on simply for being YA, if the author hadn't been a known quantity and deciding factor to go for it. And again, if I hadn't of know it was young adult going in I wouldn't have consciously realized it or labeled it as such. What I've learned over the last few years is, simply because a book is classified as one thing it is not solely defined by that single limiting classification. Young Adult is a book that just so happens to have a young adult/new adult cast, often times dealing with very adult subjects. Kind of like how CONVERGENCE is a thriller that just happens to have some sci-fi elements to it. These novels are so much more than a mere one-word qualifier.

As readers, we can't let these classifications get the best of us. I will concede, though, that sometimes certain genres just aren't our cup of tea. And that's OK. I have a difficult time getting into fantasy outside of George RR Martin, R. Scott Bakker, or (again) Richard K. Morgan. Maybe I just like the grimmdark stuff, I dunno. The few times I tried to go outside of these authors were with mixed results, but mostly disappointment (for instance, I like The Lord of the Rings films, but was bored to death by the books). That said, I have yet to completely swear-off the fantasy genre and am always looking for a new "in" to this segment of stories. While I can't quite get into straight-up fantasy, I have an easier time digging into urban fantasy, like Wendig's Miriam Black series, or Buffy and Angel, and, again, I think a lot of this has to do with the familiar setting and relatable, mostly human, characters

Sometimes we readers get into a groove with certain types of books that it puts blinders on us to the larger world of stories and methods of storytelling. Right now, I'm on a huge horror kick, but there was a time I wouldn't read outside of the mystery genre. If it wasn't a Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane book, I wouldn't read it. Then I became a horror fan after discovering Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Then I found out about John Connolly, who was masterfully crafting horror-mystery-thrillers with his PI Charlie Parker series. These authors opened up multiple avenues into different worlds for me, and I started to glom onto the importance of looking at different genres. The mystery, and then horror, shelves ended up being a gateway drug to other works and mishmash literature.

This year, to take things further, I'm making a concerted effort to not only explore other genres, and trying to read more non-fictions, which I've been sorely negligent on, but to also actively try to read more female authors. So many of my typical go-to authors are white males. I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing, but I do think it's important to branch out and get a different perspective on the world and to find some works by non-white guys. Again, it's part of that whole growing, challenging, and learning thing that I think we all need to do if for no other reason than our own personal betterment.

The literary world is such a deep, expansive ocean that I cannot think of a single good reason to limit my reading selections to a tiny, shallow pool, deliberately or otherwise.

So, what are your suggestions, comments, critiques? What books or authors do you recommend to a non-genre fan to pique their interest and get them to read outside their comfort zone? What were some of your gateway books into other genres and authors? What shakes up the standards conventions and gets your roaring to read? Sound off below!

Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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