As a young girl, I remember sitting behind a table at the homeschool discount book fair in Derby, KS, hawking the textbooks from our previous year of schooling. There was nothing else to do, really, other than sit there and look pitiful so that people would stop to peruse our selection.
This mom stopped at our table with her two kids and asked if we had books for reading. I pointed to the literature book from the past year. She thumbed through it, wrinkled her nose, and set it down again. “We don’t read fiction,” she said and then bustled her children away from our table as though my perceived love of make-believe might be contagious.
Really? Seriously? Don’t read fiction? So they only read biographies and what—cookbooks?
My first reaction was think them snobs. How else do you react when you meet someone who treats something you love with such distaste?
Of course, they probably weren’t snobs. That lady was probably just very passionate about her beliefs. It was years ago (decades ago, if I’m being honest). So surely readers don’t suffer from that same idea in today’s world, right?
Well, I’m sure there are some out there that don’t approve of reading fiction, but more often than not, those aren’t the people I encounter. The people I meet now only read specific genres.
Believe me, I totally get it.
I’m busy. My life is a constant blur of motion. If I’m not running from point A to point B like a chicken with my head cut off, I’m sitting in place typing frantically to hit my next deadline. When I get time to read, I want to make sure it’s something I know I’m going to like. If I am going to take the time to invest in a story long enough to read it to completion, I want to pick something that I enjoy. And, frankly, there are just some genres that I don’t like as well as others.
I am not a fan of romance, Amish or otherwise. I’m also not a big fan of comedy, westerns, political thrillers, and horror. If I had to pick a genre that I’ll always read, it’ll either be fantasy or science fiction. That’s my default. That’s the way my brain is wired.
But does that mean I should never read another genre?
For all our talk against stereotyping, we sure do like labels on our novels. We need to describe them to other people, after all. And that’s so important, but we should never underestimate what we can learn from genres outside our preferences.
I have learned more than I can share about writing from books in genres I don’t generally read. Here are just a few that have taught me invaluable lessons about character, dialog, setting, and other essential writing tools (click the images to get them on Amazon).
by Jane Austen is literary romance, and it’s one of my favorite books of all time. The reason why? Jane Austen has the most sarcastic sense of humor of just about anyone I’ve ever read. She incorporates her hilarious point of view into the characters and crafts dialog that’s witty and engaging.
by Janet Evanovich is a strange combination of action, comedy, and romance. Not usually my cup of tea. The twenty-book series follows Stephanie Plum, a laid-off lingerie saleswoman who decides to become a bounty hunter. I have never laughed so hard while reading a book as I did with these. Evanovich is able to perfectly describe the slapstick humor and physical comedy in a way that doesn’t feel recycled.
by Craig Johnson is potentially the last book I would have ever read. I don’t like mysteries, and I don’t like westerns. But I love the Longmire television show, which is where the story concept came from. And what I found in The Cold Dish is certainly a western and certainly a mystery, but it’s couched in some of the most beautiful setting descriptions I’ve ever read.
by Deborah Harkness is another odd duck. Historical romance primarily, mixed with paranormal romance and time travel. It’s freakin’ brilliant. And if you’d just told me the genre, I would never have read it. But if I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t have gotten to experience a gorgeous story packed to the gills with intricate historical detail that never gets boring.
by Stephen King kept me on the edge of my seat as I read it. I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually reading a Stephen King book. Because I’d always thought Stephen King books were horrible, terrifying works of gore and evil. And Salem’s Lot is beautiful. A brilliant compilation of non-stop suspense without a single moment of gore.
by Stieg Larsson is a ridiculously intricate mystery full of political intrigue and Swedish socialism (and how it doesn’t work). Talk about a genre I’d never consider reading. And while it did drag in places, it was an invaluable read for me to understand how to craft a massive plot twist while giving tiny details along the way without revealing too much.
by William Golden dragged me into a culturally different world of pre-WWII Japan and kept me there for the whole book. It was so real I could smell the cherry blossoms, and when I finished it, I felt like I could walk around Japan and understand the why behind the what of their culture.
Read for the experience
None of those books is my preferred genre. None of those books would have interested me if I had only looked at their labels. But if I hadn’t read them, I wouldn’t have learned anything. I wouldn’t have seen through another author’s eyes. I wouldn’t have experienced other worlds, other cultures, other perspectives, and without that experience, my own writing becomes less vibrant.
We know not to judge a book by its cover. But, fellow readers and writers, I encourage us all not to judge a book by its genre. If you stop at a book’s label (that someone else probably slapped on it), you may miss out on one of the greatest stories you’ve ever read.