Genres are useful to readers. A reader interested in thrillers is likely to be delighted in finding new thriller writers. A reader that likes experimental poetry is unlikely to be interested in an anthology of poems about nature inspired by Wordsworth. A reader that likes poet A may like poet B who writes in a similar style or on similar topics. A reader who likes a poetry book from a certain publisher would do well to explore the either books from that publisher since poetry publishers are either sole proprietors or a small team of editors with similar tastes. That won’t hold true for someone buying a novel from Penguin Random House. Categorising writing by genre is a useful signpost for readers who want to browse a book shop without checking every book on the (virtual) shelves.
Genres work less well when the categorisation is done by the writer, not the writing. A reader interested in one women writer won’t necessarily like all women writers. A reader interested in books set in South Africa won’t want to restrict themselves to reading only books set in South Africa written by South African writers since that would exclude books by writers set in South Africa who don’t identify as South African but may be living there and/or writing from extensive knowledge and research.
It can also trap writers into writing what’s expected of them or feeling straitjacketed into a specific genre. Some writers don’t want to experiment with genre, just like a pop princess isn’t going to write a death metal classic. But others do and it isn’t always sensible or practical to invent another identity just because book 2 is in a different genre to book 1. Sometimes what initially looked like a great idea for a romance turns into a psychological thriller on execution. It’s not a failure to admit your latest sonnet actually works better as a sestina or that your habit of writing free verse occasionally gets interrupted by a villanelle.
Genres stop being useful when they stop guiding readers to books they will enjoy and become a way of restricting writers. It’s even less useful to pretend there is a hierarchy of genres, as if writing in one genre is more difficult to achieve than writing in another or one genre is superior to another. This pretence of superiority allows writers to be sidelined because writers whose books are not considered literary fiction are assumed to be inferior. It allows poets to be asked when they are going to write a “proper book”, i.e. a novel. This hierarchy dismisses readers who don’t want their next choice of a book to be a challenging read but want to be entertained, terrified, swept away, taken to new worlds or discover a great new poet from the safety of their beach holiday.
What makes writing talent is a combination of two things: gift and craft. An innate love of words and desire to communicate stories will get you started but will only get you so far. A writer needs to learn their craft: how to shape a story or poem and how to develop their writing skills. A singer may have perfect pitch but they still need to learn the lyrics, how to regulate their breathing so they don’t run out of breath mid-way through a song and project their voice. The gift needs to be supported by technical ability. Craft is about cutting superfluity, honing the story or poem back to its essentials, allowing poem or story to find its form, creating fully dimensional characters and keeping a reader hooked. It is possible to write a technically perfect poem or story that’s boring to read because it’s too predictable or it tells us what we already know. A person who wants to write can learn the mechanics of writing but without the talent to explore divergent ways of thinking will fail to give their writing the spark to hook and keep a reader’s interest. Just as the best figure skaters combine artistic impression and technical merit, the best writers combine talent and craft.
No one genre is superior to another. Different genres have different purposes and place different demands on writers, but readers don’t read books for the same reason. Some want the writer to focus on the story and don’t care too much about the elegance of the prose. Some want the writer to focus on the scientific details and don’t care too much about the characters. Some want elegant, experimental prose and don’t care too much about the story. Some only want to see poems written in traditional forms and will reject anything that doesn’t rhyme.
Dismissing one genre as inferior to another is like dismissing someone else’s choice of an apple instead of an orange. Maybe they don’t like oranges. Maybe they’ll choose an orange tomorrow. If you plant an orange seed alongside an apple seed outdoors in the English climate, only one will grow. That doesn’t mean the orange seed lacked the potential to grow. It means that the conditions weren’t right for the orange seed. The conditions of a genre may suit one writer but not another, that does not indicate a lack of talent.