“I embrace being in genre because we sell the most books,” said Karin Slaughter, the internationally acclaimed crime writer. Her comment was met with laughter and enthusiastic agreement from the audience of readers attending the latest NYU Media Talk co-hosted by the Center for Publishing and the Office of Alumni Relations at the NYU School of Professional Studies. Slaughter, author of the current bestseller The Last Widow (her next book The Silent Wife comes out in June) was responding to a question from Pamela Paul, Editor of the New York Times Book Review and of all books coverage at the paper, as to whether there is any kind of stigma to genre fiction. “When someone’s very good, they’re not a genre writer anymore. They’re a literary writer,” Slaughter added, and her fellow panelists, romance writer Sarah MacLean, science fiction author Tochi Onyebuchi, and dystopian writer Veronica Roth nodded in agreement.
That isn’t to say that genre fiction doesn’t have its own issues just because it can be used to start a discussion. Romance is perhaps the genre with the most stigma revolving around it. According to MacLean, romance gets it from all sides because it’s seen as cheap, produced mass market, and primarily written by women for other women. Realistically, she argued, it’s a safe space for women to have conversations with other women about their lives and their issues. Despite the safety provided by the books, there seems to be a disconnect sometimes. MacLean commented that even women readers can be horribly mean to the heroine of the story, while forgiving the man for everything. When Paul asked why that is, MacLean’s answer was an immediate and emphatic: “Patriarchy!” The romance community is strong, though. MacLean reeled off the statistics, stating, “The average romance reader reads ten to twelve books per month!”
With a topic like “Passionate Readers, Powerful Publishing: Reaching Niche Audiences in New Ways,” there was much to discuss at what many said was the most engaging NYU Media Talk ever. And genre writing is definitely not just about making money. Tochi Onyebuchi, author of the YA novels Beasts Made of Night, War Girls, and most recently Riot Baby (his first book for adults) was a bit more sentimental. “It’s my home,” he said about genre fiction. It was how he learned to write. According to Sarah MacLean, author of 14 bestselling historical romance novels and co-host of the podcast Fated Mates, genre fiction is a crash course in the craft of writing. And, indeed, the authors agreed that literary writers couldn’t do what they do. One of the most important aspects of genre fiction they touched on was how authors use it to tackle political and social issues. Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy and her forthcoming debut novel for adults, Chosen Ones, pointed out that genre fiction does this in a way that literary fiction can’t because it’s so far removed from reality. “You can engage with it [political and social issues] in a safe way,” Roth said.
It wasn’t long before Paul steered the conversation to the authors’ own writing by asking the ever popular question, “Do you know how it will end?”
Slaughter does. As a thriller writer, it’s important for her to know who committed the crime from the outset. She wants to know the ‘why’ of what happened more so than the ‘what’ since, as she put it, “’This person is evil’ is not an explanation.” She likes to explore the psyche of her characters.
For MacLean, her category has fairly limited options when it comes to endings. The surprise isn’t so much whether or not they end up together—spoiler, they do—it’s how they get there and the sacrifices that they’re willing to make for love.
“It have an idea of what the last image is,” Onyebuchi said of writing science fiction. He tends to draft only a couple of chapters at a time in order to keep his writing flexible and surprising even to himself. Roth had a similar answer: “The ending should be surprising, but inevitable.” Roth admitted sheepishly that she pretends to know what’s going to happen, but it usually changes during her writing process.
When Paul raised the topic of writers' regrets, Roth responded: “The most important thing for me as an author is to grow with each book.” MacLean had a different take: “I regret what I wrote last week!” she exclaimed. Then she immediately brought up a cringe-worthy line from one of her books: “He called forth her sweet rain." At this, the audience broke out into laughter and applause. It was obvious that while MacLean may regret writing and publishing that line, she was able to laugh about it later. And, to Roth’s point, she may have even grown as a writer.
When the inevitable question came up about how the authors got where they are today, Onyebuchi admitted that he wrote 17 books before being published and never edited any of them. His advice? “The only thing you can control is the book you write.” Keep writing and always have material ready.
Veronica Roth certainly had material ready, and when her university writing program failed to show her what to do next, she, in her own words, “typed ‘how to get published’ into Google and then kept Googling.” She wiggled her fingers in the air to mimic typing as she spoke, drawing yet another laugh from the audience. But her main advice for young writers was to take criticism. “Take critique. Take it. Always.” And while Roth certainly sounded like she meant all critique, Slaughter qualified the statement by saying, “You have to be open to the right kind of criticism.”
When it comes to the seemingly impossible task of finishing a book, the authors all spoke about different methods of writing, from hiding away for weeks to working nonstop for days without taking a break to thinking about the story for months without writing a word. The sentiment that remained the same for all of them, however, was simple: “Don’t do it how I do it.”
In the end, it’s a matter of loving the process more than the results. Writing is hard, and both fans and publishers can be brutal, especially when it comes to genre fiction. There’s joy every day of writing. It’s just hard to find,” said MacLean. And when good things happen, “Pop the champagne. Celebrate the win!”
By Scottie Draughon, NYU SPI '19 & MS in Publishing '21