There are certain perks to writing genre fiction. Since it is essentially formulaic, there are formulaic solutions to the issues that might arise. If the reader is having trouble connecting with characters, say, or the tension isn't there, or the plot has become inconsequential, returning to the basic tenants of the genre can be helpful. Take romance novels, for instance. My sister, the genre-spanning Batya Ungar-Sargon, told me that every good romance novel needs three things: a hero to fall in love with, a heroine you can root for, and a world you can disappear into. With a formula, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can play within the expectations of the reader or surpass them. Whatever you decide to do within that structure, your decisions are based on the structure's existence.
On the other hand, there is the case where you create genre fiction by accident. The story you're in the process of writing happens to have the formula of a specific genre. Or your story has a couple of devices in common with a specific genre, but not all – and those devices you aren't using are the reason your story isn't working.
I've been writing my novel for over two years, a story about best friends and unrequited love and jealousy. One day after the workshop of an excerpt, a fellow classmate approached me and told me, with no malice or intent to insult, how my work reminded her of Emily Griffin's Something Borrowed and its retelling, Something Blue. I was stunned. Chick lit? She thought I was writing chick lit? Those books you pick up in the airport when your mind can't handle something of more consequence? I had refused to entertain the notion up until then. Once I heard it, though, I came to understand. Much as I – and the rest of my classmates – would have liked, I am not currently in a position to create something new. I don't have the skills or maturity to do that. So naturally, my work will be following a certain path, a path well-trodden by others who came before me.
Near the end of my MFA career, I accidentally caused someone going through a similar realization. During a critique of her work, I casually mentioned to the writer that I had watched a Nicholas Sparks movie the night before and that her story reminded me of it. Though I had hated the movie, her work was much better and actually accomplished the act of transferring the protagonist's yearning and emotion to the reader. Our professor, the wonderful Juan Martinez, after a kind and gentle preface, took the opportunity to point out that my classmate's lovely, intelligent prose might do well on the romance market. I recognized the look of chagrin that crossed her face. The unexpected understanding that our work, what we thought had fallen under unique and original criteria, was the reiteration of a genre on which we had long looked down and with which we never thought we'd be associated.
Nonetheless, with that understanding comes acceptance. Despite the instinctual horror, once there is a name for what you're writing, you are no longer alone. You have a blueprint for that which you couldn't name. And now you have something to follow, where once you might have stumbled in the dark.
And if I'm going to be writing chick lit, then it will be the most earnest, highbrow chick lit I'm capable of.