Have you ever been inside a cool restaurant or hotel and were immediately grabbed by the scenery? Likely, you were somewhere that blended different design styles; this sort of “wow” reaction typically only comes from scenery that is (1) different and (2) beautiful. That’s not to say traditional design can’t be great – for instance, a beach hotel in the Caribbean with top-notch tropical furniture, bars, art, etc may be awesome, but it’s not likely to produce the “wow” reaction that a place like The Wynn/Encore Resort in Las Vegas does, which combines multiple design techniques in a totally original way.
The same is true with books. Though books that squarely fit in one genre can be great – and even pack shock value – it’s tough for them to be considered truly unique; over time, most of the ones that are attempting to be “different” at very best are considered more-extreme versions of predecessors in their categories. Greatness and uniqueness, though they often overlap, are two very separate things. The only way a single-genre book – even if it’s great – can carve out its own distinct place is if the underlying message in it is a total departure from everything before it, ie The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.
Books with effective radical messages are few and far between, and often have just as much to do with the political/social climate of the time they were published as the writing itself. Genre blending on the other hand is much more accessible, as it relies strictly on what exists on the page, and not the events in the world. If done naturally without drawing attention to itself, it has the ability to create a whole new category, which by effect only has one book in it; now that’s unique.
There are of course other ways for single-genre books to stand out, for instance, an author telling a story from a very interesting perspective, switching from first person to third person and jumping through time. However, things like format and perspective, though powerful tools, are lenses that stories are told through, while genre sits at the heart of the story itself.
So, how does genre blending work? Usually a story holds true to a main genre while weaving in elements from one to many others. For illustrative purposes I’m going to use an example that’s not a book, but rather, a movie – Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Principally it’s a crime film, however, it successfully incorporates pieces from all of these genres and potentially even more (depending on definitions): Western, romantic suspense, buddy, religious, and slapstick comedy.
Pulp Fiction meshes these components in an apparently effortless way, without drawing any attention to the “seams.” The result is something that is not only different, but works fluidly as a whole. This brings me to my final point: different for the sake of being different is typically a terrible strategy, whether in hotel design, books, or movies. A cell phone that weighs 100 lbs may be different, but I guarantee nobody will trade in their iPhone for it. “Different” only works if it’s part of a bigger vision. As mentioned earlier, uniqueness and greatness are separate things; for them to overlap, genres should be blended in a way that works underneath the story, silently making it better without creating any distractions. That’s where the “wow” comes from.
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