When I started reading and writing stories for pleasure, I inherently focused on story. In fact, whenever I came up against a heavily used or relied upon trope (Merriam Webster is telling me that "cliche" works just fine, too), I'd get pretty annoyed. I read a lot of mysteries until late in high school when suddenly all I saw was a formula loosely connected with some story elements. How is that a fun way to spend my free time? I studied formulas day in and day out in school. Why would I want to read them? When I got serious about writing, it wasn't to trot out tropic themes and elements, it was to tell a story I wanted to share or read myself.
I've come up against tropes twice that I can think of. The first time was as a frequent visitor to the Melanie Rawn Bulletin Board. Someone decided to go off on the Exiles series because it wasn't really fantasy. His argument could be summed up in how the books didn't follow standard epic quest tropes. I thought that was a very odd argument to make. Why deride a book for not adhering to a formula? Wouldn't you want to judge the book on the merits of the story it told? But the argument must've stuck with me, because when I sat down to puzzle out Velorin, I looked to tropes. OK, I'm gonna need a map of my fantasy world, and a creation story replete with gods, and a journey by some average folk to save the world from destruction. As I got deeper into the story that wanted to be told, though, I turned each of those tropes into something different. (Well, maybe not the map; I consider that a functional part of the book, like page numbers; but wouldn't it be fun to find a way to turn that convention on its head? I feel another story brewing....)
The second time genre tropes hit me over the head was at my first writing conference. I was told (by an unpublished writer) that Human Dignity wasn't science fiction. It was a tech thriller or something. And I thought, "Um, but the majority of it takes place fifteen to thirty years in the future, and it has fictional science things such as nanotech and flying cars." I happened to get the opportunity to ask Teresa Nielsen Hayden if she thought my book was SF (she had read the same ten pages the unpubbed chick had as part of a workshop). I think she said something along the lines of "Don't worry about that, that's my job. Just write a good story."
That's the same basic line I was told at Forward Motion, and I'm very glad that I've had those experiences. Who really cares about genre boundaries and definitions so long as the story is compelling and well written? But apparently there are those who think otherwise, and enough of them to drive the marketing practices of categorization. I guess I'm lucky that I'm looking and listening and reading elsewhere.
Similar to what TNH said to me is this essay by Anna Genoese. The driving force behind that essay was a reaction to frustrations she heard from authors who want to publish their gay romance novels. She discussed market definitions and realities and the challenges of trying to create an audience, but in the end she said to write an amazing story and the publishers would go for it and figure out how to market it.
Recently I've found a couple of "movements" that work to challenge genre boundaries and definitions, and it's got me thinking more about how tropes fit into my writing.
Right around the beginning of the year, I happened upon the Interstitial Arts Foundation's call for submissions. Reading into the foundation's mission, I found this essay, and it got me thinking about Carson's Learning and the classifications of all my ideas in general. By the time I had finished my revisions of CL, I tried to figure out how to label it. I think I came up with something like "an erotic psychological thriller standalone installment of an epic military SF space opera." And yet it was none of those things, as well. I had a sense of that back in January, which is why I set about getting CL ready for this anthology. As I've looked deeper into the IAF and works they recommend as representative of the label "interstitial", it seems that they are more geared toward works that flit between literary and commercial classifications. And that didn't seem quite right for anything I've written or anything I want to write (with the possible exception of Human Dignity). I most certainly have a commercial voice. Still, I think CL would be great for their anthology.
A few months later, I caught wind of a group blog by a gaggle of writers called Deep Genre. They started their blog with a few definitions of what exactly (or inexactly) the term "deep genre" means. Reading through those entries, I put together my own definition of Deep Genre. Deep Genre is a work that doesn't take genre tropes for granted to tell a story, rather it examines those tropes and twists them into something the same but different. For example, a space opera that requires faster-than-light travel to get the characters around to fulfill the plot might turn out to be about the damages FTL does to the human body (there was a Star Trek: TNG episode that explored something similar in that it showed the "environmental" impact of warp travel; I'm also thinking of the CS Friedman book This Alien Shore as a work that twists the FTL trope). This can be dangerous because the work looks like standard genre fare for a decent amount of the time, but turns out not to be so standard by the end, thus potentially disappointing genre fans who want genre tropes to be genre tropes and not elements to be re-examined. The trick, as mentioned many, many times above, is to tell a compelling story.
To sum up: genre may have been a marketing ploy, it may have developed into a comfort zone, it may have a grab-bag of expected plot devices and characters, but genre is not absolute; it can be overcome, it can be re-defined. Readers will journey far and wide with you if you make it worth their while.