The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 05:26 min

Margaret discusses the evolution of the novel and asserts that the writer’s objective should be to stay true to the foundational elements of storytelling, regardless of genre.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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What are novels if not stories? If all they were was ideas, they wouldn't be novels. They would be works of philosophy or something else like that, but they would not be novels. And novels are always about people, even if the people are rabbits. And "Watership Down", it's a novel. We have these characters. They're rabbits, but really they're people. They have emotions like people. They have conversations and they have activities that are people like. "Lord of the Rings", there are some human beings in them, but the other characters are talking trees or Nazguls, things like that. But essentially it's characters in a story, and that's what a novel is. The thing about the novel as a form ever since it has appeared is that it's been infinitely malleable. That is it's polymorphic. It's taken many forms. People are always coming up with new theories of the novel or new theories of new kinds of novel or doing things like writing a novel in which the letter A does not appear. People are always pulling it this way, pulling it that way, pulling it apart, experimenting with it, declaring that it's dead. It's been such a shape changer that we do not know what new form may emerge. And that is one of the great things about this thing we call the novel, namely long prose narratives that are not medieval poetic epics or whatever preceded them, the novel. They've all got characters and events, and within that just about anything has been possible. But the main rule is hold my attention. [MUSIC PLAYING] What is the value of knowing the genre or type of book you're writing before you start? Well, there may be a value in not knowing. And the value of not knowing may be that you may be able to do some genre bending that if you lock yourself in to a preconceived box, you might not be able to do. What your job is is to make your book whatever it may be, as plausible, as believable as possible. If you can make us believe in "Rosemary's Baby", it doesn't really matter what shelf down the line somebody is going to put you book on. It's more of a requirement for people writing literary criticism than it is for authors themselves. Your job as an author is to make your book real. Literary fiction, commercial fiction, these are decisions made by publishers. So as an author, your job remains to make your book as good a book of its kind as it can be. So some editor then may come across and say, this has really great commercial possibilities. We're going to put a lot behind this, major marketing campaign. That's not your decision. You have made your book the best of its kind that it can be. And how it is marketed, although you may scream and yell and protest and say they haven't done enough or they've done the wrong thing or all the rest of it, those are not your decisions. Character-driven novels and plot-driven novels, another false distinction. If you've made your book the best book that it can be, it's going to have both. That is it's goin...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Wow, what an unbelievable treat to hear the one and only Margaret Atwood discuss creative writing!

Catchy intro. I'm excited to see how you structure the process of "the musical score".

This class has inspired me to start seriously pursue my writing, which when shared with my friends, causes them consistently to ask why I don't publish, at least in an online blog format. Margaret, thank you for an entertaining an engaging class. You've made a difference for me. - Geoff

It was everything I'd had ever expected. Margaret Atwood's insight was everything I needed to embellish my current writing lifestyle and ideologies pertaining to it. The depth and scope of the topics she discussed had been adequately backed by her experience. All in all, a very fruitful journey.



I like that Margaret is very candid about the afterlife of a novel. How it is marketed may not be what the author intended; however, once the author has released their book, the author's job is over.

Adrián A.

I actually know and love Robbe-Grillet's work, and I feel what he did is literary, also since it advances new forms and contents. Sadly the biggest literary contributions are often overlooked and even shunned by the horizon of expectation; sad that Atwood didn't side with him and that she's not pushing for that kind of creative writing.

Tauna S.

All true unless you are an Indy writer. Then you need to know what genre or sub-genre you fit into because you are the business side as well as the author. Just don't decide too soon in the writing of your story. Let the first draft end and then decide which way the wind should blow in the rewrites. (of which there should be at least three). As to fitting into a box, while between the front cover and the back cover is, in essence, a box, I think that writing a story by percentages of what falls here and what should fall there, is a box to bury good writing. (beats and prefabricated plots much the same grave). These artifices stifle creativity and the feel of reality, believability, and life. So many novels end up buried alive. If you wish to drag the body of your novel through these maladies, torture them in the second draft and then compare.

Andrea P.

I'm glad that I don't need to decide just yet what genre am I going to write. And taking that pressure out is encouraging and liberating.

Mary-Anne P.

Thank you Margaret Atwood for talking about genre - or the lack of it. In my first year of masters it was stressed how important it was to understand genre and, more specifically, understand the genre we were writing in. Everything in me fought against this as my story did not fit a genre. If I had heard what M Atwood had to say I would not have included in my required commentary a perfunctory nod to genre and my story that was a lie - I was trying to get good marks! Aaaah I can start this year's masters without that burden, and indeed be confident in stating 'no genre'.

Suzanne B.

I'm on the second revision of my novel and I am still not sure exactly the genre. The only reason I would like assistance with this is to know how I should present it to agents, publishers, at conferences. What to do?

Suzanne B.

P.S. and I love “There’s only one real question: Is it alive or is it dead? Anything else can be fixed." It's alive!!!

Anna C.

Margaret Atwood is a spell, she casts a spell over those watching these masterclasses and into her own novels. I pretended I had read Alias Grace; after listening to Margaret talking structuralIy about this book, I downloaded, and fell into it. An ‘Alice in Wonderland’ experience, beautiful & then crashing down in the third act in ways I hadn’t expected... and in another class she popped open how the two main characters in Wuthering Heights - had, through structural mechanisms, achieved mythical status.

John D.

Interesting and enlightening. 'Just write the best book you can of it's kind.' Okay - that is what I will try to do. And without concerning myself with genre or whether my story is character or plot driven. I feel liberated.


I've never been worried about what genre when I'm writing, but that was more out of ignorance. Now I see that the story is more important than following the lines of genre, since they can restrict the potential of the story.