Some tropes speak specifically to some people. They're a kink, in other words; there's something about them that works really well for certain readers. (Or they can be an anti-kink, like the dread awe with which I approach Rennaisance biographical novels. I mean, I keep reading the freaking things. And I keep whining about them. It's a bloody sickness, it is.)
I have my own squids. Harpy stories (cpolk's term for stories in which the protagonist must choose between the magic and the mundane, often for love), though The Last Unicorn will probably always be the winner for me, because it's the only one I can think of off the top of my head where the answer isn't that the wild thing lets itself be tamed for love. Death-or-glory stands, and the sort of thing where the protagonist does what's right even when it's the last thing in the world he wants to do. Sucker for those, as well.
Anyway, some of these kinks, these squids (backformation, for the new kids, from the Turkey City Lexicon phrase "squid-in-mouth disease," referring to writing where the author's (grotesque?) assumption is visible to Everybody But Him in the ways it informs the assumptions of the story. Common examples: bias of whatever sort, rampant Libertarianism (the Socialists in the group are usually a bit more self-aware, somehow), sexual quirks, etc. By extension, a reader's or writer's "squid" is an uncontrollable gut emotional reaction, either a rejection or an embracing of a work of art, for completely illogical reasons. see also bulletproof kink) become, essentially, subgenres.
So, yanno, the guy who will see/read/buy anything with vampires in it? Yeah. That thing.
Anyway, a conversation with almeda led me to the realization that, in general, I kind of avoid things that I know are in particular focused on some of these tropes. (See above, vampires, werewolves. Ghosts. I really kind of loathe ghost stories.) The thing is, there are people who love all of these things. Specifically, let's say, ghost stories. I know people who go out of their way for these, who will read anything they can get their hands on with a ghost in it, and are specifically interested in any new twists or innovations on the whole ghost story concept.
They have, in a very real sense, entered a meta conversation about ghost stories. The conversation interests them as much as the individual stories. It's genre reading at its finest. Fandom is everywhere.
And there are people who are violently allergic to ghost stories. Any hint of a ghost, they're out of there.
And then there's me. The thing is, I won't automatically hate a book because it is a ghost story (Beloved is a ghost story, after all, and it blew me away.), but I am predisposed to sort of avoid things that are primarily interested in the genre-ghost-story conversation.
And this clued me into the mechanic behind something that puzzled me. Some reviews that I read of "Wax" where it was either dismissed as a vampire story (with a fine air of this-trash-is-trash) or critiqued for not bringing any new ideas to the vampire story genre. And of course, my response is... "...but it's not a vampire story."
And well, sure, it has a vampire in it. But it doesn't function as a vampire story; it does not revolve around the vampiric character's vampirehood. It's dealt with in the text of the story rather like a socially awkward disease or stigmatized religion, frankly. Which was my point in introducing the character, and my mistake as a writer was in assuming that I could shed all that baggage because I wasn't using it.
Unfortunately, other people's minds are not amenable to being checked at the left-luggage counter, and a certain percentage of them will look at that vampire and click, categorize the story as A Vampire Story. And either dismiss it as part of a subgenre they scorn, or be disappointed in it because it is not engaging the genre conversation they are most interested in.
(I also have stories with werewolves in them. And one fellow who is neither a vampire nor a werewolf, but gets mistaken for both a lot. It's because he has a drama queen cloak. Drama Queen!)
But I've never written anything I'd think of as a werewolf story. (I have written one thing I think of as a vampire story: "House of the Rising Sun," but it's less about vampirism than it is about selling one's soul and getting it back--both as a living man, and as a dead one.) And that's kind of funny, because there are werewolves in Blood and Iron and there are going to be werewolves in Unsuitable Metal, one of these days. So I expect I will get people blinkered by the wolves, as well, when it comes down to it. Er. As it were. But like communism, the werewolves are a red herring. As are any resemblances to a supernatural romance. (There is romance, in the sense that people have relationships. And rather would be happier without.)
Anyway, I'm not articulating this well, but what I'm trying to hack my way around to is that for some readers, the proclamation that X is a neat twist on Y will be met with a profound indifference, if they do not care for Y. So, possibly I could sell Beloved to a reader of ghost stories by saying, "Man, you have to read this Toni Morrison book, it's the neatest little ghost story ever." But I suspect, really, it's not at all innovative, as ghost stories go.
What it is, however, is incredibly honest in the way it takes pain and heartbreak and an American national disgrace and tragedy on the nose, and stares it down with black pits of eyes, without flinching.
The ghost story, as they say, is the mechanic, not the destination.
And that is what is meant by transcending genre. It doesn't mean stepping outside of the genre (Beloved is a ghost story). It doesn't mean deconstructing genre. (Beloved is also a pretty standard ghost story, in as much as it is a ghost story). It means, however, being about more than the genre conversation. (Beloved uses its status as a ghost story to talk about something else. Its ambitions are not merely confined to "ghost story," anymore than Faustus's ambitions are confined to "Senecan tragedy" or "Morality play," anymore than Huckleberry Finn's ambitions are confined to "coming of age story.")
Also, it doesn't hurt to be able to write like an angel.
If one can.