Genre is essentially a way of pigeonholing everything and manages to be simultaneously totally irrelevant and more or less fundamental to the world of writing. You can see why people put so much store in it from the response that always seems to follow you telling anybody you're a writer:
"Oh, really? What kind of thing do you write?"There you have it. It's the worst thing anybody can ask you in some ways, but in others it makes perfect sense. Is yours the kind of writing I'm likely to be interested in or not? It's a way of establishing where your books might sit in the bookshop. To some extent, it's a way of establishing who your readers are, although I'm never entirely sure that's a good idea.
I don't know how many people jump around the genres as much as I do when it comes to choosing something to read. I'll pretty much pick up anything, if it seems like it'll be worth my time and effort. So far I can't claim to have ventured into the murky world of, say, dinosaur erotica, but if I met someone who could recommend a title and make it sound compelling I'd probably give it a go. I'd like to think most people don't think of books as being divided into two camps - The Stuff I Know I Like and The Other Stuff - but sometimes I'm not so sure. You do find people who only ever read crime, or break out in hives if they leave the science fiction section of the bookshop. It can't be good to restrict your intake to that extent, but I suppose it limits your chances of being stuck with something you really don't get on with. A bit, at least. Surely it makes life pretty dull, though?
Some journals and magazine use genre as a sort of filter. The idea that modern "literary" fiction is a genre in itself doesn't seem to occur to the editors of these kinds of places. "No genre fiction", they'll cry in their submissions guidelines, with the sniffy assumption that a story with a robot or a monster as a character is automatically excluded from actually being any good. Sure, there's plenty of dross written in the sci-fi and horror realms, but it's no more prevalent there than anywhere else. I mean, some of the stuff that gets published purely because of its "literary" badge should really go and take a good long look at itself in the mirror, for a start.
Personally, I think that while the use of genre has its uses for readers, most writers would be better off ignoring it. Sitting down to write a story in a particular genre immediately saddles you with all sorts of baggage, conventions, clichés, and expectations that will start to shape your story before you've even written the first sentence. Put those aside and concentrate on the character or idea that fascinates you, and don't worry about what pigeonhole it ends up slotting into until after it's written. Because, really, who cares whether it turns out to be a western, a space opera, a historical yarn, or the tale of the forbidden (and anachronistic) love between a caveman and a rebellious young stegosaurus from the wrong side of the tracks? If it's a good story, it's a good story.