What’s your genre?

I was reading an article on a friend’s blog today about that much-discussed subject: genre. There was a time when the classification of book types was sort of instinctive. There were books for adults and books for children. Within the adult books there was literature, books for the ‘serious’ reader, with sober covers; and there were the books for people who read books in much the same way they eat a packet of crisps, for the simple, easy, accessible pleasure of it. Often they had easily recognisable covers: pink for romances, black for crime, and great big font for airport thrillers. You knew where you were.

Not so anymore. Now there is a plethora of genres, and subgenres, and each is supposed to have its own market. They are not watertight; there is some leakage on either side, but each category is supposed to have its own target group of readers, and to approach them accordingly.

It makes things easy for booksellers. The author/publisher specifies the genre and the bookseller sticks the book on the right shelf, or under the same electronic heading. It makes it easier for readers to go straight to their preferred fantasy genre without having to plough through the nineteenth century classics, the spy thrillers or the bodice-rippers. The fans of epic fantasy aren’t distracted by the steampunk, zombie, or dystopian selections, and the legal minors will be safely diverted to YA paranormal and away from the adult vampires. For people who like sorting things, I can see the attraction, but to get to this kind of precision implies authors producing books that fit into a very specific category and have a very specific age group in mind.

Something that Mary Meddlemore said in her blog post about stories being stories, not genres, made me think that this analysis hits the nail on the head. Despite what agents and publishers require, that the author have a very clear idea of who their book is intended for, and know exactly which category it fits into, they are still just stories. They are inspired by all sorts of things, and pour out as they think fit. A story doesn’t hesitate on the edges of the imagination, undecided about whether it’s suitable for the under sixteens, or whether there is enough retro stuff in it for it to be considered steampunk. It just comes out and gets written.

Any insistence on the genre, the age group, or the fantasy type; pinning down into a definite genre a thriller/horror/paranormal/mystery, is to enter into the realms of marketing, and not writing. I know, who doesn’t market doesn’t sell, but there must be a better way of ‘selling’ a story that by sticking a label on it. ‘Ballet Shoes’ has a precise target readership of young girls who aspire to be ballet dancers. But it is rarely so easy. Where would you stick “The Call of the Wild” for example? YA dogs?

© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak
© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

49 thoughts on “What’s your genre?”

  1. Absolutely. I’ve always said my favourite genre is “unclassifiable”. Genres can be useful for marketing, as you’ve said, or interesting as tools to analyse what a story is, but they shouldn’t play much part at all in creation.

  2. I always thought the debate around the definition of Science Fiction missed the obvious point that it was a marketing category. Publishers want to know who a new author is ‘like’ as that helps them target a known audience (and why a lot of book blurbs have ‘in the tradition of xxx’). It also helps readers, if I like Gene Wolfe, I’ll probably like Jack Vance etc. Finally it helps search engine tagging in Amazon. But it has become overly granular, to be honest I haven’t a clue where Thumb sits, though I like the phrase ‘New Weird’. I remember vividly how J.G. Ballard’s novels were miraculously reclassified the day after Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun came out. Suddenly Science Fiction writer J.G. Ballard disappeared and all his books re-appeared in the mainstream section of Waterstones with SF scribbled out and ‘Modern Author’ written on the spines in biro.

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a stigma to get tagged as a genre writer, to be lumped with all the rest as if one size fits all. Amazon’s marketing ploy of pointing buyers (I almost wrote readers) in the direction of other books you might like is a good one, as far as it goes, but Bert Boggins and his Warrior Queen and the Sword of Destiny is not Gene Wolf, no matter how much the ‘genre’ might overlap.
      ‘New Weird’ hmm. Could apply to Thumb, if only Max and Abby were so not weird!

  3. I wrote a post about this the other day, and John has said some of the points I raised in that; specifically about how classic science fiction and fantasy novels often get recategorised as they become successful. It seems that genre becomes erased from a book if it’s good; only books the literary establishment doesn’t like have genres, which said establishment then uses as a reason to degrade them.

    I think genres are useful, but we shouldn’t think about them when writing. We have a story to tell, and it’s a marketer’s job to sell that story. Even if most writers these days need to be marketers too, when we are writing, we are the artist, and we need to keep those two roles separate.

    1. That’s dead right, I hadn’t thought of that. The category ‘genre fiction’ is intended to be disparaging, and there are a lot of literary agents for example who won’t touch anything that even smells a bit ‘genre’. But success usually clears any stigma, and you get books like the Patrick Ness Chaos Walking series that don’t have any clear label on them at all.

      1. The agents you speak of might as well just label them ‘rubbish books’, or something, as they often use either fantasy or science fiction to mean both genres.

        When I read the novel Transition, published under Iain Banks (which is the name he uses for his literary work), I was surprised to find it was actually still a science fiction novel, full of parallel universes and alternate histories. Yet, because it was deemed to be a ‘good’ book, it wasn’t published under the name he uses for his science fiction, because the literary community (to some extent) wouldn’t touch it.

      2. One thing that I get very irritated by is the – ‘it’s good therefore not Science Fiction’ claim that establishment critics (and even writers) come up with. If I had a penny for every time someone said ‘1984’s not SF, it’s a political novel’ I’d have 178p or thereabouts. I remember seeing cool and trendy professors at university raving about Joanna Russ’s The Female Man when it was republished by the Women’s Press in 1986, as though it was the newest thing on the block. When I pointed out that it was a science fiction novel written in 1970 they got all sniffy about it. The other issue is that because SF has been ghettoised, ideas and tropes that were explored to the nth degree in the 40s – 60s within the genre are trumpeted as wonderfully new ideas when regurgitated by mainstream authors in the early 21st century – Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one example.

      3. I remember reading John Wyndham at school and nobody every mentioned that it was dystopian sic-fi. Wyndham was an established ‘proper’ writer so he couldn’t possibly have been writing anything but literature. Damn it, we even read ‘Shane’ and the teacher never let on it was a western! But the genre thing has got much more pervasive than it ever was in the 70s and 80s, because now we have the age factor that didn’t come into the equation at all then. Alan Garner’s books would all be YA Urban Fantasy, YA Epic Fantasy, and I suppose ‘The Owl Service’ would be YA Paranormal Romance. They were just books when I read them.

      4. Magic realism is a good one for the literary establishment. Although it’s a quite legitimate genre in its proper sense, it’s far too often used to mean “contemporary fantasy we approve of but we’re not going to use the F word”.

  4. I often hear people say “my favorite genre” is this or that and then they won’t read a book that is not in “their favorite genre”. “Categorization” of people is what led to stereotypes! And wars? We are all unique! Over emphasis on categorization is a dangerous thing. I wrote another post called: I do not fit into a box and neither do my books! But anyway. I suppose we must do what we can and must.

      1. Oy. Yes. You are probably right. We have to toe the line … I classified my one boojk Forever After – A Dimensional Love Story as romance: and fantasy. Busy writing sequel – will definitely be THRILLER … oops and how now sweet cow? 🙂

      2. Quite by accident … 🙂 Had both stories more or less in my head before I got to learn Amazon … I keep on changing my genres too … Forever can be said to be paranormal, I suppose – but in the eyes of readers I think paranormal is zombies et al. No zombies etc. Very confusing for me. Could not believe that Catcher in the Rye is YA on Goodreads.Many readers dislike it – I loved it – but I think they compare with the Potters for example. I don;t know. All very confusing … I’ll just write the stories and hope for the best! Thanks for commenting. I get all worked up about it but so it is – we have to deal best we can.

      3. Now we are both worked up 🙂 Don’t know much about agents. Actually nothing at all. Am a published South African author but market very small and I”ve been prolific over twenty years – just about flooded it, so Mary and I are exploring other worlds. No agents here. You send manuscript directly to publishers. So I’m pretty clueless in the jungle and trying to find my way, But enjoying the contact with others in other countries very much!

      4. It’s probably a consequence of the book market expanding so much, and because when you look for books on Amazon, you can’t just scroll through 15 trillion ‘books’, and you can’t browse like you can in a bookshop and pick up a cover that catches your eye. Maybe you could invent a new genre: South African thriller/fantasy/romance or whatever. You might find you float straight to the top of your listing!

      5. I think my reply disappeared now. I’ll try to repeat. He he Crazy business we are in. Yes. I suppose all those books have to be categorized. LOVE your bookish meal in you other post!

      6. It’s as though every idea falls into a category and depending on what genre the author has decided the book is going to fall into, there are a certain number of ideas available. Use a different idea and you risk falling outside your genre. It’s pick ‘n mix, but be sure not to mix the wrong ingredients.

      7. I sometimes describe The Treason of Memory as a cross between Conan, the Three Musketeers and The Bourne Identity. Hopefully that confuses anyone who’s too hung up on genres.

  5. Well, nobody could accuse the publishing establishment of being open-minded and egalitarian. A more élitist and snobbish profession is hard to find. I hope the digital revolution will shake it up a bit.

  6. Great post, Jane! I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I will be posting on the topic of genre later this week! I never have liked labeling things. I understand the need to classify books, but I think things have gone too far in that direction. Wonderful and thought-provoking post!–Mike

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Mike, and that I am not alone in suspecting that the mania for classifying is growing. Certainly the number of genres is growing. And often it isn’t enough to just belong to a genre: often we are asked to provide at least one sub genre as well. It’s like ordering a meal in a restaurant: I’ll have a YA paranormal fantasy with werewolf starter, gay vampire salad and an alien parallel universe dessert.

  7. Excellently said, Jane! I write a wide variety of tales. Yes, some slot neatly into a particular genre, but some… well, ‘mixed genre’ is an understatement! And even when you look at the ones with the neat fit, and really think about them, you start to see elements of other genres lurking… That’s why one of my Pinterest Boards is called “Genre Busters” 😀

    1. I’ll go an have a look. What’s your Pinterest name? When you see the number of recognised genres and sub genres, you wonder what’s left. What does a book need to have, or not have to be considered as simply fiction?

      1. It’s imagineersteve Jane 🙂 I sometimes think that the all-embracing “literary fiction” is where many books belong, but there’s a reluctance to use it as its seen, by many, as the preserve of those who have achieved the approval of top critics.

      2. 😀 That and satisfied the snobbish critics by talking ‘intelligentsia’ at them, especially if they don’t understand a word you say to explain the ‘meaning’ of your latest book 😉

      3. If a book needs explaining that’s the biggest turn off ever. Like contemporary art. If you need a handbook just to know which way up it goes, what’s the point?

  8. It’s like that in the therapy world. I had an all-round in-depth study and experiential training that took 10 years. Now you’ve got specialists (experts) with no life experience, trained in a one-year-fast-lane-blueprint on stress, trauma, abuse, rape … ring-fenced stuff, the next money maker. Same with genre – it’s for the industry.

    1. It seems quite accepted that the term genre writing is applied to writing that is considered by the intellectual establishment as second rate. Writers like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis are excused because they are establishment figures slumming it. I disagree though about Literary fiction being more difficult to write than genre fiction because there are no tropes to use. I’m afraid there are, they are simply different tropes depending on the kind of lit fic. Kitchen sink, battered wives and abused children, nouveau roman and navel gazing, historical lit fic that is historical fiction with very obvious research, preferably written by somebody with university credentials. It’s all snobbery. A good story is a good story, as hard to produce if the heroine has green hair and wings, as if she has a black eye and a drink problem.

      1. And don’t forget the middle-aged academic hitting a mid-life crisis. Half the authors who win literary awards wouldn’t have anything to write without him.

      2. There’s a trope if ever! David Lodge would certainly have written fewer books without that one. I just found this comment in the spam folder. WordPress is having ‘issues’ at the moment apparently. Sorry about that.

      3. I have no idea how one can say that this story was more difficult to write than that story. How on earth would you know? And indeed: does it matter how easy or how difficult it is or was? The proof of the story is the reading thereof. Indeed: a great story is a great story.

      4. Some years ago, when one of my local YA books was reviewed in a newspaper, the person said that the fact that the main character has no name, made her a universal figure and bla bla. some more stuff. (book was written in the first person) When I read the review … I realized I had completely forgotten to give her a name – it somehow never came up because it is fantasy and no one knew her etc. I phoned editor and she laughed – she had never picked it up either … but fortunately it was now a GOOD thing … 🙂 Interpretations can go either way …. and they just are … interpretations …

      5. Reviews are always strange. I once had a TERRIBLE review of a picture book – the person basically said fortunately the illustrations saved the book! Ouch! Well, I accepted it as her opinion … and heartily thanked the illustrator for saving our book :). He said the woman was crazy 🙂 A few months later the same picture book won an award … praise was heaped on the text as well … he he All very strange … or perhaps not … opinions, no matter how “learned” is always subjective! Proof of the pudding was what the readers said … story was about little boy who, while reading his favourite animal book, one night found himself INSIDE his book and all the animals mocking him because he wasn’t as strong/nimble etc as they were … he was too scared to turn the page … but had to etc 🙂 At the end he was, of course, special as we all are. Someone told me (with a smile) her child was now afraid to open a book … hehe. What if she looked and SHE was in the book 🙂 Ohhhh mann. 🙂 🙂 I thank whoever almost daily for taking me on this writing road – not easy, but wow – what an experience. Poor as a church mouse of course, but what the heck … I do what I love.

      6. Reviews can be scary. Many people who write reviews don’t know how towrite reviews. They make purely subjective comments and give no reasons for slamming a particular aspect other than that they didn’t like it. You can’t do anything about that, just take the rough with the smooth. As long as all the reviews don’t make the same criticism, a single disparaging comment won’t hurt. As you have found out!

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