David Higgins is my guest today, a short story writer who has found that the problem of fitting into the category straight-jacket is amplified when your short stories aren’t all in the same style. Here’s how Dave copes with the conundrum and gives us his take on the genre monster.
Genre didn’t exist when I was young.
While I became aware of genre later (and that other people might be more guided by it) I never let it constrain my reading choices. So it came as a surprise to me when I planned my first release, quite how obsessed the publishing and distribution industry was with genre. And that, for every issue novels faced due to genre, there were twice as many for short story collections.
When I say genre didn’t exist when I was young, I mean of course that I had no reason to care about it when I was a child. The Children’s section of the library in my home town was divided into picture books and other books: the Hungry Caterpillar was separate from Anne of Green Gables; but Enid Blyton was on the same shelves as Andre Norton. I have a vague recollection of a Young Adult classification, but as a sticker on the spine not a defined set of shelves.
My first encounter with genre was when I moved into the Adult shelves: some of the authors who wrote books on both sides of the quasi-arbitrary Adult/Child line were shelved in a special area; others weren’t; and some were shelved in more than one place.
In the decades between moving into the Adult shelves and preparing to publish, my sense of genre as a limitation had almost entirely died. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the most common advice I received when I mentioned publishing to other authors was,“get the genre classification right: books listed in the wrong genre or without a strong genre don’t sell at all.”
As my first publication was Fauxpocalypse, an anthology of short works set after a predicted global disaster didn’t happen, this proved to be quite a puzzler: some of the contributors had written thrillers; some had written horror; some had focused on the external effects of the oncoming threat; some had focused only tangentially referred to social upheaval.
With some retailers giving me only one space for category, I felt real pressure to pick the best fit. But going through the classic genre and sub-genre options, I almost immediately realised it didn’t quite fit most of the options: it wasn’t all horror, or all sci-fi, or all mystery, or all anything.
The options that did fit the entire collection didn’t really seem utterly helpful. It was a fiction anthology, but what did that actually tell the reader about it? Was there any purpose in using up my one chance at finding readers who did confine themselves to a few shelves by defining it as a ‘short-story collection’?
In the end, the best fit was Post-Apocalyptic fiction: in the hope that readers would find similar interest in a world that didn’t end.
The overall experience of publishing Fauxpocalypse having not put me off writing all together, I went through my list of work to decide on a new project. I had a number of short stories that had been published in obscure places where I had the anthology rights. Having read many collections of authors’ republished works over the decades, I decided to release An Unquiet Calm, a collection of my own work.
I assumed it would be easier to publish a collection entirely of my own short stories. Ironically, listing it was much harder, for more than one reason.
Where Fauxpocalypse was defined by a common world that would – potentially imperfectly – fit a genre, An Unquiet Calm was defined by all being written by me. There were themes that were common to my writing, and personality types I favoured slightly for characters, but the tropes and settings were varied.
The high church of Literature aside, there are no categories for an author’s specific perspectives on life redrawn as fiction.
And many people who divide fiction into Literature and not, use the division to mean ‘proper fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’. Thus, as I do write in worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, or horror, Literature didn’t seem ideal either.
Even splitting my collection into science-fiction and not, or any other genre and not, I couldn’t build a collection long enough to be more than a pamphlet.
I was rescued from this metaphysical headache by the discovery of an unspoken rule about genre: “if it sort of fits it might be fine”; my collection would not fail utterly if it was in a genre that didn’t fit one of the stories.
With two collections fitted into the boxes of genre, I thought I had a handle on the issues. So I expanded my reach from the established distributors to more innovative start-ups: lenders of eBooks, and crowd-pricing sites.
With the issue of a physical book having to be in a single place at any one time not present, and the massive power of search engines to leverage, I expected these online models to offer both readers and publishers a new flexibility, and some did.
However, I also found a new set of mandatory boxes: What is the romance level of the book? What is the profanity level of the book? What race is the protagonist? What religion is the protagonist? Where is the book set?
Some apply as easily to a collection as a novel: the profanity, gore, and sex filters are much more likely to be activated by people who wish to avoid them, so can be set to the worst case of all the stories.
But the religion or setting of the book? One of my stories deals with a man wrestling with God’s goodness in an imperfect world, so might be of interest to people who include Christianity in their search; but the remainder of the collection isn’t Christian, so isn’t necessarily what people who exclude Christian protagonists are seeking to avoid. And the locations and time periods are even more diverse: modern day Yorkshire, 1950’s West Country, fantasy Northern Europe, &c.
When I first mentioned I was writing short stories, several people commented it would never produce a career because people don’t read collections of short stories. Having published two collections, I am lead to wonder whether it is not a dislike of short stories but an inability to find them that is stopping the collections being read.
As long as libraries and book shops have a physical presence (and I hope it this will be a long time), there will be a need for a label to physically sort books, but by taking the genre model into the realm of detailed searches and extending the constraints rather than the options, distributors make it harder for authors and for readers.
So I hope the vast potential of online distribution will allow a return to that innocence of childhood: when we can find adult stories about a princess who is both a ninja and an elephant as easily as stories about a space captain who is different but not too different from the space captains of other books.
* * * *
Thank you, Dave for adding another point to the growing list of problems writers have with the publishing industry’s mania for classification and sub-classification. Short story collections start off with the handicap that everybody *knows* nobody reads them. Tell people that often enough and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with promoting your work. Thanks again for an entertaining and instructive article.
Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and (mostly) speculative fiction.
He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.
More details on Fauxpocalypse, An Unquiet Calm, other publications, and free samples of his work can be found here.