What Genre Are You Writing … And Marketing?

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Our multiplex world of discerning consumers is getting used to having what they consume laid out clearly and categorized. Literature is no different. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Aristotle proclaimed in his Poetics that poetry could be categorized into many “species”, critics have endeavored to label art to help the “commoner” interpret it.

Defining Genre

The word “genre” comes from the French word for “kind” or “gender” and provides a loose set of criteria for a category of composition. People in the book industry often use it to categorize literature.

“Genre” is notoriously difficult to define. For instance, what kinds of literary form should properly be called genres? Poetry is generally thought of as a literary “mode”, being too broad and too varied to be called a “genre”. The various types and forms of poetry are more properly called genres, such as the epic or the lyric.

A genre can be defined either by the formal properties of the work, or by its subject matter. A poem can be called a sonnet if it is 14 lines long, or described as an elegy if it speaks of the death of a loved or admired person.

Although genres are not precisely definable, genre considerations are one of the most important factors in determining what a person will see or read. Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Some people think that books and movies that are difficult to categorize into a genre are likely to be less successful commercially. They’re probably right. And this is why we do it.

So, if you haven’t figured out what “genre” your writing falls under, start figuring it out now; your future publisher and marketer will want to know because they, in turn, have to tell their distributor and bookseller where to shelve the book. This is why you need to do this; the alternative is leaving it to Jack in the marketing department who may not have even read your book, but used the cover picture to figure it out. Yikes!

Genre Categories

Today’s Teacher provides the following list for genres in literature:

Biography/autobiography
Fantasy
Historical Fiction
Myths & Legends
Poetry
Science Fiction
Fairy Tales
Folk Tales
Mystery
Realistic Fiction
Non-Fiction
Short stories

They were pretty good in identifying the major genres but they missed Romance, Westerns, Horror, Erotica, Literary Fiction, Humor, and Young Adult (if you want to call that a genre). The point I’m making is that each person is bound to come up with a different list of genre categories. Go to five of your favorite bookstores (not just the chain stores, but the independent bookstores) and see for yourself how the professionals do it. It’s a miserable confusing mess. I’ve seen science fiction thrown in with fantasy and the whole category called “fantasy”. I’ve seen Diana Gabaldon’s historical time traveler series shelved under romance, mainstream and science fiction or fantasy depending on the bookstore. In truth, it’s all of these. Which brings us to cross-genre literature.

Crossing the Genre Lines

“Cross-genre”, also called “slipstream” or “interstitial fiction” or “fabulation”, is most commonly defined as fiction that crosses genre boundaries. Unless you’re Bruce Sterling, that is, who defines slipstream as:

A contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’

“…Simply makes you feel strange”? Although lots of writing may do that to me (of course, I’m strange already), I’m not sure that I would define “slipstream” as writing that “makes you feel strange”. This is because I don’t think you can pin it down; it’s too slippery a “creature”. However, I think that this form (or is it a movement?) is promising to be one of the most exciting things occurring in literature today.

Patrick Kelly, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, wrote:

Today, we have literally many dozens of writers in both mainstream and genre who are working from these influences and creating new forms of cross-pollination. The problem with talking about cross-genre is that it’s not a single movement–it’s a bunch of individual writers pursuing individual visions that tend to simply share some of the same diverse influences. So it’s difficult to pin down and say ‘this is what it is and what it isn’t.’ That’s what is exciting to me about it–that it is difficult to categorize. In a sense, that means it’s a complex, organic creature.

Some popular “cross-genre” mixes include:
Action comedy = action + comedy
Black comedy (tragicomedy) = tragedy + comedy
Comedy-drama (dramedy) = comedy + drama
Romantic comedy = romance + comedy
Science fiction Western = science fiction + western

A friend of mine who is part Cree writes “slipstream” or “cross-genre” works that are essentially unclassifiable. Although she is a great writer, she has yet to find a publisher. I know why; they don’t know how to market her books to the booksellers. Where do you put them on the bookshelf? What a conundrum for the publisher and bookseller alike.

But, things are changing and hopefully my friend will see the results of that change. The irony of “slipstream” defying categorization is that it may be the next bestseller.

“From the Lord of the Rings box-office smashes in the theaters to adults reading ‘Harry Potter’ books on their commute, it seems that the fantasy genre has permeated the mainstream,” notes Alana Abott, with Thomson Gale (an e-research and educational publishing firm). “The publishing industry has noticed, and new books combining familiar mainstream forms such as historical fiction, romance, and chick-lit are beginning to see an influx of magic.” Cross-pollination is cool. Cross-genre is “in”.

What genre are you writing?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Michael, thanks for your comments. It's interesting to see an evolution in both writer and reader toward cross-pollination of genre-tropes… While I describe my book The Last Summoner as a historical fantasy, it has strong SF elements infused in it (which I don't advertise… LOL!) My trilogy The Splintered Universe is described by my publisher as a science fiction space adventure but draws a lot from paranormal phenomena and metaphysics. I personally think that a lot of good fiction defies strict genre categorization, but booksellers will always want to know where to put the book. What's neat about virtual booksellers, like Amazon, is that through the tagging process, books need not be confined to just one shelf–they can be found on several virtual shelves based on their tags.

  2. Good article. I do think that authors, who wish to earn a living from writing, need to concern themselves with topics such as this as it can have a major impact on the books bottom line, especially when selling to traditional publishers, as a books really has to fit neatly into a predefined category.

    That being said, and this is definitely a do as I say not as I do situation, I've recently created a cross-genre book. It's not that I set out to do such a thing, really I was just writing a book that I wanted to read and as such it ended up having elements of multiple genres. I actually could write a very different 'blurb" for the book depending on whether it was listed in science fiction, mystery, or thriller.

    Because it doesn't fit neatly, my publisher turned it down as they thought it would be difficult to sell, and I'm launching a Kickstarter project to self-publish Hollow World. I thik in the long run it will be very profitable, but even if it isn't I loved writing the book and am proud of how it came out, and sometimes when doing cross-genre stuff that has to be its own reward.

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