Monday, 7 January 2019

Book Genres - Some Thoughts



Genres Are Categories

They are simplified labels that attempt to describe content.

Genres Are Useful

Genres help bookshops to know which shelf to put a book on.

Genres may help readers to find books that they like.

Genres Are Not Useful

Genres can be problematic when books, authors, and reader interests don't neatly fit into the widely-used categories - and that's more common than you'd think.

Also, authors can get pigeonholed within genres - it's why some authors use pen names when they write in a different genre. Even Stephen King tried to break out with a different name.

I have no problem with a writer who only enjoys writing in one genre doing just that - it's sensible. At the same time, it shouldn't be a shackle. Most writers want to tell stories, and that might mean writing things that fit into different genres (or none at all). More strength to that. The walls should be broken down. No-one would complain if a sculptor known for human effigies switched to sculpting dogs.

I think about this a lot because I write in multiple genres. I find it fascinating when people categorise my books in ways that I hadn't thought of. For example, one review that began with "Cold Fusion 2000 is a novel of incredible genius" (ha, I love that quote!) categorised the book as "romance". I'd never thought of it that way. The mention of romance is spot-on, in that it has romantic love as one of the strands, but it probably breaks some of the expected rules relating to "romance" as a BISAC genre (e.g. needing a clear happy-ever-after). So there are all sorts of problems with many categorisations, and unfortunately no clear answers.

It's the old issue of how to pigeon-hole books to aid discovery, without pigeon-holing books in ways that reduce diversity and experimentation.

Perhaps it's why I sometimes sigh with relief when I write a book that can be easily categorised by combining terms (e.g. "feminist action sci-fi" [Lost Solace], or "rural suspense horror" [Harvest Festival]). It sidesteps the whole issue. But even then there are intricacies - for example, I've just pigeon-holed Harvest Festival, yet in reality it isn't really about surviving a home invasion, or surviving a night in the countryside - that's just the subject matter. The themes are really to do with reconnecting with those that you love, and learning to value what is really important, and making the most of every minute we get with those we care about. Which actually makes it sound less like action-packed horror, and closer to books like Cold Fusion 2000 (which is sometimes classed as women's fiction).

What Is The Women's Fiction Genre? Is There A Better Term?

Women's fiction is a common label applied to books, as if it is clear and unambiguous - but it's not. The "women" bit refers to the target audience, not the author's sex - but why shouldn't men read good books in this genre too? The terminology of "women's fiction" implies a smaller audience than really exists, and may put off some readers. And just because someone is a woman, doesn't mean they don't prefer more clearly-defined genres such as science fiction or horror. So women's fiction isn't read by all women, or exclusively by women, so it tells us little except perhaps the prejudices of the publishers and booksellers, in the same way that if I look at women's slippers in a shoe shop they all have pink hearts, bows or pompoms on (even though many women say they hate those things). So how should we classify these books?
 
Commercial fiction sidesteps the silly "these are books for only one sex" categorisation, though commercial fiction is a large umbrella that probably covers most of what gets published in various genres - crime, horror, thrillers and so on. It's all commercial because it is all popular, or at least the publishers intend it to sell well and count as mass-market fiction. But it's silly to categorise books by their estimated sales potential. How does that help readers? One commercial fiction title and another have nothing in common in terms of stories, settings or characters.

Some authors prefer the term contemporary fiction. Unfortunately it doesn't mean a lot except "fiction written fairly recently that doesn't fit into any other neat category". As such, all sorts of disparate books are also contemporary fiction, and liking one contemporary fiction title is again no guarantee that you'll like the next, because they have so little in common. The contemporary fiction categorisation also confuses things in other ways - what if the book is set in the past? It is contemporary in terms of when it is written (for now ...), but not when it is set.

There's also literary fiction, which some authors toy with as a term, though it can be a bit of a poisoned chalice, connected with boring books that win prizes and get applauded by critics but which make many normal readers fall asleep (don't ever get me started on Sophie's World, or Life Of Pi). Obviously that isn't true of all literary fiction, but it is the reputation it has (along with being "difficult" or "requiring work") among many readers. It can also appear elitist in other ways, implying books without the "literary fiction" tag don't have literary qualities such as clever structure or in-depth character portraits or innovative use of language. And, again, books in this category can be wildly different in terms of settings and quality and readability, so it isn't always much help to the bemused reader.

Alternatives To Genres?

At one point I played around with the idea of getting rid of fiction genres and instead describing all stories via three elements (which could be used for films as well as books):

1: Form (e.g. short story, novel, novella; musical, animation, mockumentary)
2: Subject (e.g. horror, politics, romance)
3: Setting (e.g. fantasy, historical, western)

Then I realised that is as flawed and stupid as the system I wanted to replace, and I gave up.

Please let me know what you think!

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
Share:

2 comments:

Tanya said...

I struggle with genres because I don't feel like anything I write particularly fits in to any of them. Even when I think I've got it figured out, someone else comes along and describes the book or story differently and I realise their idea of what genre it is works just as well as mine and it confuses me even more.

It's awkward because categories like that are super useful for helping people find things they want to read, but they can be so difficult to navigate when you're trying to find a label for your own work.

Karl Drinkwater said...

Exactly - that kind of sums up both the problems with the genre labels, but also the advantages when they do work. When I edit work for other authors I often try to think about marketability, and how it would be positioned and described within the market - it's always the most literary and least commercial stuff where we have this problem (even though the quality of writing may be amazing).