Okay, so last time I wrote here I promised a completion to my mind ramblings about questions of audience and genre. I’m happy to continue from where I left last time. Let’s get right into it.
In my last post I wrote about how questions of who the audience for a text is and what genre it fits into are really more marketing terms than writing terms. I also talked a little about my personal writing process, which is focused mostly on me and less on the hypothetical ‘reader’. I focused primarily on the question of audience. This time, I’d like to focus more on issues of genre.
What is genre?
For starters, let’s get a working definition going. Genre is any one of a number of broad categories of art; here we’ll focus on literature. Works within a genre typically have similar themes, attitudes, approaches and stories. Typical genres include fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, action/adventure, horror, humor, science fiction (which you’ll notice I’m placing separately from fantasy for reasons which would require a whole other blog post, but if you’re interested here’s a good take on it). There are many many more genres and sub-genres than these, but you get the idea. Genre is an easy classification system that vastly improves and simplifies the confusing world in which many thousands of new books come out every year. Which brings us to the next point.
Why is genre important?
Genre is an absolutely essential part of the world. There is simply too much information out there for people to take each piece individually like it deserves. Genre simplifies the world and makes it possible for the information to reach as wide an audience as possible without bothering those that don’t care. Genre is also restrictive though. Books are typically marketed by genre. Certain publishers only publish certain genres. Certain authors only write certain genres. We’re very bound up in it as a society. And that makes sense. Genre is an easy way to get an idea for something you like. If you like The Lord of the Rings, I can safely recommend to you any number of other books within that genre. Simple, elegant, functional, but also limiting.
How does genre limit art?
Usually, authors tend to write books in only one or maybe two related genres. There’s a reason for this. Some really terrific authors have written really terrific books that weren’t in their typical genre, and they flopped simply because their readership/publishers/mothers/whoever cared more about the author defying their label than the quality of the work. This is not to say there aren’t authors who have successfully navigated out of their traditional genres, but it is very difficult. Some books by new and experienced authors get marketed in the wrong genre, and they do poorly. It’s not because they are bad books (although there are some really bad books out there which get marketed perfectly and still flop because they’re just bad). It’s because they didn’t fit the right genre. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic from a business as well as an aesthetic viewpoint.
Another problem, especially in recent years, is many new authors write books that don’t fit easily into a specific genre. Think about it. Ten years ago there was no such genre as Teen Paranormal Romance Thriller. That’s a real genre now, and that’s fantastic! New material is getting out there to audiences publishers didn’t even know existed. This is only a good thing, even if some of the books turn out to be bad. However, many really great books are written every year which don’t easily fit into traditional genres, and which don’t get their own niftly little subgenres made for them.
When a fellow author asked me to help him decide what genre his book was, I had a very hard time coming up with something. The novel has elements of fantasy, magical realism, drama, mystery, and more. I eventually settled on calling it fantasy, but that feels misleading to me because it is not a typical fantasy novel. If I told you it was a great new fantasy, you’d probably think of something more along the lines of Epic Fantasy, which is a whole different thing altogether. This isn’t a problem for the novel; it’s a great novel no matter what genre you call it. But this is huge for marketing. How is an author or publisher supposed to market this? ‘It’s a fantasy-like novel, but not quite really fantasy, but it has a little bit of magic, but it’s not wizard magic and also there’s a journey to a strange place.’ I wouldn’t buy that book. (Okay, maybe I would, but I think I can safely admit I am not the typical casual reader.)
A solution. Kind of.
This is not an easy problem to fix, and unfortunately I don’t have an actual solution to it. I do have a minor solution to one problem. One trend I have noticed though, at least in my own reading and certainly in my writing, is the tendency of novels nowadays to have elements of fantasy, but not be fantasy as it is typically understood. These are novels with magic, but no dragons or knights or kings. Or there’s a dragon, but there’s no magic. These novels fall very close to magical realism, but the magic/fantasy isn’t really an everyday fact of the world. It might function in everyday ways, but most of the inhabitants aren’t aware, or don’t treat it as an everyday occurrence. These stories tend to have ‘fantastic’ (as in fantasy-ish) elements, but not a fantasy plot or world. In my personal life, I refer to these as Fantastic novels. It is my own little sub-genre I made up for my own peace of mind. In a way I’m just adding to the problem by quantifying separate and unique works into a general group, but like I said genre is important in understanding our world.
Do you have any ideas of how to solve this dilemma? Should we even try? Are more and more specific sub-genres helping or hindering? I’d love to read what you think.
Here is another terrific article which gets to the difficulty of marketing in a science fiction genre, especially in the last few paragraphs. Well worth a read.