To Genre or Not?

As a follow up to my last blog post, I wanted to point out this week’s ‘By the Book’ in the NYT in which the mystery writer, Louise Penny is interviewed (you can read the link here). It serves as a lovely contrast to the interview given by Philippa Gregory which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Louise Penny provides, I believe, the poised and professional tone a writer should convey in these kind of interviews. She also gives an interesting response to the question ‘Which genres do you avoid?’ stating that, while the concept of ‘genre’ can be an effective marketing tool, she doesn’t buy into the notion of genres and considers ‘good storytelling is good storytelling’.

In general I agree with this sentiment, although I do think that certain genres (particularly romance and mystery) provide more than just a marketing tool – they offer a ready-made frame of reference and conventions which an author can use to structure his or her story. These ‘genres’ also provide an eager and accessible audience/fan base. There are few mystery or romance writers who wouldn’t acknowledge the value and support provided by  their genre based writing and fan communities, bookstores and conferences.

When I completed my first novel, I had no idea it would be marketed as a historical mystery so initially at least, it really didn’t conform to ‘rules’  of the mystery genre. It was my agent who first suggested making changes that would place it more squarely in the ‘mystery’ genre. Now I certainly didn’t have to take her advice, but most of the changes made sense and certainly helped make my protagonist more proactive and interesting (rather than being a sleuth in the first version of the novel, she was more swept along by events and the mystery as it unfolded). Making my novel more of a ‘mystery’ rather than simply historical fiction helped bring greater focus to both my characterization and plot and (I think) made the novel stronger as a result. Throughout it all, however, I wasn’t really hung up about the concept of ‘genre’ as I was writing.

After blogging about Philippa Gregory’s evident disdain for the concept of ‘genre’ fiction, I started thinking about whether writers nowadays even consider themselves ‘genre’ writers or whether the terminology/concept is outmoded. Good storytelling is, after all, good storytelling, now matter how a book may be classified on the shelves. So I thought I’d check in with you, fellow TKZers, to see what you thought about the concept of ‘genre’. Do you classify yourself as a ‘genre’ writer? Do you think about the conventions of your ‘genre’ while writing? When you pitch your work or publicize it do you even mention genre? Does ‘genre’ even matter these days?

19 thoughts on “To Genre or Not?

  1. Genre matters as it relates to reader expectations, and also finding your book. A very good romance writer friend wrote a story that at heart was more women’s fiction than romance, and the bookstores shelved it in the literature section. Although it was her favorite book, it was her worst seller.

    I think indie publishing has helped to blur the lines between genres, or lower the boundaries. When Amazon created a sub genre of “action adventure” in romance, my Blackthorne series took off.

    If someone asks me what I write, I’ll say “Mystery” and “Romantic Suspense” but I follow up with “I consider them airplane reads.” I want people to have fun and pass the time with my characters.

    • I think classifications in genre do help readers find your book and, on Amazon, at least, these classifications can also help when it comes to marketing – the more specific you are the better your chances of getting ‘bestselling’ status (or so someone advised at a conference, basically talking about how to manipulate the classifications).
      When people ask me I tend to say I write ‘historical fiction’ and then add ‘mystery’ rather than the other way around – probably because everything I write (YA, middle grade, adult mysteries) are invariably historical:)

      • Don’t get me started on authors who proclaim themselves “best selling” when they hit the top 100, 10, or even #1 in one of Amazon’s five layers of drilling down to an obscure genre classification after they took out a BookBub ad and hit that rank for a day — or an hour.

        One of my books hit #15 in the overall B&N Nook store – not in a category (and that was when the first 6 slots were the 6 Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Gray books. My ranking was due to a promotion, and I would never tout that book as a B&N best-seller. It feels too much like cheating to me.

          • I don’t object to the categories. What I object to is an author calling themselves Best Selling Author when all they did was take advantage of one day’s Book Bub results in one of those obscure categories with only a handful of books in it.

  2. Genre is a complex subject of its own. I think we’ve loosened up a bit (thankfully) but as Terry mentioned above, there is reader expectation. I’ve struggled with genre identity from the beginning. When I started writing, I made no bones about it–I wanted to write westerns. But I was told when I spoke to agents not to call them “westerns” but historicals. Heck–people can’t even agree on what defines “western”.

    I’m working on a novel series that is a hybrid combination of historical/spy thriller and yes, western–complicated by 19th century problems. I could also envision myself at some point attempting something steampunk but I’m not there yet.

    But the reader expectation is tricky for me, as both writer & reader. As a reader, I’d like to read a meaty historical novel. What I often find however, is historical settings as the engine for the typical “will the hero/heroine get together”. The reverse is also true–I will have to be clear when marketing my own work. If I’m misleading, if a historical reader is coming to my books expecting to find mine as a historical setting in which to place the “will the hero/heroine get together” they will be unhappy because they won’t find it. Such storylines are minimalist for me. That’s why I often end up reading thrillers/suspense by default–they may have romance, but these writers know how to keep it in the margins. But as a reader, I realize I’m in the minority there.

    Long story short, I haven’t figured out any easy answers. I do have to recognize how important strict genre interpretation is to others, but I’m glad we’re at least in an age where it’s more flexible now.

    • I think the classifications now have to be flexible as there are so many cross-over genre books. I think you touch on a good point when it comes to ‘genre’ titles like ‘westerns’ which seem to carry there own kind of baggage or ‘stigma’ which seems to place it in such a small niche that agents and publishers want to avoid it…I think ‘romance’ sometimes carries similar baggage as the assumption is that a book classified in that way is somehow a ‘Harlequin romance’ and nothing else. These classifications both illustrate how ‘genre’ can sometimes becomes unwieldy for a writer when trying to categorize their own work.

  3. As I read the blog, I had a thought. Should I chose to write a literary (non-genre) book, I would still write the same way, because it is my way.

    By the way, I think of literary as just another genre with the following rules: 1. It makes a trivia event earth shattering. 2. It must seem profound but is about nothing. 3. Critics must love it. 4. It must have sales of less than a five year old series romance.

  4. When I apologized to my first writing mentor that I wanted to write thrillers, she say, “Don’t apologize. Good writing is good writing.” In her much younger days, she’d been an editor for Penguin in the UK, had tried to write a thriller, but gave up.

    It’s probably easier to get published “traditionally” if you write to a specific genre, and it helps your book to be discovered if you can tag or label it within a genre and even sub-genres.

    The bottom line for me is to write a story you believe in because it’s effing hard work!

  5. If we are seeking publication via the traditional pathway, what our personal opinion is about genre is almost irrelevant. It’s the game we’ve signed up to play, and right now those are the rules, despite their limitations or our wishes.

    • That is certainly true – in the traditional sphere how your publisher defines or categorizes your work as is where you play – although I think it is important when you (or your agent) pitches your work you should consider the ‘genre’ terms you see most appropriate to help sell your work.

  6. Genres are indeed evolving. I have always loved thrillers but couldn’t read too many in a row for lack of character development. Now “they” say, thrillers are not just plot. Readers want character also.

    • There are so many smart, character rich thrillers these days, it’s hard to think of the genre as merely plot driven (even if that’s how some people view them). Goes to show how limiting some of these artificial classifications can be:)

  7. Genre is certainly important when it comes to marketing, but I agree that there’s a lot of stuff that’s interesting that contains elements of multiple genres. Take the Outlander series. Science fiction? Historical? Romance? It has elements of all three. While I found the first book boring it (and its sequels) sure have sold a boatload of copies. I do enjoy the Starz adaptation immensely, and look forward to shortly seeing Sam Heughan nekkid on my new 4K tv when the new season premieres in a couple of weeks. The first book must have been a sales/marketing dilemma. Any number of urban fantasy series combine detective/mystery and supernatural/fantasy tropes. I suspect initial sales to publishers might be difficult, but maybe not as much as they used to.

  8. I leave thinking about the genre of the book I’m writing until the first draft is done. I let it rest for a while, then speed read it through with my internal editor switched off. Patterns emerge together with the main theme and the main idea. This gives me an opportunity to feel its natural genre/genres. If I start with the genre in mind, it gets in the way. It feels limiting.

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