Genre, Genre, Why for Art Thou, Genre?
The cringe-worthy moment – “My novel is a horror, romance, thriller, mystery, suspense, historical, paranormal, literary work of genius! It’s so unique and creative that it defies genre! Besides, genres are just useless labels. Writing is creative! It shouldn’t be labeled!”
Sadly, these writers don’t understand the industry. Moreover, they don’t understand readers and that, my lovely strangelings, is a tragedy.
Imagine getting off work with a hankering for a spicy chili dinner. Into the store you go…only to discover that some deranged stock boy removed all the labels from every single can and box in the store. You face rows upon rows of gleaming cans and wonder…is this red beans or okra? Are these canned tomatoes or spinach?
Chances are, if you’re a wise grape, you’ll exit the store with an empty basket and go to a store that has more respect for their shoppers and their hard-earned dollars.
Every reader I’ve met has specific tastes in books. Hence, genres.
By categorizing books into genres with, albeit sometimes loose, definitions the publishers are helping readers to easily find books that they’ll love instead of requiring them to go through the torment (and expense) of playing reading roulette.
So why do fledgling writers have this wild misconception that a creative and brilliant novel must be crammed full of genres?
I believe much of the misconception stems from watching the masters of fiction and misunderstanding the difference between a genre and an element. Masters write books with one or two dominate genres and blend those with various elements.
A genre is a defined category of fiction that meets readers’ expectations by focusing primarily on the element involved in that genre.
Elements are things like romance, wonder, thrills, mystery, horror etc. that can be added to or subtracted from any genre of fiction without changing the book’s root genre/s (two at most – like romantic suspense).
So, for instance, although fantasy often contains elements of horror, suspense, mystery and/or romance – those elements don’t change the genre, rather they add to it like spice in a pie. A pumpkin pie is no more or less a pumpkin pie because it also contains cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
How does a writer figure out what genre their book is? By reading. Lots and lots of reading. Only by reading the various genres can a writer get an idea of what the expectations of the readers are in any given genre.
There are also plenty of helpful links that define the genres and their subcategories, such as –
Carly Watters’ …The Difference Between Literary, Upmarket and Commercial Fiction
Connor Goldsmith’s Sci-fi and Fantasy Subcategories
Writer’s Digest Definitions of Fiction Categories and Genres
Writer’s Digest Sub-Genre Descriptions
Wiki’s List of Writing Genres
Agent Query’s Genre Descriptions
And then read and read some more. Your favorite genres, fringe genres, new genres, all genres. Reading a broad spectrum of novels will not only open your mind to new ideas for your writing but also help define what genre your work falls under. Besides, as Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”