If you had asked me a month ago what kind of books I write, I would have said “literary fiction.”
Today, I’m not so sure.
Some novelists set out with the explicit intention of writing a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, or a young adult paranormal romance. I’m not one of them. Much as I’m a panster in my writing process, I’m agnostic when it comes to genre. Tell me a good story and I won’t care what category it falls into.
What good are genres?
Why do we even bother to divide fiction into categories? For the same reason, I suspect, that we have political parties, models of cars, and styles of music. These classifications become shorthand by which consumers (of ideas, autos, sounds) can begin to make decisions about what they want to think, drive, and listen to.
Because there are so many more books than one could ever read (even within a genre), dividing fiction into categories helps readers figure out where to start. But genres do other things.
They give authors an identity. This may be something an author initiates. When I say, “I write literary fiction,” I make a statement about not only the kind of writer I am, but the kind of writer I want to be. (More on this later.)
They give readers an idea of what to expect. Despite our thirst for new experiences, most of us want to know what’s around the next bend. If we’re reading a romance or a western or a mystery, we’ll have at least some idea of the writing style, characters, and themes.
They give agents (and publishers) a way to target audiences. These days, it’s more important than ever to have an identifiable literary “product” to sell. Unfortunately, literary art is not like technology: the newest and most innovative usually doesn’t rake in the big dollars.
A new identity emerges
I’m beginning to perceive a dissonance between my stated genre of literary fiction and what may be the actual genre of my novel-in progress. I think I may be writing—drum roll please—contemporary women’s fiction.
This may not sound like a big deal. You may be thinking this genre switch could be a great thing, given that women buy and read a majority of books and it’s probably an easier genre to sell. But admitting this requires me to shed the last vestiges of the literary snobbery that once had me diving into difficult and obscure authors who seemed more interested in words for words’ sake than in telling a story. (That’s not to say I don’t care about the words. I do, probably more than ever.)
By trying on this new genre of contemporary women’s fiction, I’m finally embracing my new (true?) identity as a storyteller.
For the writers out there, I’m curious to know: What’s your genre and how did you pick it—or did it pick you?
For readers: Do you pay attention to genres when deciding what to read?
- Romance vs. Women’s Fiction discussion from Writing World
- Juliet Madison on why she writes contemporary women’s fiction
- Discussion thread on Absolutewrite.com (starts out discouraging, but keep reading!)
- Definitions of fiction genres from “Writing to Publish”
- Definitions of fiction genres from Agentquery.com
- Robert McCrum of The Guardian on up-and-coming genres (with a UK slant)
- Lev Grossman’s response in Time Magazine to Arthur Krystal’s New Yorker piece on the guilty pleasures of genre fiction. (When I read Grossman’s piece, I almost packed it up because he said so many of the things I wanted to say, so much better. A must-read for anyone interested in thinking about literature, literary criticism, and the place of books in our lives.)
- Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List (themillions.com)
In Other News…
Thanks again to Kourtney Heintz for asking about self-publishing—and sharing my answers to her questions on her blog. Check it out!
The new CWC anthology, Fault Zone: Over the Edge will be out in December. In the meantime, here’s a trailer to get you in the mood for all the weird and wonderful stories contained therein.
I suppose I’m the kind of reader who likes certain genres, but am easily led astray when it’s a good book… In some cases, it helps; in others, it hinders. I suppose the books I really like are the ones that subvert genre from the inside, play around with the typical conceits, make you feel that it really doesn’t matter.
Ooohh… I like the word “subvert,” and also the idea of a book that makes you forget about its genre. Any piece of writing that makes the reader too conscious of what it is or what it’s doing is pretentious. That’s why I think some “literary” fiction doesn’t work.
I agree. A good book is a good book – some labels may even discourage me from selecting a book.
But genre identification sounds important these days. (nice list of reasons above) Every one wants information or identifiers in as brief a form as possible.
Don’t forget your genre label helps librarians: when purchasing and when organizing titles into the modern user friendly areas. (Libraries buy lots of books – so keep them happy!)
Thanks for the reminder–I definitely want to keep libraries happy!
Congrats on finding your books genre while you are writing it!
I had and continue to have a god-awful time with genre. I set out to tell the story that won’t leave me alone. When it’s done, I try to figure out what the heck it is. My first book went through 5 or so genre changes. It’s currently a YA time travel murder mystery. My second book was commercial fiction, then fantasy, now I’m leaning toward literary fiction.
I guess it matters for the reader because they know what they are getting into. If I pick up a cozy mystery, I know there won’t be gore or sex. If I pick up a romance, I know it’s a happily ever after. But there are books that aren’t easy to qualify like Lovely Bones or Outlander and I tend to write those books.
Note: I didn’t say I’d *settled* on my new genre—just that I’m trying it on.
It’s nice to know I’m not suffering alone :-). I continue to be frustrated by the fact that things must be categorized… but know it’s a necessary evil of marketing.
LOL. I seem to pass through genres. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. 🙂
You definitely are in good company. Arthur A Levine said at my last writer’s conference that the job of determining genre rests with agents and editors–I so wish that were true. 😉
Yes, like everything else that agents and editors once were responsible for, that job is now trickling down to authors as well.
As a reader, I definitely pay attention to genre. In fact, before I started blogging and reading other bloggers’ books, I mostly read thrillers, although I also enjoyed literary fiction interspersed between novels with killers and ticking time bombs. As a writer, you know I prefer thrillers. It’s not like I have a lot of novels under my belt (one published, one in progress, and the other a mess–as one’s first novel often is), but it’s the genre in which I’m most comfortable. I hope you slide into your new skin effortlessly. I have no doubt you will!
It may *look* effortless, but seldom feels that way 🙂