The fiction of genre

Rod Serling, creator of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone (not a big field full of vampires, btw) once said that, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” It’s a neat definition, but unfortunately not super helpful when trying to define the genre of my upcoming book, Starley’s Rust. Why? Because the young people and medium-aged adults who buy YA lit don’t apply Serling’s definition; they apply their own, which in turn is based on how the marketplace defines the wide variety of genres and sub-genres that books fit into.

I’ve covered this subject before, with a little help from Shakespeare (he just did some proofreading) and came to the conclusion that book 1 of the trilogy, Silent Symmetry, was a paranormal mystery love story. But this always bugged me because it over-emphasized the paranormal aspect and didn’t mention either fantasy or sci-fi. The reality is that the Embodied trilogy is very soft sci-fi with major elements of fantasy. Yes, there’s love, but it certainly couldn’t be called a romance in either the Twilight or Harlequin sense. There’s a mystery, but it’s not what drives the plot, and the main character is no detective. There isn’t really any paranormal activity in the traditional sense either. But here’s where things get tricky, because the trilogy’s same fuzzy borderline between sci-fi and fantasy also borders on paranormal phenomena (not ghosts, but “psychic” mind control). The trilogy is actually straddling three genres. Good thing it has three legs.

Romance-anatomy, genre fiction, and romance.

I call them all novels, but apparently they’re a romance-anatomy, a genre fiction novel, and a romance.

Things get even more complicated when you start to research the academic analysis of literary genres. It turns out that a few hundred years ago, the novel itself was a genre because all people read were poetry and biographies and other non-fiction work until Cervantes and Defoe came along with their really long, made-up stories. The current New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about the history of the genre in fiction and how tangled it has become.

The article quotes Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, who divided novels into four distinct categories: novel, romance, anatomy, and confession, with a definition for each. It took me about thirty seconds to pick out three books mentioned in the article from my bookshelves, each of which, according to Frye, isn’t just a different genre, but an entirely different kind of book (of the three, only Crime and Punishment is a novel, apparently).

So now that I’m editing my editor’s edit of Starley’s Rust and requesting reviews in advance of its January publication date, the genre question has reared its ugly head again. The thing is, there’s an overarching category for these kinds of novels with non-realistic settings or features, and that’s “speculative fiction”. Sounds great, except that label doesn’t help readers figure out whether they might enjoy reading the book. And the main reason for that is that readers have so many options available to them that each genre has splintered and splintered again into a multitude of sub- and sub-sub-genres (not even counting market-based categories like “young adult” and “chick lit”).

Readers seem to be looking for very specific kinds of books. Even “vampire” isn’t accurate enough because there are “scary” vampires and “sweet” vampires and never the twain shall meet on the same nightstand. That’s why I designated Silent Symmetry as belonging to a clumsy, hyphenated mutant genre (could “sweet mutants” be a niche genre too?). But that’s really not good enough, I realize now.

Yes, the Embodied trilogy is speculative fiction. Absolutely 100%. It has distinct elements of fantasy, but also distinct elements of sci-fi. What you don’t want is to mislead anyone though, or put people off who might actually have enjoyed the book just because they saw the words “science fiction” and immediately thought they were zipping off to faraway planets or futuristic times. Fortunately, there’s another element in the trilogy that I’d overlooked and is an accepted sub-genre of speculative fiction: urban fantasy. Eureka! the Embodied trilogy isn’t swords-and-sorcery like The Lord of the Rings, but it does have a fantastical (spoiler!) and a terrifying (spoiler!) so fantasy fans will be happy.

There you have it. Right now, the Embodied trilogy is an urban fantasy. With some soft sci-fi. And a love story. With paranormal overtones. And a mystery. Although the biggest mystery of all is whether I’ll change my mind again when I write book three.


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