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.


Self-published genre fiction takes off in Britain

News today from the UK that self-published titles now account for 20% of ebooks sold in certain genres:

A typical publishing industry genre fiction gatekeeper.

Interestingly the counter argument from a publisher quoted in the article refers to the industry acting as a gatekeeper, which I discussed (with myself, as most bloggers do!) in a previous post here. The thing is, the gatekeeper issue is getting fuzzier. Mainstream publishers routinely pour their marketing budgets into celeb-penned books and name-brand authors, while websites that act as gatekeepers for self-published books gain more traction with every passing month. Maybe it’s because they’re truly independent?

Photo credit: / / CC BY-NC-ND

The genre maketh the book

The reason I used the archaic third-person singular form of “make” in the title is because I was thinking about Shakespeare. And we all know that as soon as you start thinking about Shakespeare, you start talking like Shakespeare. (Unfortunately this doesn’t carry over into actually writing like Shakespeare).

I was thinking about book genres and have been for a few weeks because of the thorny problem of assigning one to Silent Symmetry. Wait a second – do people use “Shakespearean” as a genre or just an adjective? If “Shakespearean romance” is a genre what did the Bard himself call it – “Me romance”?


He knew his genres alright…

Okay, I’m being silly. But genres really matter, whether it be (or not be) (Arrrgh, get out of my head, Shakespeare!) for movies, books or plays. They matter because people like to be darn sure what kind of movie they’re paying to see before they venture out to the cineplex. Romance readers want a happy ending. Crime readers want an investigation that leads to the crime being solved. Sci-fi readers want aliens or futuristic worlds or both. Genre authors deliver exactly what their fans want, and that’s great. So how do I make sure that someone who sees Silent Symmetry on Amazon knows what to expect?

By definition, Silent Symmetry is a Young Adult novel. But that’s an age category, not a genre, so it doesn’t help much. My story is set mainly in Manhattan in the present day, so that makes it “urban”, but it isn’t science fiction. Oh wait! There are beings who may be from another world. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe they’re more like paranormal creatures (though they most definitely are not vampires). Are they shape-shifters? Perhaps. But they’ve been around for a long time, so maybe they’re more akin to wizards or elves, making it a fantasy…

Gah! Okay, so what about the plot? It’s a mystery. Yes, that we can agree on (by “we” I mean me and the voices in my head who are helping me write this post). The main character, Kari, gets involved in a mystery that she tries to solve and on the way she, oh no – she falls in love! Does that make it a romance? It seems to be a sci-fi paranormal fantasy mystery romance. Have I written a mutant? No… it’s not a romance after all because that definitely requires a happy ending and this is only book one of a trilogy. But I need to make sure that female readers know there’s some heart-wrenching, pulse-quickening, lovey-dovey stuff in there. I know! I’ll call it a love story!

And that was where my brain imploded and I came up with the original genre of “a mystery-fantasy love story”. I was happy with it. I felt like it would appeal to my main target of female readers and wouldn’t disappoint anyone. But as I trawled through book blogs requesting reviews, a thought kept nagging at me – is “fantasy” really the right term? Doesn’t it sound like there will be elves and dragons and twinkly bits? This nagging thought eventually turned into a screaming demon that I decided to slay. “Away with fantasy!” I yelled, as I plunged a genre-specific dagger into the demon’s black heart.

Then I read my first Amazon review, which included this:

“(scenes in) the book … brought to mind of Narnia, others the Matrix, others still the X-Files. In the end this is thoroughly its own book and is full of surprises. This is a fantasy of splendid proportions…”

Fantastic. It is a mutant. Even worse, the reviewer called it a fantasy! That was when I decided to chuck in writing and become a crossing guard.

But luckily, before I could fill out the police criminal background check application form, I saw a definition of “paranormal” that got my attention. I had assumed the term referred to ghosts and poltergeists, but what someone said online (I’ve lost the link) was that if you remove the weird creatures from your book and what you’re left with is a present-day story, then you have paranormal fiction on your hands. And when I wrote this, I realized that I’d found my genre:

Silent Symmetry: a paranormal mystery love story.

But Book 2 will mess that up completely…

Photo credit: Lincolnian (Brian) / / CC BY-SA