The Genre Games

November 23, 2011 | 46 4 min read

Genre is a hot button, something I realized after the last piece I wrote for The Millions in September. The article was about literary authors turning to genre and the comment stream proved two things. 1) Sci-fi writers are an especially testy crew, and downright obsessed with tradition – which is rather ironic when you consider their subject matter. 2) No one seems to know exactly what genre means.

Historically, genre has two definitions, one based on how a book is treated in the marketplace and the other by the book’s actual content. We’ll get to the market in a minute, but for now let’s consider the fact that genre once contained a tacit agreement between author and reader that a book would observe certain ground rules. If a book was a mystery, for example, the reader approached it as a solvable puzzle, confident he’d find a dead body by the second chapter, that the sleuth’s point of view was reliable, no essential clues were being kept from him, and the killer would be revealed in the end. Each genre, in turn, had its own specific set of antecedents and mandates; when a reader bought a political thriller or Regency romance he may have been hoping to be somewhat surprised by the particulars of the story, but the key word in that sentence is “somewhat.” On a more fundamental level, he knew precisely what he was getting.

But does this rule still hold? Spurred by a sudden and quixotic interest in what constitutes genre, I developed my own little highly-nonscientific experiment. I went to the local library and checked out three books in each of seven genres. I didn’t worry too much about the academics – if the library called a book sci-fi or fantasy, I took their word for it. I dragged the twenty-one books home and devoted an entire rainy weekend to going through them, looking for tropes or devices that separated one genre from another.

I had some really weird dreams that weekend.

And I also solved a mini-mystery that’s always perplexed me, which is why so many adults read YA books. It turns out that YA, at least based on my tiny sample, is by far the best written genre. The only books that seduced me into lying down, pulling up the duvet, and actually reading them were two YAs.

As for the rest: the sci-fi was sort of like Space Mountain at Disney World — weirdly retro in that way all futuristic things seem to be. I found it impossible to distinguish library-declared horror from library-declared fantasy. Based on the covers, my best guess would be that in fantasy, the characters are moving toward something and in horror they’re running away from it. The thrillers struck me as the most formulaic – I could almost always identify the requisite “seems like a good guy but really in cahoots with the enemy” character on sight. I can only assume that romance writers get paid by the word, since slight misunderstandings stretched into 400-page plot arcs — but then again, fantasy writers are also verbose. The mysteries did indeed produce a dead body, but this hardly set them apart from the other genres, which proved equally deadly to their characters. In horror and fantasy, they practically stack the bodies up like firewood. Maybe the difference is that in mystery, someone tries to figure out why the people died?

Genre seemed like little more than a letter on the spine, pretty much imperceptible to the naked eye. In some cases the genre had ventured past its original restraints. Certainly modern mystery writers like Tana French and Kate Atkinson have strayed far from the Agatha Christie template. In other cases, the genres have expanded to embrace such a large spectrum of books that the definition has basically shattered. Romance, for example, has innumerable subcategories, ranging from erotica to Amish.

My conclusion: if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead. As dead as a Scottish warrior turned zombie searching the criminal underbelly of modern day New York for the only woman he’s ever loved.

I know, I know. I analyzed twenty-one books, hardly an exhaustive number. And by my own admission, I know very little about some of the genres included in my experiment. But I’d argue that makes me a better test bunny. I went into my test empty of expectations.

The second definition of genre, and the one that seems to matter most, is genre as a way to package books for sale. Bookselling has always worked along the “If you liked that, you’ll like this too” model, whether it’s an Amazonian monitoring of your purchase history or kindly Miss Gina at the neighborhood bookstore remembering that you love psychological thrillers and calling you whenever a new one comes in.

But in a time when genre is mutating so rapidly, is that formula still a smart way to market books to readers? Promising a book as a mystery and then abandoning the tenets of the traditional whodunit isn’t necessarily a clever way to dupe traditional mystery buffs into buying your quasi-literary opus. Books still sell primarily through word of mouth, even if that word of mouth comes through blog comments and Amazon reviews. If you disappoint your first wave of readers through what they perceive as false marketing, there won’t be a second wave, or a third.

Writers are always going to want to talk about genre. It’s a way to discuss how we got into writing in the first place, the books which inspired us and led us there, and the particular role we want to play in that epic, star-studded production called Literature. But we also need to understand that even if we like to discuss it, genre doesn’t have much to do with what’s really going on inside our books or how we can best find our readership. As ideas go, it’s quaint.

Once, decades ago, at a conference on sexual identity, a speaker stood at the podium and thundered in the manner of an evangelical preacher that “Gender is something we’ll all eventually evolve out of.” The statement was probably designed to shock, and I guess it did, because of all the speakers at the conference, his words are the only ones I can clearly remember. But, considering what’s happened in sexual politics over the last forty years, he also had a point, and genre could prove to be similarly elastic. It may turn out to be a spectrum rather than a series of boxes. A concept that torques, eludes, changes form as the market requires. A definition in transition. Or maybe even something that we’ll all eventually evolve out of.


Image credit: pareerica/Flickr

is the author of the novel Love in Mid Air (Grand Central) and a nonfiction guide for writers, Your Path to Publication (Press 53). She and her agent are currently editing her mystery, which she describes as a Victorian CSI and plans to develop into a series.