The Genre Games

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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

Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?

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“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.

That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also—I’ll spare you the precise language involved—highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.

“I could write a mystery,” I said.

It’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a minuscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?

Here’s my take on what’s happening—which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.

Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.

But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.

And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.

Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed—“a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it”—under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”

“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”

Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers—save possibly Stephen King—who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”

Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”

Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.

Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”

While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.

“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”

The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.

Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”

So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.

“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”

“More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”

It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.

In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”

Image Credit: Pexels/Dominika Roseclay.