Perhaps you’ve been writing for decades, perhaps days. At some point you’re going to be asked “So, what kind of book are you writing?” Now, naturally the correct answer to this is: “The awesome kind.” However, for me this response has elicited more eye-rolls than guffaws, so I’m beginning to assume that, when people ask what “kind” of book I’m writing, they want to know the genre.
When you are asked this, Gentle Reader, it is best to be prepared. Sucking one’s teeth and gazing desperately about the room does not cultivate an aura of knowledgeable-author-ness.
So let’s talk about genre, shall we?
What is genre?
In literature, genre is the word used when referring to the category or kind that the novel falls into. As a classification system, it has become increasingly important because of the commercial nature of writing and publishing.
n.b. genre can also relate to music, and written works that aren’t novels. This discussion will refer primarily to genre as it relates to novels.
Who really cares about genre?
In a word: Everyone! Whether they know it or not, every person in the publishing process is affected by genre considerations. For example:
The author: An author will write novels in a genre (or genres) that she has enjoyed reading. Because of her past reading, she will have an instinctive feel for how the genre “goes”, and the rules that her chosen genre follow. For example, she wouldn’t write a murder mystery which ends with the sleuth still completely baffled about whodunit.
The literary agent: An agent will mostly represent novels in the same genre that he has enjoyed reading, and that he thinks he can most easily sell to an editor in a publishing house. His experience in the industry will allow him to see where the author has broken any genre “rules”, and whether this is acceptable or will mean that the book bombs.
The editor (in a publishing house): An editor may see many genres crossing her desk. She will usually have specific genres that her house prefers to publish; some publishing houses work exclusively with one genre (the most common, in my experience, being romance).
The bookseller: The bookseller wants to know what genre a new book is, because bookstores tend to group similar books together. The bookseller can’t read every single book that comes in each month, so he has to rely on genre tagging to decide where to file the book.
The reader: A reader uses genre as a signpost for books she may enjoy. If she has previously enjoyed suspense novels, she will end up in the Mystery/Thriller/Suspense section of the bookstore.
OK - How do I know what my genre is?
To help you define your novel’s genre, I’ll briefly describe the main genres below. (Opinions on how to define a genre are as numerous as there are authors of that genre, but I’m going to have a lash at it – tally-ho!)
Comedy – as the name suggests, the emphasis is on humour. The novel is written in a humorous tone, and the events which unfold are funny or absurd. The humour may come from a cynical world view, or as a satire/parody on a recognised theme. Examples include Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.
Crime – these novels are based on our fascination for social deviance and life on the edge of the law. The author might write from either side of the law, i.e. from the point of view of police, or of criminals. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a classic example.
Erotica – these novels often have a lot in common with the romance genre, but additionally have accounts of sex and relationships which are intended to arouse. Sex scenes are frequent, and may be explicit. However, erotica novels are not simply sexual anthologies – they must have a coherent storyline. These days, both heterosexual and GLBT markets are catered for. The rise of e-books has done a lot for the marketing of the erotica genre.
Fantasy – the story takes place in a world that the author has created. Even if JRR Tolkien didn’t invent the genre, his Lord of the Rings trilogy has many of the recognised tenets of the fantasy novel: an invented world, everyday use of magic, non-human characters, a quest against evil. Modern-day fantasy is a hugely popular genre. I have enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and anything by Diana Wynne Jones is alright by me.
Historical – any novel set before (about) 1920. Historicals can be set in any country or period, and may or may not centre on a real historical figure. Readers often enjoy them for their historical details, and reading an accurate historical novel is a great way to learn about life in other times. There are many marvellous historical authors; currently very popular are Philippa Gregory’s historical about the Kings and Queens of England.
Horror – the words “scary” and “gory” spring to mind. These are the books that give you the willies, and force you to sleep with the light on for a week. Many horrors include violence or the threat of possible harm. Some are gory, while others rely on the reader’s own imagination to fill in the blanks. Stephen King is the “king of horror”, but there are many other excellent authors such as Clive Barker.
Literary – It is arguable that this label doesn’t belong in a list of genres. This is because the characteristics of literary fiction stem from how the book is written, rather than what is about. A novel may be literary if the writing style is more important than the story, or if character development takes precedence over action/plot. Literary novels are almost always character-driven rather than plot-driven. Examples include: Mrs Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf, and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Mystery – The classic elements of mystery are: a crime (usually murder) committed by an unknown culprit; a sleuth (who may be an amateur, police officer or professional detective) who must investigate by finding clues and gathering information; and a culprit/killer who remains unknown to everyone (including the reader) until the dramatic conclusion. Well-loved examples include: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot/Miss Marple books, or The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
Romance – the classic romance has a hero and heroine meeting at the beginning of the novel and, over the course of the book, overcome internal obstacles (for example, she thinks he’s an insufferable macho) and/or external obstacles (for example, she works for the firm that is making a hostile takeover of his) to fall in love at the end of the book. Traditional romances demand a Happily Ever After ending. Sex scenes are not obligatory, but romance and sexual tension certainly is. There is also a growing demand (and supply) for GLBT romance. We’ve come a long way from the heaving bosoms of Barbara Cartland’s era; these days, there are many clever and original romance writers such as Nora Roberts, Loretta Chase and Jo Beverley.
Suspense/Thriller – these novels often have a lot in common with crime, horror and mystery. Typically, they involve the protagonist involved in a cat-and-mouse game, where the stakes are his (or someone else’s) life. Unlike in a mystery novel, the reader will know the identity of the bad guy, or at least see parts of the action from the bad guy’s point of view. The emphasis is on the scariness of the protagonist’s situation, and the fancy footwork he performs to triumph.
Science-Fiction – more commonly known as Sci-fi. The genesis of many sci-fi novels is asking “what-if” questions about science: What if humans were forced to live on another planet? What if archaeologists found some old DNA and managed to recreate dinosaurs? The best sci-fi novels have the reader thinking, jeepers – this might really happen in the not-too-distant future! A classic sci-fi is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. More recently, Stephen Baxter and Michael Crichton have been very impressive.
Women’s Fiction – a fairly broad title, but that’s because it has come to represent a broad range of writing. As the name suggests, this genre is mostly concerned with women’s interests and issues close to the feminine heart. It is often centred on personal growth, private tragedy, family and coming-of-age. Some industry experts have said that “chick-lit” has been subsumed by Women’s fiction.
Young Adult (YA) – I’m personally not convinced that YA can be called a genre at all, because the label doesn’t come from what the book is about, but rather what age group it is aimed at. YA novels run the gamut from romance to thrillers, and everything in between. However, the category YA is useful, since a YA romance will be written differently from a non-YA romance. The main rule for writing these novels is that the protagonist (main character) is no older than nineteen, and of course the writing and storyline must appeal to readers under twenty.
If I have forgotten a genre, Gentle Reader, please let me know in the comments!
Help! I think I’m trans-genre!
So you looked at the list above and realised that you’ve written an historical-science-fiction-thriller-romantic work of literary women’s fiction? Take a deep breath – it’s OK.
Most novels will have one or more sub-plots, and might flirt with features of other genres. But they usually will fall into one distinct category.
For example, my novel Unseemly Conduct is set in 1890, so it could be an historical. It also features the rather delicious Inspector Dennehy, who sets Isabel’s pulse racing – so it might sound like a romance. It is written in a light tone, and has quite a lot of humour – so there’s the possibility of calling it a comedy.
But let’s not get carried away: Unseemly Conduct is a mystery. The story begins with a death, and no one knows whodunit. While the killer works away in the background (unseen by the reader), the sleuth Isabel must work through a series of obscure clues to realise who it is.
If you are still confused about your genre, try sharing your “pitch” (a 200-word explanation of your novel) with other writers.
General Genre tips:
Write what you like to read. You will instinctively know the guidelines and boundaries of your novel’s genre if you read within that genre. Don’t try to write within a genre just because you think it is the “next big thing” – you’re unlikely to produce a great vampire story if you would rather be writing a crime novel.
Be clear about your genre. It’s OK to have sub-plots or “flavours” from other novels, but your novel will sell more easily if the agent, editor, and bookseller can identify where it fits in the market.
Know your genre. Some genres have hard-and-fast rules, such as the Happily Ever After in the romance. Break these at your own risk – in the worst case scenario, it will ruin your chances of publication.
Good authors read more broadly than their genre. It is better to have broad reading habits – it will very likely make your writing well-rounded and multi-faceted.
As always, Gentle Reader, I love to hear your thoughts. Go ahead - include your genre in the comments below!
From below a portrait of Queen Vic,