Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Genres in Practice

For those of you who don’t know, my name is Josh, I’m a fantasy romance writer, and here are some of my ideas on writing and literary genres in particular.

At first glance, genres seem pretty simple. Genres are categories. Some basic examples include science-fiction, young adult, women’s, and horror. They tell us what we’re about to read before we turn to page one. Genres are supposed to be the labels we use to figure what kind of story we’re about to read or write, but this simple idea gets messy. It gets messy fast.

For writers, it genres can get particularly annoying. Whenever you approach a publisher, you include the genre of your novel. Again, this should be easy. We think of our favorite books or movies and they routinely fall into very easy and obvious categories. Star Wars is science fiction. Lord of the Rings is fantasy. The Outsiders is young adult. It all seems so easy.

It’s not much easier for readers. Last week I went to Borders and noticed some strange placements. A copy of Pride and Prejudice was next to Twilight. Little Women had been placed beside Hunger Games. So what made those books young adult? What made those books young adult when they would probably be off in the literature section too?

Nothing really. As near as I can tell, genres attract particular kinds of readers and the bookstore guessed what those readers would like to see. Pride and Prejudice, for all of its literary merit, is basically a romantic comedy.

And what do you do with books written with the sole purpose of messing up genres? Look at books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Jane Slayre, or any of the other new hybrid books which start off as literary classics and meld into horror, sci-fi, or fantasy.

One solution is to get more specific. We can combine genres, so we are now reading young adult romance or romantic comedy, but those get kind of strange when we look at some of the possibilities. We might start off with teen literature, but then it goes to teen romance, then paranormal teen romance. It spirals out pretty quick.

A lot of it just comes down to marketing, but I think of my own books, and classification gets a lot harder. My first book, Infinite, was the story of an incubus who falls in love with a vampire. This should be fantasy? Horror? Young adult? Action?

Any of those genres would work. It is a fantasy story insofar as we get lots of supernatural creatures. Some of the scenes are pretty scary too. One of the main characters, Kylie Colt, is desperate for blood and faces the possibility of starving to death. Both characters are in high school, so hey, young adult could be logical. And there is a lot of fighting, so action makes sense.

When I approach publishers with a new book, I try to be honest, but it’s hard. So many books could fall into so many categories. I recently heard one character on TV say something about how Twilight is the lamest horror book ever written. Horror? Really? Well, it does make sense. Edward is a vampire. We expect vampires to be scary.

If you’re a reader then, just be open and recognize that genres are loose labels. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. If you’re a writer, employ genres when you have to and don’t let a label box you in. Mysteries have romantic subplots. A horror story might include some sci-fi.

Even if they don’t always work, genres are useful. Sometimes. You head to one part of a bookstore and you get a sense of what you might find. Still, there is always the potential for a surprise. This is what makes bookstores so awesome. You can never be completely sure what you’ll get.

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