Genre: Good or Evil

categorizing-by-genres-books-1204038_960_720A couple months ago T.D. McKinnon wrote a post for Indies Unlimited that discussed literary fiction versus genre fiction. He also mentioned “…the increasing number of genre labels that sometimes seem to me a little obscure, with the assignment to the various categories certainly more subjective than objective.” In this post, I’m going to discuss genre labels, a bit about their history (at least as I see it), their positives and any negatives.

As I see it, the purpose of genres is as a shorthand to classify a book’s content. It helps bookstores arrange books that are similar to be close together. In turn, this helps readers determine if a book is something they’re interested in or as a way to quickly focus in on the books that potentially fit what they’re looking for. Imagine visiting a brick and mortar bookstore where all the books were on the shelves arranged by author last name, ISBN, or some other method without first having them grouped into genre. Could you find what you were looking for? Genre has historically been one of the most critical factors in book discovery. If a potential reader can’t find your book, they can’t buy or read it.

However, genre has a downside. I’ll use a real book, No Good Deed by M.P. McDonald, as an example. In this book Mark Taylor, a professional photographer, purchases an old camera in an Afghanistan bazaar. When he gets home to Chicago and starts playing with it he discovers that when he develops a roll of film, in addition to the pictures he took, there are sometimes additional pictures showing something tragic that is going to happen in the near future. If he can figure out what it is and act quickly enough, he can prevent it from happening. On the surface, this book and the rest of the series it kicked off are thrillers. However, that magic camera is something else. Something supernatural (what section of the bookstore would that go in?) or possibly science fiction. It probably gets shelved in the thriller section. That’s okay for thriller fans, assuming someone who loves thrillers, but hates any kind of science fiction or supernatural aspects in a book, will pick up on that from the description when browsing and pass it by. But what about the reader who wants what I’ll call “light science fiction”? A book with some science fiction content but is mostly some other genre. Unless the book gets shelved in science fiction, he’s unlikely to find it and if they do, the thriller readers won’t be able to find it. (Shelving in both sections presents a different set of problems.)

This issue, that a book often has aspects of multiple genres or, even worse, doesn’t fit any one genre well enough to shelve it there (at least in my example, the thriller section is a reasonable choice), the book was likely to be passed over by publishers. (Essentially the thought was if you couldn’t shelve it, you couldn’t market or sell it.) In the past, the author whose muse inspired them to write books that were cross-genre or a bad fit for any single genre were forced to conform or risk being left out in the cold. But with the indie revolution, these authors can bypass publishers in an attempt to find readers interested in what they have to offer. Their primary retail outlets are online and most (all?) of these booksellers provide a means of attaching multiple genre classifications to a book. In this environment genre becomes less of a strait jacket while maintaining its ability to describe a book to aid in discovery for potential readers.

In my opinion this argues for more and more genre and subgenre labels describing the book’s contents more precisely, which is actually just continuing what the trend has been throughout history. Although it probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, at the highest level there are two genres, nonfiction and fiction. Does the book purport to be true or (mostly) made up? At first blush this initial cut seems to provide a lot of value with no downside. It appears the first attempt to subdivide fiction (since that’s where we’re focused here) was Aristotle, who said all stories are either tragedy or comedy. Even here, there were stories that didn’t clearly fit one or the other (the Roman playwright Plautus coined the term “tragicomedy” for this). Over time new genre labels have been coined to describe a type of book when the need has presented itself (or a publisher has seen a potential marketing tool). The YA (young adult) genre is one that didn’t exist when I was a young adult. More recently the thriller and suspense genre labels have come into play to more precisely describe a mystery subgenre where solving the puzzle of whodunit takes a back seat to some other aspect of the story. Even the thriller has subgenres, the “legal thriller,” for one. Each of these has helped readers more easily find what he or she wants. Someone looking for a book “kind of like Agatha Christie” can look for a cozy mystery and won’t have to wade through all of John Grisham’s books while trying to find what they want. New labels that have started to take hold more recently are the new adult (essentially YA with more mature content) or boomer-lit, which chronicles the concerns of the aging baby boomer generation.

As a reader I see more genre labels as a good thing. It helps me more quickly narrow down my book search to the kind of book I like and gives me tools to more easily describe a book’s content to my fellow readers. It gives authors a means of more precisely targeting readers. Whether readers are interested in your dystopian-erotic-thrillers is an entirely different question. But no matter how obscure or niche the genre might be, if it can be classified, however small the market, readers who want it have a way to find your book. With the ability to use multiple genres to describe a book, everyone should be a winner.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

24 thoughts on “Genre: Good or Evil”

  1. Your last paragraph says it all for me. More categories would help many of us, writers who do not fit neatly into existing genres, and readers wanting to narrow their search. My books are a case in point. Are they fantasy, historical fiction, romance, magic realism …? None are a neat fit but all apply. (and I am aware that magic realism is not yet considered a genre by most publishers)

    1. That’s how I see it, Yvonne. There is a point of diminishing returns, maybe (more thoughts on that in another comment) and I think for more genres to be a positive you need to be able to assign your book to multiples.

  2. I’m all too familiar with this problem as it seems to apply to all my books. You make an excellent case for bookshops being willing to shelve books in multiple genres.

    Let this be the next step in the revolution!

    1. And that’s my reason for seeing more detail, more options as a good thing, Ian. With enough options, those books that are a little of this and a little of that can be categorized more easily.

  3. I, too, am for more classifications, especially cross-pollinated ones. Whenever I list a new book on Amazon, choosing the category is painful because my books tend to cross over several. I would love it if we could create our own!

  4. The trouble with “more categories” is that they can proliferate out of control and become useless for readers or writer/markers. Science Fiction is a good example of this. Start a thread about SF genres and you’ll end up with literally hundreds listed. And the more you divide something up… the more easily you can end up with “straddling” books that don’t quite fit in either.
    My books tend to “straddle” and it’s a problem. This can happen not just for one book, but for an entire oeuvre. My only hope is that people get my books because they like my writing because no two are much alike or in the same genre. This can be a HUGE drawback. Two great American writers I can think of suffer from this, Don Robertson (whose Paradise Falls gets my nomination for “The Great American Novel”) is kind of a genre unto himself.
    Thomas Berger wrote Little Big Man — another decent shortlister for GAN — but his other books are all over the road, and his Reinhardt thriller series not popular. So both are ignored.
    Meanwhile there are plenty of inferior writers who do quite well because they have figured out how to do generic genre romances or horror or mystery.

    1. BTW… another aspect of this problem is the confining BIC categories that we see so many publishing and promo sites restricting to. One of the problems there is TOO MUCH dividing. I go nuts trying to figure out if something is “thriller” or “mystery” or whatever, when a general category of “Crime” would serve everybody better.
      I guess you could say it’s a case of genre population buggering the classification system.

      1. A few thoughts and responses to your comments, Lin.

        First, while I’m sure there are inferior writers who do well doing generic genre romances, etc, it might be that you feel they’re inferior because you don’t like the books that hit the middle of the generic genre, whatever it is. Nothing wrong with that. i’m sure there are inferior writers that do well and certainly any author, inferior or not, had a better chance of getting lucky if they were a neat fit for a genre. But, at least i theory, those formulas were hitting the sweet spot of readers who like the genre.

        As for the possibility of too many categories, maybe. For selling paper books in stores, absolutely. What I’m kind of expecting to evolve is something not as hierarchical as we picture genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, but some other way of defining the contents of a book. Possibly a combination of measurements (a 0 through 5 on the spiciness scale) and a list of the various things it has (time travel, near future, historical in a specific period, etc).

        I read somewhere that Netflix has something like 30,000 categories they use to classify movies and these figure into the recommendations they make based on what you’ve watched and/or liked previously. While I think there is a limit to how much deep into the specifics is going to be valuable for a reader, a whole lot of detail could be useful for a recommendation engine.

        1. No, actually. I very seldom use terms like “inferior writers” or put down other writers’ work. But when I do, I mean “inferior writers”, not up to the standards set by other writers in their sales bracket, not “writers of the kind of genres I don’t like.” I think everybody is pretty much aware of this, actually.

  5. Pull up the Wikipedia entry on “fantasy” sometime. The list of genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres is kind of astonishing.

    As you say, Al, genres help readers identify books they think they’d like to read, and Amazon’s multiple categories can certainly be a book to cross-genre indie authors. I do wonder, though, whether the slicing and dicing will reach its useful limit, to the point where readers will be able to drill down to, say, a paranormal romance where the female character is an airplane mechanic whose boss/love interest shapeshifts into a turtle. 😉 At some point, the granularity begins to do readers a disservice.

    1. Yes, Lynne, at some point it’s too much detail. Where that is will be different for different readers. If a reader has tools to dig as deep into the divisions and subdivisions as they want, they wouldn’t need to go any further down the rabbit hole than they want.

      But I think you’d be surprised at how specific some readers can be. I’ve poked around on the Amazon forum for romance readers a few times in the past. The romance genre is, IMO, more specific and unyielding in its conventions than any other. Yet some of those readers will post in the forum looking for very specific things that get extremely specific. A short, older hero with a one-footed, red head, heroine isn’t much of an exaggeration.

  6. The trouble with genre is it’s like a Venn diagram without enough circles in some ways, and too many circles in others. And they don’t overlap properly. Like so many others, most of my books fit into about half a dozen of those circles. I conducted an experiment this year, writing and publishing a book that fit firmly into one genre, but I’m not finding that a book like that is any more discoverable than my cross-genre stuff. And I actually disappointed readers because they wanted more of the cross-genre stuff. You can’t win on that one. Or at least I can’t.

  7. You’ve got it right that genre is all about marketing. Thus you write cross-genre at your own risk. My “Sword Called Kitten” series is both a straight YA fantasy for twelve-year-olds, and a humorous takeoff on Fantasy aimed at mature Sword and Sorcery fans. Both bookstores and librarians have told me they don’t know where to shelve it, and I don’t really have an answer.
    Which is the problem independent writers have. With no business-minded editor to keep us on the straight and narrow, we write what we please, merrily breaking all the traditional rules, and then whine because we can’t market our books by the traditional methods.
    What some genius (sorry, folks, it ain’t me) needs to do is find another way to label our books that gives buyers a better idea what’s in them, without pigeonholes.
    If I label my work, “Anne McCaffrey meets Terry Pratchet with a touch of Terry Brooks” would you know what you were buying? (Yeah, it really ain’t me)

    1. What some genius (sorry, folks, it ain’t me) needs to do is find another way to label our books that gives buyers a better idea what’s in them, without pigeonholes.

      Oh, wow, yes. Pretty please with sugar on top. I won’t even mind if whoever does it makes a fortune, because they’ll deserve it.

      1. Gordon and mmjustus, thanks for the comments.

        The venn diagram example is what I was thinking when I talked about measuring different things and aspects of a book as one approach that might be valuable. I *think* that’s what Netflix’s system does.I’d be surprised if there isn’t someone out there working on this right now. If you’ve ever used Pandora where you “seed” it using a specific song or artist and it creates a random play list, I think that is the same concept. The little I’ve played around with it, I was surprised at how well it did and even though some of the songs/other artists it came up with were the obvious choices, IMO, I was surprised at others that were a good fit and I’d have never thought of. Being able to do that kind of thing (“find me a book like X”) is a place I think would be good to get to. Amazon’s recommendation engines guess at that kind of thing with also-boughts, but works much differently. The big challenge there would be figuring out how to classify a book in some kind of automated fashion.

        1. My only problem with what we in libraryland always called readalikes (and there are many, many books on the subject) is that they don’t take into consideration what it is that the two books actually have in common. My favorite (to the point of being a hobbyhorse) example is that I think Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series are great “if you like this you’ll like that” candidates for each other. But the Peters are historical mysteries set in Egypt during the late 19th-early 20th century, and the Vorkosigan series is space opera.

          This, however, is what they have in common for me: Larger than life characters in an exotic setting, an unreliable narrator, romance, a hero (Miles Vorkosigan and Ramses Emerson) to ooh over, mystery, characters who grow up and older and change over the course of the series, adventure that emerges from the characters’ personalities and flaws, and more romance [g] .

          None of that really has anything to do with genre (even the romances are subplots in both series). But my search for more books that are like both of these series has taken on something of the flavor of the quest for the Holy Grail.

          Which is why, even, or maybe especially, as a former readers’ advisory (another libraryland term) librarian, I’m highly suspicious of “if you like this you’ll like that” kinds of recommendations.

          And, wow, I didn’t mean to get so longwinded [climbs back down off of hobbyhorse].

          1. mmjustus, you’re right, but I think being able to do read alikes that might put those two together is the next logical step. It could even take the form of you picking the elements you care about (unreliable narrator, exotic setting, etc) while ignoring other aspects including those things that currently tend to define a genre.

          2. The problem with that is that most people (speaking from library experience) have no clue what to call the things that they find in common. I can be articulate about it because I am trained and have the vocabulary. But most non-writers have no clue what an unreliable narrator is, just to pick a random example out of the air. I think it would be really cool to do what you’re suggesting — I’m just not sure it would be real-world workable.

  8. Thanks for using my book as an example. It’s been a challenge trying to find the right categories to place it in. Thriller with magical realism would probably fit best, but there is no such genre on Amazon or any other retailer so far. There’s metaphysical and visionary, but they are separate from thriller and I’m not sure the terms are widely used enough to be of any help.

  9. Sometimes trying to fit your book into a genre can prevent any interest. I wrote a book called ‘Porcelain Society’ about a world of living dolls raising flesh and blood children. Is it a fantasy novel? Yes, but most readers looking for fantasy novels aren’t looking for this book. Dystopian? Technically, but again, not many people looking for dystopian stories are looking for this one especially since the society and its flaws are a backdrop of the story, rather than being the story itself. Amazon even had a genre called Family Life. Again, it’s an arguable fit, but it’s not what many readers are expecting if that’s the genre their searching for. So it becomes a riddle. How do I classify it? There really isn’t any place I could think of that would fit a reader’s expectations. I don’t know that a greater number of subgenres are really going to help this one. Then again, even as I’m writing this, it occurs to me that Fantasy Childhood Stories would be an exceptional description. Now how do I go about getting the world to accept that as a new genre?

    1. There you go, Matthew, convincing yourself to agree with me. I think. 🙂

      Having to force a book into a single genre, I see as a strait jacket and negative. Being able to more precising explain exactly what your book is like in a somewhat standard way so that other books that are close can be easily identified is a positive.

      Imagine the positive of having other books in the Fantasy Childhood Stories genre with people who liked them being easily able to find your book and fans of your book being able to find them. Wouldn’t that be a win for everyone concerned?

      1. If it doesn’t seem clear whether or not I agree with you, it’s because I’m not clear on that myself. Yes, a specific genre, hopefully better worded than the one I came up with, could be beneficial. Then again, how many people would actually be looking for that specific genre. It strikes me that new genres and subgenres are formed by popular works. Example, a subgenre that has achieved a great deal of success is Parnormal Romance. The reason? Twilight. That’s a genre formed by a book, not a genre formed for a book. So it seems to me that for a book without an appropriate genre listing to acquire one, it must first get noticed without that benefit. It’s that old conundrum, can’t get the job without the experience, can’t get the experience without the job.

  10. You hit it in one, Matthew. Every new genre starts life as the ‘Catch 22 Genre’. It’s surprising how many books land in that slot before they find their feet through the readership profile, and that takes time to develop.

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