Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Genres and what defines them

(Prepare yourselves... actual discussion about books and agenting... panic may ensue. =)

So, this is a general topic that I've been thinking about for the last few weeks, and having various discussions with people about. You always hear this general piece of advice that agents want to know where in the bookstore your book will be shelved. In fact, I once shared an office suite with an agent who wouldn't consider a query letter, unless it had that information in it. Agents want to know what sort of genre your book fits into because there's separate sets of editors for each genre. Speculative fiction gets lumped together, sort of, but there's also romance/women's fiction editors, YA editors, thriller editors, nonfiction editors of all colors and stripes, commercial fiction editors, and literary fiction editors. That's a helluva lot of categories, and I've mostly compressed them together.

And it's hard for the everyday writer to know where precisely their book fits into the bookstore, for a number of reasons. As far as I know, bookstore shelving is determined by managers of chains and the executives and buyers of those chains, through some mystical formula arrived at by sales data and magic numbers. The editors don't really have much control over where their author's book is shelved, except for the tool of being able to pitch it to the sales department as a certain type of book. So when a prospective client gets asked to write in their query letter, whom they would like to be shelved between in the bookstore, they don't always know. And I don't expect them to know.

Which leads to strange combinations of authors, let me tell you...

But that's not the real point of this post. The real point is that it's terribly, terribly hard to determine which genre a book should be shelved in. If it's got dragons, well then it obviously needs to be in the fantasy section. But I'll also make the argument that the Naomi Novik books could easily be considered historical fiction, with some fantastical embellishments, of course. =) Same thing with THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE or THE HISTORIAN; they're considered "literary fiction", but they've got nice-sized doses of speculative elements in them. And let's not even get started on magical realism, which has been around forever, and lends itself to strange things like a talking fish in a river, in some book which is on the AP English reading list. A talking carp, no less.

I've come to the following partial conclusions about genres, which are not earth-shattering, mind you, but seem to work for me.

  • Romance novels are essentially character-based stories; yes, plot and stuff and milieu happens, but it's all secondary to the characters. The more interesting the subplots involving the side characters are, the better the romance novel is. Can you tell I'm in love with Eloisa James' writing?
  • Literary fiction and commercial mainstream fiction are damn hard to define. A lot of literary stuff is defined by the quality of the writing, but sometimes the writing is *too* character-oriented. You get a novel about someone staring at their toenail in their Brooklyn apartment, bemoaning the hipster lifestyle, and NOTHING HAPPENS. You've got to have a plot in there, or it's not really interesting to the reader, at least that's my take on it.
  • On the same topic, I think that commercial mainstream fiction is more accessible to the majority of people because it speaks to them on a common level. It may be about entertainment, it may be about themes of family and togetherness, or it may be about something else. The writing doesn't have to be superb (hello, Dan Brown, anyone?), but it's got to have a plot that keeps the reader wanting to know more.
  • So based on those assessments, I've come up with the weird dichotomy that I consider anything by Amy Tan to be commercial mainstream fiction, and things like Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES to be literary fiction--the last one mostly based on the writing. Or stuff like INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, which are these lovely short stories that shed light on a totally different culture than mine. And then you have people like Alice Hoffman, whose books I adore (GREEN ANGEL is a particular favorite), and where in the world do you put her?
I've also decided that I'm very interested to know what you all think about this. So come, discuss away! I want to know where you draw the line between literary fiction and commercial mainstream fiction. I want to know how you define other genres. Include examples of books, if applicable. I know that we've got a ton of great readers and writers reading this blog, and I want to get your take on the whole genre game.


Diana said...

I can relate how hard it is to categorize books these days. Stories aren't as simple as they used to be. Especially when people constantly want something different and fresh. I was at the writers conference in Pittsburgh last month and I had editors having a hard time putting my book into a genre.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry I don't have much to add here, but you've come dangerously close to another question I've been dancing around without ever finding "The Answer."

Where does one draw the lines between Children, Middle Grade, YA and Adult?

Sure, the extremes seem easy enough to recognize, but if an author's ideal reader were 10 years old, where would you place the story? (My twins are suckers for Rowling's HP series, and I think they wanna do the whole camp-out-at-the-bookstore thing again when the final instalment is released next month.)


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Defining genre is darn hard. I'm all over the place, raving about Jennifer Estep's Karma Girl (I know, not one of yours. Sorry, but read on), but I keep looking at it and going, "How is this paranormal?"

For better or for worse, paranormal, to me, is vamps and weres and shapeshifters (not the band; my groupies will get the joke). NOT superheroes. Yet I've seen it listed as paranormal in multiple places and even though I keep wrinkling my nose at that classification, there it is.

Which is the problem, I think. A lot of people (myself included) think that "commercial mainstream fiction" is a catch-all. In CMF, you can have books about rock bands. You can have books about paintings that tell a story. You can have anything and everything.

Is this correct?

Who knows? Genre is one of those things, like obscenity, that's in the eye of the beholder (and people, before you slam me, that's a loose play on the legal definition of obscenity).

Until a huge group of people in the publishing industry sit down and say, "These are the hard and fast rules," that's how it's going to be.

However, novels and story collections are, by and large, written by creative people. We LIKE to break the rules (some of us more than others of you), and we'll do what we can do bend those rules, bend the lines that have been drawn around the genres and then where will we be?

Clueless. Just like now.

I hope this doesn't come off as a downer. It's not meant to. Rather, it's meant to be one of those things we all shake our heads at and agree is nothing more than a mess but is something, sort of like Axl Rose, we just can't fix the way we wish we could.

Jess said...

Interesting. I just did a semi-related post today. For me, it's about the accessibility. The Lovey Bones was borderline literary in my head, but leaning more toward not, because I found it very accessible. I could get into the story and relate to the characters, and it was well-written, too. But something like Charles Frazer's Thirteen Moons is hands-down literary. It's got gorgeous writing, but I just could not get into it. Oddly, almost *because* it was so beautifully written. (And anything that uses dashes instead of quote marks, I mean, that speaks for itself... :)

eric said...

I spent quite awhile trying to find a definition for "literary fiction" at one point.

The consensus seemed to be that literary fiction was simply a work that was admired by book critics, English professors, and other such people (those who worked in the field of books and writing professionally). Gravity's Rainbow, Proust, Moby Dick (almost typed as Moby Duck, which I suppose would be the story of as man obsessed with killing a giant white... well, duck).

On the other hand commercial mainstream fiction was simply considered books that sell a lot of copies. Steven King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling.

Some authors can hit both genres with the same book of course (I think John Irving and Huraki Murakami would both qualify).

Sadly, this isn't easy to apply until after you've seen if a book sells.

I'd almost be tempted to throw in the old Hitchcock McGuffin as a criteria. If there is a McGuffin, it's commercial. No McGuffin (that is to say entirely character driven) then it becomes literary. But it's far too early in the morning to think about specific examples.

I really think part of the problem is that "literary" just sounds so much better than "commercial." Literary makes me think of serious people at typewriters smoking pipes and plumbing the depths of man's fragmentation from modern society. Commercial I think of someone in a flannel shirt writing books about clowns with chainsaws chasing women through a forest. It's not right, but I think it's out there and muddies the issue even further.

Anyhoodleydoodle, just my thoughts.

Tess said...

I too have a really hard time defining literary vs commercial mainstream fiction, though maybe I just need to read even more. Yeah, read more :)

Within historical fiction, we tend to divide things between mainstream historical (John Jakes, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, Sandra Gulland, Stephanie Cowell, Sarah Dunant), romantic historical (Elizabeth Chadwick, Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Kay Penman, Sara Donati) and historical romance (Jo Beverley, MJ Putney, Mary Balogh, Eloisa James, Claire Delacroix, Nicola Cornick) - RH differs from HR in that RH has the breadth of mainstream historical, yet also includes at least one major romantic lead couple. Though with The Greatest Knight, Elizabeth Chadwick did slip into mainstream HF as her lead character is a man and there's less emphasis on romantic relationships and more on his development from impoverished knight to influential courtier.

Jenny Rappaport said...

Tess, that's absolutely fascinating about the distinctions within historical fiction. I had no idea they existed that way; I thought it was just mainstream and historical romance.

You learn something new everyday! =)

Cheryl DuCoin said...

I thought about my favorite speculative writers and books. Wilbur Smith's River God, Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope, Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorksakian series and the newer Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, and Esther Friesner's Nobody's Princess.

What in the crazy universe do these have in common?

History. And playing with history. Kushner has Riverworld, set in a fictional swashbuckling semi-renaissance world.

Why does her books sit in the Fantasy section? There is nary a dwarf, elf, or magical being in sight. I guess it's like the setting in the Grimm fairy tales. When we were kids, we fed on reading fairy-tales--of princes and princesses and evil dukes.

In contrast, Novik's world of fighting dragons weighs heavier on the fantasy side than historical.

Sword and sorcery is a natural combination if you remember fairy tales.

And history--what is more fantastic than being transported back in time? Perhaps this is why historical or simulated historical novels are placed in the SF/Fantasy section.

Cheryl DuCoin

The Home Office said...

A thought-provoking post, with good comments. I understand the need to place books into some kind of niche, but I think the marketing cart has been placed before the creative horse. The fragmentation and hair-splitting differences among genre definitions is becoming too arcane to have much meaning. I’m comfortable with calling my current project (currently being flogged to an editor near you) a mystery, but the killer is known halfway in; the rest of the book consists of finding out what the hero is going to do about it before he gets clipped himself. Does that make it a thriller? Suspense? I’d like to say, “Who cares?” but even I’m smart enough to know that’s not the world we live in.

I’m appalled to hear of the agent who wouldn’t consider the query unless the author stated the genre. I know agents are busy, but isn’t that the kind of help a new author should be entitled to expect from an industry professional?

James Dashner said...

Sadly, I only see books with two genres. Sucky and not sucky. The other stuff is too complicated for my poor brain.

Sten Düring said...

I found this link by zapping through blogs: http://www.patiscool.org/2007/06/genre-generals.html

So, it's ONE take on genre, but I still found it worth thinking about.

Kelly Swails said...

Ugh, genres. We creative types hate labels and restrictions, which is probably why it's so hard to throw a book into a genre in the first place.

Literary fiction, for me, is something that has supurb writing/language but is full of angry characters that prefer to by angry about their situation rather than do anything about it. This is one reason why "The Lovely Bones" is not a strictly a literary book. The other reason: the protagonist is dead and narrating from heaven!!!! For me this makes it a literary fantasy. Now, for me, I think some books written by Dean Koontz and John Grisham could be literary ... but they'll never be shelved there. Go on, read "Odd Thomas" by DK if you don't believe me.

Commercial mainstream fiction, for me, is all about pacing. If it's thrill-a-minute, zoom-around-the-world, barely-save-the-girl all before the climax, then its CMF. There's subgenres, like thriller, mystery, espionage, etc., but the pacing has to be there.

As for the YA/Adult/middle age conundrum, that age group is just so fluid that it's hard to pin down. Three fourteen-year-olds will be reading at three different grade levels ... agh. A can of worms, that one.

The thing about genres is you can break any one of the down into sub genres, as has been demonstrated already. It's enough to make a writer nutty. I read a quote by Stephen King once that said, in effect, he just writes the book and lets marketing figure it out. That's great for the folks who have a working relationship with a publisher ... for the rest of us it's a little tricky.

keith said...

Hi Jenny,
Sorry to read about your double ear infection. My oldest (now 8) had her first ear infection at three. Once cured, she paraded around and proclaimed like some matyr that she'd survived her ear 'confection'. Did I make you smile :)

Anyway, regarding the part of your question no one has answered so far: 'where are these books shelved'? In college, I worked as a bookseller, and back then, we had sheets for each shipment that told us where to put each book. Not all titles came with instructions, though, and when that happened, it was up to the booksellers 'discrection' (As a joke, I once move a copy of Bill Clinton's memoirs from the best seller racks over to the erotica section. This was long after my bookseller days, though)

I don't know how far inventory software has changed the retail market, but I would assume that it has had a pretty big impact, especially if you consider those kiosks in Borders that tell you where a book is located.

Again, alot of it will come down to marketing, but the question there is - do the retailers drive the marketing campaigns or do the publishers? From what I learned at BEA, the publishers and the retailers negotiale for shelf space - and this is particularly important for a new release. No one wants to be hidden somewhere on the racks. There was an interesting discussion about htis topic on one of the panels where the book in question was about 'Pirate Language'. The mock editorial board was wrestling with the genre, knowing that the retailer had to decide if the book was worthy of shelf space, how much, and where in the store it would go. That said, online booksellers are a completely different story.

Perhaps this is a question that can be better answered by some of the big retailers. I met the Borders CEO at BEA, and talked to him about his plans to change their retail models. Interesting stuff. I have his PR Director's card somewhere.

Good luck with everything, and BTW, I enjoyed meeting you at the pitch-slam and talking anime.

Keith Y

Jenny Rappaport said...

Hi Keith Y, that's a really neat insight into the bookselling part of the process. I'm always willing to learn more, so if you want to drop me an e-mail, I'd love to chat about it.

keith said...


Thanks for your comments. Professionally, I'm a marketing consultant (don't hold it against me), so even though bookselling isn't my forte, I do take in that side of the business like a sponge. I'd love to chat about it. I am on gmail and can goole chat or we can exchange emails. I'll need your address though.

Keith Y said...

I forgot to give you my contact info: kyatsuhashi@gmail.com or keith.yatsuhashi@mail.doc.gov

Look forward to talking, or chatting.

Anonymous said...

I know some of us write books (like mine) that are a whole bunch of genres thrown together: like a YA romantic fantasy. However, in Borders, this would be classified as a "Young Adult" book and then sub-categorized as "Fantasy." In submitting a query, I think I would just put all three together. It's interesting sometimes to look at the Library of Congress organizations on the first or second page of a book, and see how they categorize it themselves.


Bron said...

I get a little envious of big-city folk when I read about the problems of shelving books in the correct genres. In my little town, the whole four options for fiction are 'literary', 'sci-fi/fantasy', 'crime/thriller' and 'general fiction'. :-)

(But I'll get to browse in a big bookstore or two in a couple of weeks - off to Dallas, with an afternoon in Sydney on the way. I'll be the dazed-looking woman, overwhelmed by choice!)

froggy said...

Even my local librarians can't get it right. If there is a right. I have the greatest respect for librarians, and their ability to divide things into nice neat piles. Librarians have the added benefit of not selling anything, just organizing it.

Where I live, I patronize three different libraries (all independent, but part of the same county system so I can return and reserve books at any of them).

One puts all adult fiction together. All of it. So Ursula LeGuin is right there next to Louis L'Amour. Seriously. There she is, with her lovely dragons and space ships and talking animals, next to the guy with the six-shooters. Kind of a lazy-ass solution to the problem, I imagine the librarians saying "we're not going to play this game, so here is ALL your ficiton."

One library has a science fiction section, but shelves all fantasy in with general adult fiction. They did put purple stickers on the spines of fantasy (with UNICORNS on them, no less), but they're just jumbled in with everything. Makes it a long walk with sharp eyes to browse in fantasy.

Another library has a science fiction/fantasy section, but can't seem to decide what goes in it. I've even found trilogies with half in general fiction and the other half in sci fi/fantasy. Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys is in general fiction.

I think there is no good answer. Moving all those books around is a pain. No matter what shelving/organizational system one might devise for fiction, it's not going to please everyone, nor will it be accurate. As a result, I do a lot of book browsing on Amazon, where categories are more fluid and I can wander based on whim and keystrokes.

Anonymous said...

The sole difference between general fiction and "literary" fiction is that readers and authors of general fiction don't imagine that Posterity will be any more or less likely to regard their works as Literature those of any other genre, whereas this cannot be said honestly about "literary" fiction.

yuellien said...

A literary novel is one crammed so full of meaning that it seems pointless.

Rosemarie said...

Another issue I see is in categorizing authors as those who tend to only write in certain genres. This is the problem I face.

I have five books currently self-published through a print-in-demand publishing house. I just finished a sixth that will be going for editing shortly. The problem I have with genre is that the books I write don't all fit into a single genre. The three-book series I wrote has been filed under horror sections in book stores, even though there are life lessons in each of them. I also wrote a book for young adults that is in the genre of fantasy. Another book I wrote can be included in many categories from suspense to spiritual.

I find more websites have me listed on them of the vampire genre than any other, even though that is not all I write. Now, with the book I just finished, the same genre issue has been on my mind because that's always the hardest one to resolve. Instead of thinking about the book itself, I find myself wondering how me, as an author, should be classified. Do any of you have the same problem?