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?