Genre: A style or category of art or literature. (From The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.)
My first novel, a dark contemporary fantasy, won a “Best First Mystery” award from a romance publication. I’m probably not a good person to talk about genre definitions.
Most of us can talk about the main genres, the various sections in the bookstore: mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, and so on. It’s breaking those down further into sub-genres where the trouble always seems to start. I’m not going to attempt a definitive set of genre and sub-genre definitions, because every time I’ve seen someone try it, a maelstrom of argument ensues. One reader’s serious science fiction is another reader’s space opera, and one reader’s urban fantasy is another reader’s paranormal romance. And what about the stuff that falls right in the middle?
Speaking of urban fantasy, it doesn’t help that genre definitions change over time. Twenty years ago, urban fantasy meant something a bit different than it does now, to most people. When I was starting to navigate the business, urban fantasy was anything that introduced magic and folklore into a contemporary setting: Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, Charles de Lint’s work, and so on. Post Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, the meaning of urban fantasy started to shift to mean action-oriented books featuring a specific cast of supernatural characters — the old Universal horror movie monsters, modernized and with variations. Technically, really, I think urban fantasy still all means the same thing. But these days, you say “urban fantasy” and people automatically think of those covers showing a chick with a tramp stamp and a sword.
Science fiction and fantasy pundits have always loved hashing out sub-genres. Is it hard science fiction, soft science fiction, or space opera? Is it traditional fantasy, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, contemporary fantasy, or fairy tale retelling? Or the whole range of “punks:” cyberpunk, splatterpunk, squidpunk, steampunk. Or is it all just speculative fiction? And how do we define Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which have dragons in them but are quite specifically about human beings colonizing another planet?
Mystery: Thriller, suspense, procedurals, cozies, romantic suspense. Each one has a pretty specific audience that book marketing folk are shooting for. No pun intended.
Romance: Dare I even start? Sub-genres abound in romance. Maybe someone can answer a question for me: Are historical romances and Regency romances really two different sub-genres? Why?
Then someone says the phrase “cross-genre” and it’s all over.
I’ve always suspected that these fine gradations of genre definitions are most useful to the people doing the marketing, and that I’m just not going to worry about it. How many times have you seen a review start out with, “I don’t normally read [urban fantasy/erotica/cozies/whatever], but I loved [this book marketed as exactly that thing I think I don't like]?” Marketing according to sub-genre might be useful out of the gate, but it’s word of mouth that gives a book legs and builds a readership, and word of mouth doesn’t care if something’s a steampunk romance or a science fiction procedural.
As a writer, I find that genre definitions are most useful to me, not as a way to define what I’m writing, but as a set of tropes. As different tools in the toolbox. A mystery can have horrific elements. A science fiction story can be chock full of romance. (Lois McMaster Bujold’s ostensibly science fiction novel A Civil Campaign has one of my favorite marriage proposals in all of literature.) Horror is a way of writing designed to discomfit and terrify the reader. Romance is a way of writing to highlight romantic entanglements between characters. Mystery is a way to structure a story when the characters are solving a specific problem. Thriller is a way to structure a story to highlight action and suspense. Suspense is a way of writing to play on the reader’s sense of anxiety and anticipation.
Because of this attitude, writing in between genres has never seemed all that difficult to me. It’s all a big playground.
I’m not sure people should pay too much attention to what genre, sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre their book falls in. This is one of the things a good agent will help you decide — what to call the book to best help it along in the marketplace. Urban fantasy in its current incarnation didn’t quite exist when I was shopping Kitty and The Midnight Hour (at the time, I told people my book was like Tanya Huff’s and Laurell K. Hamilton’s work). There were plenty of books and movies about vampires and werewolves in the real world, and I knew my book was related to them. But I told the story to tell the story, not to fit a marketing niche. Which in the end is the best way to go.
Tell the story. Let the rest take care of itself.