June 10th, 2009 by Carrie Vaughn
Genre Definitions and What To Do With Them

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.

Be Sociable, Share!

11 comments to “Genre Definitions and What To Do With Them”

  1. Suzanne
     · June 10th, 2009 at 9:13 am · Link

    I’ve read on a lot of agent blogs that you should clearly state the genre of your book in your query letter. No “cross-genre” or “it could be either this or this.” At the very least, they want us to figure out what section of the bookstore the novel would end up in. Easy. My bookstore has Sci-Fi and Fantasy in the same section. It goes there!

    Trying for sub-genres with books frustrates me even more than it does with music. I may be wrong, but it seems like musicians are lauded for being cutting-edge and innovative if they somehow blend rock and hip-hop with electronica and so on. Authors? Maybe not so much. The only genre I see doing that is romance. Paranormal romance, romantic mystery, romantic war novels, etc. But then it’s paranormal romance, not fantasy. *sigh*

  2. Carrie Vaughn
     · June 10th, 2009 at 10:32 am · Link

    It’s usually pretty easy to label the overall genre (mystery or romance, for example). But as for sub-genre, they’re always changing, and what’s “fashionable” is always changing. I think in a lot of cases, unless it’s clear, it’s better to let the person who knows the marketplace best (presumably the agent and editor) decide what to call it. I never called my book urban fantasy because I didn’t know it existed in that form.

  3. L2
     · June 10th, 2009 at 11:08 am · Link

    I have 2 genres that count – Good and Bad. LOL The rest just messes me up.

  4. Gabriel Novo
     · June 10th, 2009 at 1:43 pm · Link

    “…covers showing a chick with a tramp stamp and a sword.” – I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Every time I see one of those I think to myself “If that can get published, then I have a chance.”

  5. Carrie Vaughn
     · June 10th, 2009 at 3:41 pm · Link

    As the author of books with at least the chick and tramp stamp if not the sword, I feel obliged to point out that those covers are purely about the marketing and have little to do with the quality of the book inside.

    When I was starting out I took the entire bookstore as affirmation — tens of thousands of books get published every year, of course there’s room for me.

  6. Gabriel Novo
     · June 10th, 2009 at 4:15 pm · Link

    You are correct, that does fall into the “don’t judge a book…” category, but the sad thing is that many of those books are “clones” hoping to cash in on popular trends. Like you mentioned, they are a product of marketing, and sometimes I feel the words in them are trying to sell the idea of a book, not a real story, which makes me put them back on the shelf every time.

    Please don’t take my comment as a derogatory remark regarding the quality of your tales. I definitely dig you stories, especially the one you just did for Subterranean Magazine.

  7. Carrie Vaughn
     · June 10th, 2009 at 5:20 pm · Link

    No worries! I’m very aware of this particular subgenres weaknesses, which frustrate me immensely. But I’m trying to be one of the good guys. :)

    And thanks, glad you liked the Subterranean piece.

  8. jim duncan
     · June 11th, 2009 at 10:20 am · Link

    I certainly wouldn’t mind if things got condensed. I know bookstores hate sub genres and especially books that easily fall into multiple categories because they don’t want to shelve books in more than one place.

    I’d just like a few broad categories for fiction:
    1. speculative: sf, fantasy, horror, anything that doesn’t deal with the real world, literary or not should be speculative. I like speculative stories and wish they weren’t spread all over the damn bookstore.
    2. Romance. Any story where the main focus is on hero/heroine relationship and there’s an HEA. No subgenres. If the main focus is a love story and it all ends good, it goes here. Yes, even speculative stories.
    3. Crime. If it has criminals, i.e. mystery, hard-boiled, suspense, thriller, all go here. It can have speculative elements, romantic elements, but if the focus is on bad guys doing bad things and good guys dealing with it, I want it shelved here.
    4. General fiction. Everything else.
    5. YA and children’s. These of course deserve their own areas.

    I really don’t like this breakdown into sub-categories. Drives me nuts. The other thing that irks me is when stores lump things like thriller into general fiction making it impossible to find any of them unless you alredy know who you are looking for.

  9. Luke Jackson
     · July 9th, 2010 at 7:15 am · Link

    I really want to learn about Book Marketing but i have no talent for writing.~’-

  10. Louis Price
     · July 12th, 2010 at 10:15 am · Link

    book marketing offline is quite time consuming but if we talk about online book marketing, it is a different story”’

  11. Joseph White
     · October 7th, 2010 at 12:40 pm · Link

    i’m quite new to book marketing and i don’t have any experience about it.:`

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe without commenting