A Word On Genre…

March 30th, 2011 Posted in Fiction, Kelly, Kim, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Other Genre

I’m not sure what got me thinking about the use of genre. Perhaps it was an interview I was reading on Patricia Highsmith. She’s one of my favorite authors and is widely known, primarily for her works Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. She brought up a good point about how in the states her work is classified as mainly suspense, though in the UK, she is classified as a much more literary writer. The same has happened to Stephen King, who undoubtedly writes horror and suspense, but is largely skilled as a literary writer as well. (Many people don’t know he wrote The Shawshank Redemption, for example.)

Literary vs Genre
I do think it’s interesting to point out the difference between literary and genre fiction, mainly because I didn’t know the difference until only a few years ago. Genre fiction is usually classified as a plot driven novel. Literary fiction is classified as such because of the author’s use of literary techniques in the work, and because the story usually focuses on character development rather than plot development. To over simplify: genre fiction is a good beach read and literary fiction is that serious novel you’ve picked up for English class.

Purpose of Classification
The reasons we classify books are endless, but one interesting aspect about classification stood out to me in reading an article in Publisher’s Weekly. It talked about how there are a certain number of readers who specifically won’t pick up a book (or conversely, will pick up a book) based entirely on its genre. For example, there are ‘serious’ literary readers who would never pick up a suspense or mystery novel and similarly there are readers who would never venture into the science fiction and fantasy section of a bookstore or library, even if the book, read outside of that distinction, would be a great read. Think about some of the classics. Fahrenheit 451 for example, is clearly a science fiction (or dystopian) novel, yet overtime it has been reclassified with higher literary merits and has been taken off of sci-fi shelves and placed into literary fiction sections. This is just one example, but it does shed an interesting light on how novels and their audiences respond to this sort of thing. Interestingly, Shakespeare was a complete genre writer. He wrote for the masses and for the purpose of entertainment. Today, however, he is studied scrupulously in classrooms around the world as a literary genius.

Use of Genre
I’ve read countless articles about how first time authors misclassify their novels when submitting to agents and publishers. Calling the book YA for example, when the book doesn’t have a Young Adult protagonist. Or, calling the book out as something like a Fact-Based novel (no joke, I’ve seen this!) instead of the more widely known and much more appropriate, historical fiction. Now this isn’t necessarily the worst crime to commit, because there has been an emergence of new genre into the world of fiction. For example, a new genre in the mix is being called steampunk fiction, which I mistakenly called steamboat fiction, and which also highlights my limited experience with new and emerging genre trends. And thus, I leave you here with Kelly. She has an extremely wide breath of reading interests and I thought her thoughts on the matter would be not only interesting but helpful for the post.

Kelly’s Take:
Oh, genre novels, how I love thee. And how hard it is to define thee. Yet being able to define a novel helps you determine its market and how to publicize it, which is one of the key elements to book publicity.

I’ll break out the major genres and try to define both it and its sub-genres. These are all labels, and one novel might fit into several genres at once. For example, if you have paranormal-mystery-romance filled with supernatural beings, like The Southern Vampire series? How would you market it? Or shelve it in a bookstore?

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fantasy and Sci-Fi are distinctly different, yet they can also crossover. Science fiction is based on what is possible, even if the technology doesn’t currently exist. Think Star Trek. Everything on the show is theoretically possible. Fantasy, meanwhile, involves elements that don’t actually exist, like magic, ghosts, etc.When most people think of a fantasy novel, they probably think of High Fantasy. Think George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or Star Wars. High Fantasy creates an entirely new or parallel world, and like most fantasy generally has a strong good versus evil component.

And then there’s urban fantasy. If you read a fantasy novel set in our world, but with fantastical elements, you’ve read urban fantasy.  Vampires, shapeshifters, and other supernatural creatures are mainstays of this genre, although they are not requirements.

Steampunk is a mix of speculative fiction, science fiction, and alternative history, and is generally set in a time period that uses steam power. Steampunk is frequently, but not exclusively, Victorian. It can also fall into the science fiction or fantasy camp depending upon the novel.

There are other sub-genres in both science fiction and fantasy. For example, Cyberpunk focuses on the dark impact of technology and human nature. Neuromancer by William Gibson is considered a seminal work of the genre. Note: some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels use their unique elements to make a point about our world. For example, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five uses time travel and aliens as a way to craft his authorial message. Keeping to the normal boundaries of time and space would have greatly changed his message. Or think of Clockwork Orange, and how it uses science fiction to create a chilling, disturbing story.

Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is, simply, fiction set in the past.  Attention to period details and speech is vital. (So, for example, an eighteenth century nobleman can’t use an acrylic towel to dry his face, since acrylic fiber was developed by Du Pont in 1941.) Sub-genres include historical mysteries, romances, etc.

Mystery: Mysteries show the protagonist solving some sort of riddle or problem, such as a death, disappearance, etc. You know what’s the hardest part of describing the genre? Figuring out how to define the word “mystery!” The genre is filled with sub genres that spawn the spectrum from light and funny to depressingly dark, and everywhere in-between. For example, The Cozy is a warm mystery filled with quirky characters. While murder might be at the heart of the story, the mystery isn’t graphic or violent, and the mystery isn’t full of detailed technical analysis of blood splatter, or similar. The protagonist will probably solve the mystery due to his or her understanding of human nature. Think of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, or Rhys Bowden’s Evan series (Evan Help Us, etc). These are the types of mysteries I buy for my mother.

Some Mystery sub genres include Noir/Hard-boiled: Think Raymond Chandler or Dashell Hammet. These novels are cynical and show us the dark place of the human soul. Police Procedural: These mysteries are shown from the perspective of the police. Politics, science, and the psychology of the officers might be components of the mystery. The Amateur Sleuth: The protagonist isn’t a police officer, PI, or other trained investigator, but ends up investigating the mystery. The Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard novels by Charlaine Harris are examples of this genre.

Romance: Truth be told, this is the genre I’ve read the least. Like the others, there’s a variety of sub-genres. Romance is generally defined as having a love story at its core with an emotionally satisfying ending.

One of the hottest areas of romance today seems to be paranormal romance. Think Twilight. Normal, clumsy teenage girl falls in luuuvvv with vampire. They fall into a chaste love. But look beyond vampires, the fae, and other magical creatures; stories of psychics, time-travel, ghosts, etc, can be elements of paranormal romances.Other subgenres include—but are not limited to—historical romance, romantic comedy, time travel (think the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon), and Western. Note that romance doesn’t necessarily mean sexual (and note that erotica is its own genre). Some romance novels can be racier, while others aren’t graphic.

And so there you have it. Just a small examination of genre and how it’s being used/viewed today. Keep in mind there is much more to be said about genre and the classification of books, and what we’ve done here is only crack the surface. Feel free to leave us a comment about your favorite genre, or about an interesting element on genre that we didn’t mention in the post.

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