Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.
Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors whether we need genre distinctions, what problems exist within and between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.
Pigeon Park Press – Are genres important? And who are they important to?
Dean M Drinkel: Genres are important to publishers, writers and readers but for different reasons. From a genre publisher’s point of view you have to assume they are an expert in their field and (hopefully!) employ excellent marketeers / publicists etc who have the right connections in that particular genre to deliver best product and push it to the forefront. For a reader genre is important IF you like a particular genre or not – there’s (probably!) no point in buying a Mills & Boon if you were really wanting a Dean Koontz novel. Finally, for a writer, genre is important because that is more than likely where your existing fan-base is and when you release a new work they will be wanting “more of the same” – the problem for a writer comes when they want to step out of their genre…
“the problem for a writer comes when they want to step out of their genre…”
Anna Stephens: I agree with everything Dean has said here. Genre is really helpful when marketing a book, or for people who want something new to read but aren’t sure what – they can always look in the same genre as the last book they enjoyed. It’s an almost guaranteed way to find something you’ll like. Parents who ask a bookseller for recommendations for their child etc can really benefit from genre like this. It’s also helpful for publishers because they can fit the right editor to the right book and have dedicated imprints with their own business plans and aims etc. And as Dean said, genre is helpful for authors who can market themselves/be marketed as “the next (insert author name here)”
Heide Goody: I agree with everything that Dean and Anna say. Rather than saying who it’s most important to, I would take a holistic view and suggest that publishers, writers and readers all want the same thing: they want to match a reader up with the sort of book they enjoy, and genre is one of the tools that helps everyone to do that. If I am a reader who knows exactly what I like, then I can seek it out. Otherwise, the more subtle influences of the book marketer will parade the “you might also enjoy” options in front of them
Jon Hartless: Readers need it to find what they want on the shelf, marketing needs it to flog the stuff, while the supposed intelligentsia is snobby toward it. As proof of this, glance back a few years ago when Kent University quoted on its Creative Writing syllabus that students wouldn’t “write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.” The condescension was quickly called out by Twitter users, yet the university’s snide apology, “the author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games”, demonstrates the contempt the highbrows feel toward anything that is genre.
“The author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.”
William Thirsk Gaskill: There are no generic publishers. There are big publishers, and independent publishers. The distinction is difficult to define, but it is mainly to do with the size (or existence of) the marketing department. Big publishers want readers to keep buying what they are already buying. Independent publishers want readers to buy something new. As a writer, I regard genre as something either to be followed, or subverted. To use a geological analogy: genre is like a ridge that is blocking a new road. I can choose to follow it or blast a tunnel through it. The top layer is publishing conventions. The next layer is the booksellers’ expectations, and then the readers’ expectations, and finally what public understanding and taste will actually bear.
“Genre is like a ridge that is blocking a new road. I can choose to follow it or blast a tunnel through it.”
Tiffani Angus: I think genre designations are most important to publishers. They’re the ones who go to all the trouble to have categories and subcategories (and BISACs) so that book stores know where to shelve new books. Readers use them, then, to find books to buy. But we have been “trained” by this via bookshops and, before that, libraries to some extent. So readers have come, over the years (over decades) to recognize genre designations; in the early days of publishing, novels and short stories weren’t labelled in this manner. As writers, we just want to write interesting stories; too often we come up against a genre “wall” where a story we write overlaps genres and the publishers don’t know what to do with it (or don’t want it, because they don’t know how to sell it). Yet I don’t think that matters as much to readers; they just want to be entertained. This isn’t to say that readers aren’t sophisticated enough to understand genre characteristics, but I think the hoops that a story has to jump through to be labelled this or that sub-genre isn’t as important as whether it works as a satisfactory tale.
“As writers, we just want to write interesting stories; too often we come up against a genre “wall” where a story we write overlaps genres and the publishers don’t know what to do with it.”
Genres are marketing designations publishers and bookstores (and Amazon!) use to sell books, so sub-genres defined by their themes, tropes, etc. help readers find what they like. They also help writers know what their readers want and how to market themselves, especially vital in the highly competitive publishing industry. Twitter, Fb, Goodreads, etc., have also helped, resulting in hashtags that condense long descriptions. Saying something is #steampunk is so much easier and quicker than explaining its setting, general aesthetic, etc., and readers know what to expect from that more than they do if it’s just sold as SF or Fantasy.
William: One of the tasks of literature is to try to reconcile individuality versus shared experience. More individuality you might think militates in favour of more sub-genres. That isn’t necessarily true. I write literary fiction. I write about conflicted lesbians, drunks, and nutters whom people encounter at transport interchanges. That is a niche, but it isn’t a sub-genre. A sub-genre is a table in Waterstones. A niche is one particular alcove in one particular cave in South America. You might say that my work is concerned with directing the lesbians, the drunks, the nutters, and, most of all, the people who might be interested in reading about them, to that particular cave.
Dean: I think that Amazon has driven this notion of sub-genres particularly with their never-ending charts etc. This has had the knock on effect that some very bad authors can claim to be a ‘number one best seller author’ because they wrote something in a sub-genre (potentially) all to themselves. Perhaps that’s just me being grumpy and obviously I shouldn’t bemoan a fellow writer their ‘success’ – if that is indeed what it is. I don’t think we should concentrate on ‘labels’ nowadays anyway, the world I live in (quite different to the one I was born into) is much more fluid and I always get the idea that creative people have to be ‘pigeon-holed’ for some reason and if they do break out of that particular genre and write something else then heaven help them!
James Brogden: I don’t think readers think about their taste in books in those same genre terms. As a reader, I certainly don’t. I have favourite authors who I will follow as they try new things and sometimes find myself reading and enjoying a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. On the other hand you get people who expect a very narrow range of experience – largely based on cover image, I feel – who get very annoyed when you stray from that, but I still don’t think most conceptualise it in terms of ‘Oh, well that was/n’t what I expected from a folk horror novel.’
“You get people who expect a very narrow range of experience – largely based on cover image, I feel – who get very annoyed when you stray from that.”
Anna: I think people are becoming increasingly aware of sub-genres but in the broad sense, they go for the “big” monikers – sci-fi and fantasy. Occasionally online people will ask for recommendations for something specific like a new grimdark book or sci-fantasy instead, but most often I see people asking for themes: quest stories or continent/planet-spanning warfare. And all sorts of genres can fall into themes like that.
Heide Goody: I’m not sure that sub-genres are the most common way in which readers describe what they like, but they do serve a useful purpose for anyone navigating any kind of systemised book store, because it’s very easy to discover other reading material that is similar. If a sub genre becomes big enough then it will become adopted as shorthand amongst readers. I have been to a couple of readers’ groups recently and a good many people have told me that they enjoy psychological thrillers. This is a sub-genre that has exploded in popularity in recent years, and so it’s lost some of the “sub” now.
Jon: I’ve seen/heard examples of readers defining their reading pleasure quite broadly, (horror, sci fi etc), while others are far more specific. When looking for places to submit to, I have observed the same sort of thing; some publishers have very broad demands, while others – usually the smaller presses – can be very, very specific: “retro gothic psychological vegan vampire ghost horror set on Wednesday afternoon in 1897 South London” may soon be a thing…
Pigeon Park Press – What problems are there specific to the genre you write in?
William: In literary fiction, the main axes of antagonism are sophistication versus populism, and the Big 5 versus independents. I am a militant of the independently published faction. Salt is the biggest independent in the UK, short listed once for the Man Booker prize, and I have story in its next short story anthology, which should be out in July. I am hoping to use this as a springboard for my debut short fiction collection, from Stairwell Books. The big publishers still don’t want to publish short stories, which is silly, because short fiction suits contemporary life styles.
Dean: One problem we have at the moment is that there are only few writers working in the historical / horror genre. Now before people jump up and say the complete opposite, I’m sure I could reel off a handful of names but after that? The thing is, I’m all for more writers in the genre – why not? As many as possible as far as I’m concerned. We shouldn’t treat each other as enemies, we should support and promote one another which should be genre-wide. What has to be a truism however, is that any writer (new or established) has to ensure that, one, their stories are historically accurate and, two, their stories are bloody good – otherwise they are doing all of us a disfavour.
Anna: The biggest I’ve noticed, particularly in grimdark, is the prevailing misconception that only men write it. People mention Abercrombie, Lawrence, Bakker, GRRM over and over again. No one mentions Kameron Hurley, ML Spencer, JV Jones, Mary Gentle, Robin Hobb and many many more. It’s a constant battle to be recognised and it feels like however many times we discuss female authors, we never manage to break into those ‘grimdark lists’.
“However many times we discuss female authors, we never manage to break into those ‘grimdark lists’.”
Pigeon Park Press – So, if I wanted to write something in your genre, what is there to recommend it?
Heide: Firstly, do you want to write comedy? I can’t really imagine wanting to write anything else, but it’s taken me a while to understand the techniques. They can be learned, and it’s very fulfilling to make people laugh. If you write comedy then fantasy is an excellent fit for exercising those techniques. For example, the Agent of Chaos (the character who will say the unsayable or always kick the puppy) can very easily be imagined as a demon, imp or evil goblin. Fantasy also brings a genre community with it, which is useful for the community and for targeting marketing.
“Firstly, do you want to write comedy? I can’t really imagine wanting to write anything else.”
Jon: It’s a great opportunity for a shedload of research on the 19th century, so you can justifiably ignore everyone up to and including your spouse, employer, children etc, with the claim you are engaged in vital research! Or you can just make it all up and create your own specific Steampunk world; it is a very flexible format.”
Tiffani: Writing historical fantasy is a great excuse to use the stories already out there about historical people and events; you don’t have to make up a lot of it, you just have to do research to get it right. The stories are out there for you to mess with. I agree with Jon that it is an opportunity to do a lot of research, which I find particularly fun. For one novel I not only read book after book about gardening history but I also built several Pinterest boards, one for each time period/garden style, and got to go on ‘field research’ to a bunch of gardens. What’s not fun about that? What’s also great about being a genre writer is the SFF community; you make friends at conventions who you get to see a few times a year, hang out with, drink with at the bar, etc. People make connections in genre, which I’m not sure happens at the same rate in the non-genre writing community. I’ve made friends of other writers (and we go to writing workshops together), and of editors and publishers, artists and academics. By being in the community I’ve gained opportunities, such as being part of this blog, being on podcasts, being asked to contribute to anthologies. None of these would have happened otherwise. We are all a bunch of geeks who get to share and talk about the stuff we love, which can make your SFF friends feel like family.
Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.
James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.
Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.
Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.
Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus
William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.
Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.