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 about the conventions of genre writing, what connections exist between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.
Pigeon Park Press – What are the conventions and rules of your chosen genre?
Anna – Grimdark conventions are fairly straightforward. The usual epic fantasy tropes – conflict, war, heroes and antiheroes – but with added grimness and a decided lack of morals. Fewer clean cut heroes, and an unlikelihood of a happy ending. It’s not so much that the rules can’t be broken. Instead, if there isn’t a sufficient level of nastiness, a novel will simply be reclassified as epic fantasy. You’d have to go a very long way to fall out of the fantasy genre altogether.
Heide – Like Anna, I think it would be hard to fall completely out of fantasy. If we wrote a straight comedy story with no fantastical elements then it wouldn’t be correct to call it comic fantasy. Having said that, I could picture a straight comedy story, perhaps set in the same world as our other books but with no overt “fantasy” in the story. I really don’t think readers would care about that. If, however, we wrote a book that wasn’t at all funny then it would definitely not be comic fantasy.
Jon – The very term “Steampunk” was meant to highlight the two parts of the genre; that technology runs on an alternative form of energy than happened in reality, (steam rather than petrol/gas/electric etc), while the “punk” was meant to show the inherent rebellion toward history, convention, and maybe also the status quo. It is debatable whether the second part of the name has lived up to its potential, though, especially as airships, goggles and prosthetics are now the main (and easily recognisable) tropes of steampunk – whether they are needed or not…
James: Folk horror really needs a rural setting, ideally isolated from civilisation, where local people follow the Old Ways without interference from outsiders. Think Royston Vasey, or Stephen King’s backwoods Maine locations. The horrors are subtle, at least at first, deriving as much from the psychopathologies of the characters as anything else, but that doesn’t mean that demonic or monstrous creatures might not be lurking behind the hedgerows. It’s impossible to say what doesn’t belong in the genre; one might suggest science fiction tropes, but then look at The Midwich Cuckoos. Possibly it would be hard to see the ‘folk’ in extensively urban or futuristic environments, but then you have something like Candyman which has a strong folk-horror feel. Basically I find the notion of genre ‘rules’ an unhelpful way of evaluating a story. Everything bleeds into everything else eventually.
“Everything bleeds into everything else eventually.”
Pigeon Park Press – Do all genres bleed into each other? What are the nearest neighbours or sister genres to your chosen genre?
Anna – I think the easiest sister genre to name here is epic fantasy. It has the same epic scope and complex world building as Grimdark, and may focus on similar subjects including war and conflict, but will tend towards a lighter tone. There may be more hope and moments of levity in epic compared with grimdark, but the two genres are very closely aligned.
Heide – A sister genre to comic fantasy might be comic horror. If you’re accustomed to writing comedy (and, crucially, your audience expects it of you) then delivering comedy in a slightly different genre is an easier transition than stepping away from the funny. It’s important to realise that readers might view the subject matter very differently; gross-out humour might not appeal to the same people who enjoyed the whimsical adventures of a boy and his dragon, however if something is genuinely funny, then readers are extremely tolerant of different story forms.
Tiffani – Well, the most obvious ‘sister’ genre to historical fantasy is straight up historical fiction. Writing histfic itself is, in a sense, writing fantasy; until we build a TARDIS, we have to imagine the past as best we can with the records we have, but even those are suspect, or biased, or missing bits, etc., so we end up creating history that is arguably fictional, a fantasy. This makes the relationship between historical fiction and historical fantasy that exists in our primary world a muddy one; where does one end and the other begin? Even in historical fantasy that exists in secondary worlds (or ‘tweaked’ primary ones), the historical influences can be really heavy, which can further muddy the line. That’s where I start: in our history, building on real people or events, and then adding more fantastic elements. Get the reader to buy the historical, and they’ll go along with the fantastic, too.
“Get the reader to buy the historical, and they’ll go along with the fantastic, too.”
Jon – There isn’t much related to Steampunk. Except Dieselpunk, of course. And Cyberpunk. And Atompunk. Clockpunk. Gaslight. Stonepunk, Clockpunk, Elfpunk, Mythpunk and Renaissancepunk. I kid you not… Just re-imagine the era with added anachronistic technology and you’re halfway there…
Pigeon Park Press – with all these different genres, are there certain criticism or too-often-heard comments about your genre?
Jon – “What’s Steampunk?” is probably the most common phrase I’ve heard. I know a few in the community do get hit with the “Steampunk is fascism for nice people” comment, though thankfully I’ve never had that one myself. I suppose one possible retort is “And the Daily Mail is fascism for nasty people; make your choice.
“Steampunk is fascism for nice people”
Anna – “Women can’t write grimdark.” I see/read this comment a lot, but so far it’s not one that’s been said to my face, which is best for all concerned. Now, you can probably imagine my reaction to that, but rage aside, it’s patently untrue. There are a lot of us and our numbers are growing. I don’t know why men think women can’t write dark – many of the most horrifically graphic crime novels are written by women.
Heide – Anna, I feel your pain. The phrase “women aren’t funny” is one that I have heard people say, in all seriousness. I’m confused about where that notion even comes from, and what particular quality we’re supposed to be lacking. As with the writing of grimdark, it’s patently untrue, as there are lots of women out there being successfully funny. I do wonder if the same underlying prejudice is to blame. By that, I don’t mean general misogyny, but some belief that women lack (or perhaps ought to lack) the capacity to be shocking, which lies at the heart of both grimdark and humour.
Tiffani – To be honest, I don’t tend to get “off” or snarky remarks about historical fantasy, probably because so much fantasy contains historical settings and elements. It’s interesting that Anna’s and Heidi’s experiences have to do with whether or not certain people believe women can write in their particular sub-genres; I suspect one reason I’ve not received such comments is because of historical fiction being traditionally read by women and the close link to historical romance. Does this mean that what I’m doing is (unconsciously or otherwise) considered “just right” for me or other women authors? That what I’m doing isn’t in any way threatening to the sub-genre or its tradition? I’m not sure, but it is something I’m now going to be more aware of, moving forward.
Pigeon Park Press – Unhelpful and snarky comments aside, are there any genuine problems inherent to your genre?
Jon – One problem with the genre that is both a strength and a weakness is if you ask ten Steampunks what the movement is about, you’ll get eleven different (and sometimes quite fractious) answers… so Steampunk does contain a lot of contrariness – and even caddishness – but there are also many genuinely wonderful people within the movement, and personally I like the disagreement as we can all bring something individual to the table. Why try and limit it artificially?
Tiffani – My answer is similar to Jon’s: historical fantasy is full of so many sub-sub-genres that it is difficult to define and everyone has their own idea of what it is. If I say I write it, some people immediately think I write Game of Thrones type books, and others think I just write non-fantastic historical fiction. A recent controversy with writing anything historical is running into the misconception that people of colour and women and even LGBT+ people or people with disabilities didn’t exist “back then”. If you write a story in which someone from a marginalised group is front and centre, there are readers who will immediately dismiss it because “the history is flawed” or who argue that we are making up history to please a PC audience. It can be frustrating because the point of doing research and then writing about these characters is to show the audience that so many amazing historical people and events have been mostly lost from the records because they don’t fit the widely taught narrative. There’s more to historical fiction and historical fantasy than knights and swords and the same old stories.
Heide – In terms of comic fantasy, we need to deal with the issue of Terry Pratchett. While he has much to offer authors writing in this genre (a solid audience to target, which is very handy for marketing) he is also the inevitable benchmark, leading to “oh, they’re just Terry Pratchett wannabees” whether you intended it or not. It’s a genuine issue. The other problem is comedy itself. How funny does something have to be? Personally, I think it should make people laugh, not just be wryly amusing. It is a subjective label and invites challenge; if you’re going to tell people you’re funny, you need to deliver the laughs.
“We need to deal with the issue of Terry Pratchett.”
Pigeon Park Press – But there must be some positives too? What’s the best kind of feedback you can get in your genre?
Heide – The best feedback for comedy writers is laughs. A review for a book that says someone’s laughed out loud on the bus or woken a sleeping partner with their snorting is wonderful. If I read a short story out loud, the laughs let me know that the audience is enjoying it. I’m not sure if all writers are people-pleasers, but when you write comedy, you have the same basic urge that we all have when we’re in conversation: you want to see that the other person’s enjoying themselves and it’s at its most obvious if they’re laughing.
Jon – I think the sort of feedback that shows the reader invested/believed in the Steampunk world I created is very satisfying, as is the reader “mapping” that fictional world onto the real one and finding the parallels I was hoping to tease out.
Tiffani – Without a doubt, the best feedback comes in two forms: one is “I felt like I was in the historical time you wrote about. It felt so *real*”; the other is when a reader gets excited by learning about an historical person they didn’t know about before. I like to do research on characters that aren’t terribly well known, so it’s a lot of fun to share them with people. Granted, putting the characters into fantastic situations means I risk readers thinking the characters themselves are made up, so when a reader gets interested in the person or the historical era I feel like I’ve done a bit more than just entertain them. History is alive for me—in my head—in a certain way; it’s geeky fun to share that with someone else.
Pigeon Park Press – So where does your genre sit amongst others on bookshop shelves? And what does the future hold?
Heide – Comic fantasy doesn’t have own section in bookshops. It’s a shame that the “humour” section in a bookshop very rarely contains fiction, it tends to be funny lists, comedians’ memoirs or parodies of famous books. Comic fantasy lives in amongst the regular fantasy, and has to demonstrate a sense of whimsy using its cover art and blurb. Of course, ebooks are very much more discoverable using genre labels and other sorts of metadata, which makes me wonder whether genres ever really disappear. We’ll continue to see surges in popularity for some things, but if you want to seek out your favourite subgenre, you should always be able to find it.
Anna – At the moment, grimdark doesn’t have its own section in book shops – or certainly not to my knowledge. Instead, we’re in with the rest of fantasy of all stripes, and personally I think that’s right and where we should stay. The label grimdark could put off some readers who’ve only heard that it can be extreme; by putting us in with all fantasy, readers are allowed to make up their own minds without preconceptions.
Jon – Steampunk has been a funny one for some time now; it arose as a named genre in the 1980s although you can argue it existed before then in the works of Jules Verne etc. Since the eighties, however, it seems to have fluctuated in terms of visibility and popularity, with many articles floating around declaring the death/birth/death of the genre. It still seems a bit niche over here in the UK, but it’s growing; the “tropes” are becoming a little better known, with goggles popping up here and there in popular culture. So, maybe in another 40 years, it could almost be mainstream… Why not start the journey with Full Throttle, an excellent Steampunk adventure? (Editor’s note; we apologise for this blatant product endorsement. The author has been told to stand in the naughty corner and think about what he’s done).
Tiffani – As far as I know, historical fantasy has never had its own bookstore section or even shelf. Because it is so closely linked to the popular sub-genres of epic and high fantasy, I don’t think it’s going anywhere, but neither does it seem to be branching off much as a clear sub-genre that’s as immediately recognizable as other sub-genres, such as those mentioned above. Fantasy has so many overlaps that its sub-genres will wax and wane in popularity, but historical fantasy will always be around, even sometimes camouflaging itself as other sub-genres.
“makes me wonder whether genres ever really disappear…”
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 was 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