Revisiting Genre – an essay from thirteen years ago


Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.

Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.

For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.

I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.

But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?

Recently, I helped judge an award. A lot of the stories were put into the wrong categories. No matter how great a story is, it can’t win if it doesn’t fit into the genre of its nominated category. So some good stories might have missed out on recognition (or would have, it they hadn’t been nudged into the right genre categories). But I couldn’t help wondering if the authors were confused about what genre is.

There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This essay is just a starting point, to get you thinking.

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