Genre: Why You Must Understand It

Cristen Iris

Many--too many--authors are confused about genre. They write entire books and then ask their editors or worse literary agents to help them figure out what genre that book falls into. While developmental editors can and should help their clients properly categorize their books doing so on the backend poses significant challenges because genre is structural, not cosmetic.

What Is "Genre"?

Genre is a category. It's a fast way to communicate the defining qualities of a book.

Horror is a genre. Southern gothic is a genre. Memoir is a genre. YA is a genre. Thriller is a genre. Cozy mystery is a genre. The list goes on.

Each genre has its own conventions. Many also have obligatory scenes.

One of my favorite genres is southern gothic. One of its conventions is in its label. Southern gothic must be set in the south. A story set in the Pacific Northwest cannot be southern gothic even if one of the main characters is from the south. Another convention of southern gothic is its weirdness: decay, poverty, deranged characters, ghosts or paranormal activity. Cormac McCarthy's novel Child of God is a bone-chilling example. If you want to dip your toes in the swampy waters of southern gothic, George Saunders' short story collection and novella Civilwarland in Bad Decline is full of strange characters and dark humor.

The cozy mystery genre differs from other crime genres in that one of its conventions is a lack of gore. While the crime may be murder, the description of the crime scene won't be graphic.

When it comes to the murder mystery genre, you'd best have a discovery of the body scene. If you don't, you're going to immediately disappoint readers. And when I say a discovery of the body scene, I'm talking about a scene, not a conversation about a body being found. This is an "obligatory scene." Show, don't tell.

What sets thrillers apart from other books with similar elements is that the pace must be fast and stakes for the protagonist must be high, life or death high. My all-time favorite thriller is Dean Koontz's Watchers. In Watchers, Koontz weaves together several genres. More than three decades after first reading it, I still consider it a genre fiction masterpiece.

The reality is that many books have cross-over appeal and can and should be marketed in several categories, but do so with care. An author who describes their book as part romance novel part gothic telegraphs that they aren't as educated about the craft of writing and book marketing as they should be. Romance novels are by definition optimistic while southern gothic stories are dark, violent, or horrifying and do not have the happy ending readers of romance novels look for. Gothic romance is a genre, but that genre is not a "romance novel."

Knowing which genres mix and which are like oil and water is critical. So is precise genre-related phrasing.

You must also understand what tropes are, which are most popular with and most hated by readers of your genre. Tropes are recognizable storytelling devices that help to further categorize a novel or film. Some common tropes are: the love triangle, evil empires, the cliff-hanger, and the strong female lead (which is often poorly executed). Understanding the interplay between genre, conventions, and tropes will help you craft a better book and be able to describe it in a few sentences in a way that makes sense without the need for a plot summary.

What Is the "Literary Fiction" Genre?

One mistake authors make when they don't know how to describe their book is to say that it is literary fiction.

"Literary fiction" is not a catch-all term. It is a way of communicating that a book has literary merit, something that transcends popular works of fiction. "Literary" can be thought of as describing the author--their approach and voice--more than their book. Much like in filmmaking how there are directors and there are auteurs.

Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is an example of literary fiction. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It is probably best described as war fiction, but its main characters are children, not soldiers. It does not follow the hero's journey structure of most books classified as "genre fiction." Rather, it explores the depth of the human condition and pulls us into the world of its characters in ways that genre fiction almost never does (I would argue that with Watchers Koontz accomplishes this). One of those ways is through elevated prose, which sets authors of literary fiction apart from other novelists (although his writing is excellent, Koontz does not do this).

Literary fiction is a genre unto its own but not one that tends to have mass appeal. However, some novels from this category do come to the attention of even casual readers. All the Light We Cannot See is one such book.

Authors of literary fiction such as Anthony Doerr rarely spring from dry ground however. Prior to writing a full-length book, their short stories appear in literary magazines and win respected literary awards. Prior to All the Light breaking out, Doerr won approximately 20 literary awards, including 4 O. Henry Prizes, the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, 2 Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, 3 Ohioana Book Awards, and the 2010 Story Prize.

A few more examples of my favorite authors of literary fiction are Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys), Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Sabrina & Corina), and George Saunders (Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Lincoln in the Bardo), James McBride (Deacon King Kong and The Good Lord Bird), and Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge). If you read their bios, you'll see that these are more than authors. They are artists.

To call oneself an author of literary fiction with no literary magazine credits or writing awards to one's name is presumptuous and demonstrates a profound lack of industry knowledge.

Why Your Developmental Editor or Manuscript Evaluator Needs to Know Your Genre Up Front

A book's genre and audience are the starting point for all professional developmental editors.

If we don't know the type of book you want your book to be compared to and the audience you're trying to attract, the value of our feedback is limited. In fact, we may completely miss the mark because we must be educated about the genres our clients write in.

Imagine being on a road trip and pulling into a service station. You show the attendant a map and say, "Am I where I need to be?" or "Am I going in the right direction?" The attendant is going to say, "Well, where are you trying to go?"

Now imagine how they'd respond if you said, "Well, I was hoping you could help me with that. Here, look. These are all the roads I took to get here. Is this a good spot? Or can you tell me if there's a nice spot within a short drive from here?"

It sounds silly when we imagine it as a scene like that, but that is the position editors are in more often than we should be.

If you tell your editor that you don't know where you want your book to go, they may give you feedback that takes your story to a place you don't want it to go. More often than not in cases like this, I must tell clients that a complete rewrite is required before their story can be postioned in a way that will be attractive to literary agents, publishers, and book buyers.

Statments to the effect of "Well, I've already come all this way, done all this work. What is my book closest to?" are not good because taking the easy way out and wedging it into a category is setting yourself up for failure (not to mention demonstrating a lack of respect for your reader's time and financial investment).

The Dangers of Misclassifying Your Book

Misclassifying your book whether done purposefully or not is pulling a bait and switch.

Ultimately, readers will buy based on how your book is positioned (categorize). Every purchase has expectations attatched. If you fail to satisfy the reader's expectations, they will rate you and your book poorly.

With so much competition, no author can afford to confuse their audience and risk bad reviews. First-time authors least of all. It's your job to understand your audience and the business of books.

The Category of Writer That Doesn't Need to Worry About Genre

Having said all that, there are some writers who truly do not need to fuss about genre, conventions, obligatory scenes, ad tropes--passion project authors. If you've always wanted to write a book and aren't concerned about book sales or reader reviews, your book is what's often referred to among creatives as a passion project. If you're planning to self-publish and not planning to do any marketing or advertising, just have a book for friends and family and your own satisfation, write the book you want to write. Seriously. Do what makes you happy because your book is for you. But if you decide you want to craft a book for profit, one that readers will choose over all the other authors and best selling or award-winning books out there, start with genre.

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The New York Times. "Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds." 

r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal. "Oranges" by Anthony Doerr.

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