Much ado about genre

Am I the only one who has trouble with genre?

Whenever I sit down with a manuscript an idea and am tasked with deciding what box it might go into, I run into problems. My first novel has fantastic elements to it, but it’s mostly about art; I’ve always mentally classified it as “lit fic” because it is, in its way, a little snobby, and the fantasy parts can be explained away. (*pince nez* “Actually it’s a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner turmoil.”) What about Sin Eater? Is that a fantasy? Two characters are immortal, so it must be urban fantasy. What’s the difference between fantasy and paranormal? It’s also a bit of a thriller. There’s murders. So what box do I put it in? Or is it fantasy, with a long list of qualifiers?

When I first wrote New York Sour, I did it for fun. And it was tremendous fun. Two terrible people got drunk and fell in love. It’s all one could want out of a madcap month of writing. I wanted to do something different, to experiment, so I sat down to write a pulp crime novel, with the intent of using as much hard-boiled inner monologue as physically possible. What I intended, starting out, to be a crime novel doesn’t actually have nearly enough crime in it to theoretically qualify as a crime novel. I suppose when you think of The Big Sleep, you think of Bogey and Bacall, not what the actual crime was… I’ve read the book, and I can’t remember much about the crime at all except for a naked photography session and a missing husband and a car off the end of the pier. Yet there is absolutely a crime in it, and the crime is the point. No crime, no novel.

My crime was pretty much lost in the set dressing as soon as my Bogey met my Bacall. That’s why I need to rewrite the bloody thing. The draft is a fever dream and I must defeat it. Yet when I started writing it – and this is really my point – when I started writing it, I did so with a feeling of gleeful disobedience, because crime was too far outside my wheelhouse. Crime was too different a genre from lit fic and my various attempts at urban fantasy. After all, if you don’t stay in your writing lane, how will readers know what they’re getting?

That’s objectionable. I understand it from the reader’s perspective, and from the publisher’s perspective, and yet I’m distressed by the idea. I want to try my hand at everything! And if, while trying my hand at something new and interesting, I find a good novel amongst the jungle of a first draft, shouldn’t I pursue it through the undergrowth? Shouldn’t I exhibit the new species to the scholars of the age? I want to experiment, to write in different genres, and to share whatever I think is worth sharing.

Here’s a tale: I submitted “Resurrection Men” to a magazine that asked for short fiction. It never occurred to me, as I submitted it, that RM is technically historical fantasy with a touch of humour. It’s genre. And genre is verboten. Or at least not actively encouraged by that publication. Now, I love RM. It’s one of my favourite pieces. I reread it every so often (and tweak the occasional error I had heretofore overlooked). Yet it took until this year for me to really click that it was fantasy. It just hadn’t occurred to me that I can only submit that story to magazines that say, in some shape or form, “fantasy OK”.

This worries me. I worry I won’t ever be able to find an agent, because they won’t be able to sell the idea of “every novel a different genre, depending on what strikes her”. And maybe that’s silly of me, and when I’ve done some more research I won’t worry as much, but right now it lingers on my spine like a malevolent caterpillar, whispering discouraging things in my ear. No one will represent you. No one will know who you are as a writer. You suuuuuck. 

So I’m opening the floor for discussion on the subject. I’m interested in what other writers are doing when it comes to genre. Do you stick to one genre? Do you experiment and jump around? Have you ever changed the genre of a story, and if so, what motivated that change? If you’ve written about genre in your own work, leave a link in the comment box below. I’d love to get a feel for different perspectives in the community at large.


  1. // Reply

    I have a similar issue (currently sitting on a historical fiction/romance, fantasy and a thriller) and from what I’ve heard from a couple of different people (who are in the publishing biz) over the last few years, is that it can be difficult to find an agent if one is a multi-genre writer. Not completely impossible though, and in particular, my favorite author (Jacqueline Carey) has written multiple genres and her agent doesn’t seem to mind at all. She’s gone from high-fantasy to dystopian to urban fantasy. She’s deconstructed Tolkien and, most recently (released yesterday even), Shakespeare. So, totally all over the place, but people don’t seem to mind. I was actually meaning to ask her about it (the “finding an agent who doesn’t mind” part) , because she made a post about her eclectic style not too long ago. But I think too, it might be a matter of finding a good publishing house that publishes a variety of genres, or at the least, has a variety of imprints that they publish under.

    Not sure if it makes it better or worse, but I don’t necessarily see RM as fantasy. It seems more like a subset of horror – I mean, the magical parts are fantasy, but the way it ends sort of overshadows that, I would think.

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