Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Cynic's Guide to Genre

Had Ambrose Bierce stepped into our century and written an entry in his Devil's Dictionary for "genre," I imagine he'd write something like, "How booksellers know how far from the front windows to place your book." Within genres, there are certainly those more highly regarded than others. Outside specialty bookstores, you'll almost always find certain genres the same relative distance from the registers. You can tell how well-respected a genre is by how easy it is to find.

In an ideal world, we'd all write the stories we want to, people who want to read them would find them, and people wouldn't suffer through books that aren't to their tastes. Even as we move away from physical bookshelves, though, we still classify books by their genres via links that help us find the book we might be looking for. It's more flexible, in that a book can be "shelved" online in more than one section, but readers tend to approach the genres they click on with certain expectations. Therefore, even if your goal is to subvert the genre tropes, it's important to know what they are, in the first place. You can't know that if you don't identify which genre you're shooting for, first.

Loosely, the genres you might be writing, in no particular order, are:

  • Literary—People who read only literary fiction will bristle at the notion it's a genre, but it is. It's about everyday people experiencing everyday conflict, and it's usually depressing. Usually involves a man cheating on his wife in some capacity.
  • Chick Lit—Literary fiction that isn't as depressing, marketed to women. Generally has pastel or pink covers and pictures of high heels, clothes, or shopping bags. If someone cheats, it's either because the cheated-on deserved it, or because you're not supposed to like the character.
  • Romance—Easily identified by the illustration of people who've misplaced some clothing on the cover, and therefore have to snuggle for warmth. This is the least-respected, best-selling of the genres. The bestsellers may come from literary, but romance is quietly selling hundreds of thousands of copies, spread out over more titles. Paranormal romance borrows elements from urban fantasy, but its use of tropes keeps it in the romance genre.
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy (Speculative Fiction)—Sometimes separated out, sometimes grouped into the same category, but considered the same level of respectability from the outside. Science fiction's further subdivisions are hard, space opera, military, near-future, and dystopian. Which genre you write for depends on how much you know about science and weapons. Fantasy involves things from folklore, and is subdivided into urban and epic, which is determined by whether you're setting it in a modern-day or medieval-based setting. Steampunk can be fantasy or science fiction, depending on how realistic the science.
  • Mystery—Someone died, or is going to, and our Intrepid Smart Person is out to solve the case and stop people from dying. Thriller and suspense are often attached to this genre.
  • YA/Children's—These are separated out clearly by the intended age of the reader in bookstores, with the sections getting less colorful the higher in age you go. By the time you get to teen novels, it's black covers with a splash of red as far as the eye can see.
  • Nonfiction—Subdivided into memoir, history, reference, biography (with autobiography as an offshoot), social sciences, and humor. My one nonfiction course in college taught me that the only difference between a memoir and a story based on personal experience is the style in which it's written.
If you're writing a self-help, religion, western, reference book, or a cookbook, I suspect my site won't be terribly helpful, so I've left those off my list. Later, I'll probably expand on the ones that did make the list, with less snark. For now, though, I'll leave this be, before I say something mean.

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