Do you have to choose a genre?

If your writing transcends genre boundaries, how do you talk about it?

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

‘What kind of writing do you do?’ a person asks. And I freeze. ‘Well, my novel is speculative literary fiction,’ I might say. They give me a blank look. ‘Sort of like Margaret Atwood?’

Actually, A Superior Spectre is a mash-up of historical fiction, science fiction, literary fiction and the Gothic. It’s also been described as ‘philosophical fiction’ and even ‘horror’. And of course it’s not really comparable to Margaret Atwood! And then my novella, Joan Smokes, is historical fiction. And some of my short stories are science fiction and others are straight-up realism…

When I worked at a publishing house, I certainly understood how useful genre can be, not only for the marketing and publicity teams, but for me as an editor to be able to pitch a manuscript in an acquisitions meeting in the first place. From these meetings, through to publicity talking to media, to the marketing team putting together materials for booksellers, and all the way to the bookseller selling a book to the end customer, genre is an established code that aids in matching books to readers.

There are readers who understand and gravitate towards particular categories such as crime and thrillers, romance, SFF, young adult… Within these genres are a range of sub-categories, and some readers can be very specific about what they like or are looking for. Publishers are always seeking that elusive book that satisfies genre conventions but also has a fresh take: a surprising, timely or gripping ‘hook’ or a unique character or setting. A book that will both feel familiar and fresh to readers.

But I know also from my time as a bookseller many moons ago that there are plenty of readers who, like me, read very broadly and are not concerned about whether a book neatly fits into a genre and has all the tropes and beats of that genre. Many readers do quite enjoy a genre-blend, too: sci-fi meets romance, fantastical historical fiction, a thriller on the moon. When you think about it, a lot of what’s adapted to film and television absolutely blurs genre boundaries. But at the submissions level, publishers struggle to know how to place and market these kinds of works, which leads to a lot of the same-same you see in the market.

(As a side note, there are a couple of interesting not-quite-genre terms being used in publishing, such as ‘reading group/book club fiction’, which denotes that the book could pretty much be any genre but has great talking points – aspects based on fact, topical issues, or complex discussion-worthy characters – and ‘elevated genre’, which I believe comes from the film world as I first heard it at a film/TV rights pitching session. ‘Elevated genre’ is basically intelligent genre fiction that may have a topical element, more ‘high-brow’ ideas, or a killer concept that ‘elevates’ it above trope-based genre fiction. Of course, a lot of genre writers could find this term rather condescending! Also, probably don’t use these terms in query letters at this stage...)

I think genre is one area where it’s fascinating to see how self-publishing (ebooks in particular) compares. Online, yes, a book is still classified by genre. But in Am*zon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Store, there are over 16,000 categories to choose from. An author can choose several sub-categories, so they don’t have to limit themself to just showing up in searches for thrillers or romance. But what I want to focus on is keywords and tags. Ebooks have searchable keywords, and authors can also use keywords, tags and hashtags on their websites and blogs, and in their social media, to alert potential readers to their works. I think that keywords go beyond internet searchability, and can act as a different kind of shorthand for potential readers than genre does. For example, look at the way they are used on Netflix:

As COVID-19 and extended lockdowns are inevitably changing the publishing industry but also the way books are marketed, I think both authors and publishers could experiment more with keyword-based marketing, rather than being genre-focused. If I use keywords rather than genres for my writing, I do start to see more cohesion between all my works, no matter what genre:

Feminist, speculative, historical women, queer themes, absurdist philosophy, literary references, metafiction, gothic, technological progress, esotericism, psychology…

Keywords could be themes, elements, concerns, eras, events, character traits, places the work is set, the great passions and desires of the author!

There are plenty of marketing-focused articles on keywords out there. (Here’s one.) This missive is meant to be more of an encouragement to authors to be okay with your book not fitting neatly into a particular genre. Genres will not become obsolete, but I believe we don’t have to be limited by them and be afraid our work will not be ‘marketable’ or will fail to find readers if it doesn’t neatly fit within the bounds of one or another. Especially in a rapidly evolving book publishing (and content consumption) landscape.

Next time someone asks me what I write, I’m going to go beyond genre: ‘I like to explore the lives and sensations of women, in different eras, with some gothic and science fiction vibes…’

What about you?

I hope you’re all otherwise keeping well. A special big hello and virtual hug to my fellow Melburnians. Only two weeks (we HOPE) of Stage Four lockdown to go. Be kind to yourselves.

And a quick reminder that there’s just one month left to pre-order my capsule course on creating compelling characters for only $29.99. That’s 70% off the full price. It’s a masterclass and resource kit in one. I’ve gathered so much great info and even if you don’t need it right now, it may be good to dip into later on, maybe when drafting or redrafting your next manuscript.

Opportunity of the month

Allen & Unwin have announced an exciting crime fiction prize. The winner will be awarded a publishing contract with an advance against royalties of $AUD 25,000.

A&U also have an exciting new imprint, Joan!


Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,

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