The Blurred Lines of Genre and Why We Still Need to Know Them

Genre Map

When I was thirteen and first wrapped my mind around the concept of genre while gobbling up all the ‘how to write’ books at my local library – back before there were many blogs and online chatrooms or I had a lap top of my own, which was, wow, only ten years ago –  I realized this was a part of the language I was going to need to learn how to use to sell my future work to an agent. So I settled down and dutifully memorized terms like ‘romance’, ‘young adult’, ‘coming of age’ and ‘speculative fiction’. It was like typing. I didn’t care about the words themselves so much as being able to use them would get me what I wanted.

Not much has changed today. What I care about as a writer and a reader will always come down to one simple question, “Does the story speak to me?”. If the answer is yes, I’m going to read it. I don’t care if it’s shelved in a genre titled ‘under-a-rock-because-only-horribly-uncool-people-will-read-this’. I can read it in secret if necessary, thank you very much. If the author can get me past a title and cover art to look at the blurb on the back and I like what I see there, I’m going to flip the book open to a random page, read a few sentences and make up my mind on whether or not to take it home.

Genre is a tool. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s a set of terms we use to communicate a series of experiences and ideas that are too large and too detailed to explain each time we need to talk about it. If someone says, “I like vampire books”, then you have a pretty good ideas that they may like horror and scary stories with fantasy creatures. But wait, there’s more.

I like vampire books. I won’t read a lot of vampire books I meet. That’s because I like ‘vampire-books-that-make-me examine-what-it-means-to-be-human’. That’s too long to explain every time I say I like vampire books though. For me Anne Rice and her books surrounding Lestat enthrall me by meeting that particular style of vampire books I like. But her series on the witches based around New Orleans elicits the same emotional response without the vampires. When she published a novel on werewolves I was perfectly happy to pick it up. As was I happy to pick up her first Sleeping Beauty Book. I enjoyed her work for the same reason I enjoyed Orson Scot Card’s Songmaster, a tale of a boy who can sing emotion into his listeners or Card’s book Treason about a world that challenges the humanity of the main character.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours putting together the graphic that headlines this post. I started with the main genre categories I could think of and scrolled through Amazon trying to come up with more. Originally, I was going to make a mind map of all the genres and how they were subsets of each other, vaguely in response to the Author Earnings report and the work Hugh Howey and his computer guy are doing. What I found as I worked on the graphic however, is that genre categories, unlike categories of flora or fauna do not fit easily under headings and subheadings.

Genre blurs. The different genres bleed into each other like spectrums of light.

This to me is one of the joys of indie publishing, that both readers and writers have increased freedom to explore these spectrum, play with them, mix the colors and find what works for us.

Humans are messy creatures. None of us are just ‘a soldier’, just ‘a mother’ or just ‘a young woman finding her way in the world’. One person could be all three of those things. Hm…that’s another idea for a book. Bad Ciara, bad Ciara! Stop thinking about plot lines and finish the post!

Sometimes a thick strong drink of one flavor is amazing, like sucking down a short horror story like I recently read over “Bloody Mary”. Could I read an entire book that focused on just fear and horror? No. Three hundred pages of pure porn would get pretty stale too. Four hundred pages of a teenage boy trying to find himself would also get pretty lame for most readers by page fifty. I can only drink about three pots of green tea a day before I’m desperate for something else.

I like to think of books like meals. My father used to say I ate books because there was no way I was actually reading. Considering my voracious reading speed, he wasn’t far off. You need your struggle, your triumphs, your laughter and humor with your tragedy and hurt. Books, like humans, are often best when they are well rounded with a focus. I am a writer, but I’m also a daughter, a world traveler, a seamstress, a student of Aikido and a graduate with a degree in issues like international political economy.

My favorite books are like this. I love Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles. It’s a full course meal. There’s drama, mythology, sex goddesses (literally), laconic lawyers, an adorable loyal wolfhound, dry humor and genuine warm friendships. If Hearne only focused on the awesomeness of his sword wielding druid, the story would fall flat. I like to know that Atticas has to think about things like where he left his bicycle and his nosey neighbor while ancient Celtic goddesses are showing up and having regular high school spats over his affections inside his semi-suburban home.

Do I think Kevin Hearne could write romance that I would want to read? Hell yes! Would it be shelved under romance. Not so sure. Because the lines are going to be blurred. His romantic leads would end up worrying about grocery lists and facing down the town bully.

These days, as I write, there’s no fuss between me and my keyboard about the ‘genre’. I tell stories, wherever they end up. My Pegasus series could definitely be shelved under male/male romance. But it’s also a war story, and a tale of religious intrigue as well as family feuds and treachery. The romance is threads in the wider fabric.

I have a habit  of pulling books out of shelves with the back cover facing me. I read the blurb before I check the front cover. Why? Because so many of my favorite books are labeled in particular genres and the cover art reflects that to the point that its meaningless. I do not need to see one more half naked woman wielding a sword proving how bad ass and sexy she can be at the same time. Covers should tell me why I should care about the story. They should reel me in. Don’t worry about whether or not it looks like every other book in the genre. I don’t care about genre as a reader. I want to know why I should read this book!

Genre is useful. It’s a language of communication. And in certain cases like separating a erotica from YA very  necessary to communicate clearly. We need to learn how to use it. It helps us boil down complicated ideas and communicate quickly.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us whether or not we’re going to like a story as readers. It only tells us that we’ve like books on the same bookshelf before or not. That’s all.

Like all tools though, we should also learn when not to use it. Or in my opinion, when to mix and mash!



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2 Responses to The Blurred Lines of Genre and Why We Still Need to Know Them

  1. hitwyla says:

    I love: “Genres bleed” – well said!

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