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Genre Confusion

Hello everyone,

I just joined in yesterday and this is my first ever post so I'm not hundred-percent sure if I'm doing everything right here. But I'm going to do it anyway (and it might be a pretty long one).

Last month I received my full manuscript assessment report from Jericho Writers. It was truly helpful and gave me a lot of great advice. However, there was one issue that I discussed through a number of mails with my kind and patient editor: she kept insisting that my novel was a commercial romance even though I had declared that it was literary fiction. The part where the problem started was that she criticised all my psychological, sociological and sometimes even philosophical subjects as unnecessary to the plot. Another criticism of hers was that not many things are happening throughout the novel. When I also insisted that the subjects she says unnecessary are what the story is really about for me, and explained what I was trying to achieve by them, she said I'm trying to do too many things and she suggests me to focus on driving the real plot forward instead because I'm a natural romance writer. 

My novel is about a young man who leaves everything behind and travels to Manchester to find a girl he saw and fell in love with on a train there. The only thing he knows about her is that she has a pink suitcase. 

I know this sounds romantic, and there are indeed parts of it which are, but my main aim with this is to explore the psychological state of this individual, how he came to attempt such an absurd thing. The story is about the change that the character goes through by not caring what others would think for once, and with this freedom, managing to find his place in the world.   

So in the end, the editor convinced me that I was writing a romance; the novel couldn't be literary due to the lighthearted and romantic elements in the story. I decided to make the story more compact, add more plot points. But I still left the "finding your place in the world" concept of the story too. Now that I'm starting to search for suitable agents, I'm again confused about the genre. The agents who are looking for commercial romance are mostly interested in a tragic love story that makes them cry (also, most of them want a woman as a main character. Some actually calls it women's fiction which sound quite funny to me.). My story is nothing like that. The main romance element - trying to find the girl with the pink suitcase - carries the story forward and does not even resolve until the very end. But the story is also too lighthearted and romantic to be literary fiction. 

I'm not saying I regret my decision to go through with a full manuscript assessment. It was more than helpful and my reader/editor's suggestions were profound. But now I'm confused about the genre and the flexibility of genres in general. And I feel limited every time I read about specific genres. Maybe I'm worrying for no reason at all and I've actually written a classic romance where sociological elements can be acceptable. Maybe it's a kind of modern literary fiction. Or maybe there's a genre that this kind of multiple elements can fall into. Maybe the novel is just plain bad. I don't know. 

What do you think about this? Have you been through a similar confusion? Any advice or comments are welcome. 

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Replies (17)
    • Why not call it a literary romance - there are too many people trying to put people in boxes - if it's a great story it won't matter. When JJ Moyes gave her manuscript Me Before You to her publisher they told her 'Nobody will want to read a story about a quadriplegic and a psychologically damaged young girl'

      10 million copies and a successful movie later...

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      • Literary romance might actually work! 

        Thank you for the encouragement as well. I hope we can be as successful as Jojo Moyes one day!

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      • Hi Ahmet, welcome to the community! I really love the seeming simplicity of your hook, which actually allows you to explore the character and his motivations to (what sounds like) a really deep level. 

        I wanted to reassure you firstly that agents don't expect you to be able to pinpoint exactly your place in the market. I actually pitched my first book as "commuter fiction" to one agent, and then later found out it was a thriller - I just meant it was something people would read on the train! 

        Agents are mostly interested in the hook, the story and the writing. My third book was called "women's fiction" (not by me...) and I never saw it that way. At every stage of publication you'll experience people categorising your work and often in quite different ways to the way you see it! 

        I think the issue for you seems to be finding the right agent who would want to read your manuscript rather than being precise in how you categories it. It sounds like someone who represents both literary and commercial writers is key, someone who straddles both. Such agents exist, for sure. (If you're a paying member of Jericho Writers, you can access Agent Match which is a really robust search tool for pinpointing agents.)

        I also wanted to say that if you'd like to discuss the manuscript assessment you received and if you have any follow up questions about it, do feel free to email the office on info@jerichowriters.com and we'll do our best to help.


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        • Hi Holly. 

          Thank you very much for your comments and reassuring advice. It feels good to know that I'm not alone in this. It's also a little comforting to know that the genre boundaries - and the agents perception of them - are not completely strict. Or at least they are not expecting precision from us about them. 

          I will be focusing on searching for agents that represent both sides, as you said. Hopefully I'll manage to find a few who are interested in reading my manuscript. 

          I was actually a little stressed out about this but now I can't wait to go back to my editing process. Thank you one more time. 

          In the name of everyone who reads books on the train, I salute you!

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          • My absolute pleasure, Ahmet, so glad to help a bit! Good luck with everything and please let us know how you get on! 

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          • HI Ahmet, I feel for you, I too am totally confused with genre and its definition, I think personally that a lot of books cross over between two genres and have a mixture of themes, as does yours. You have the lighthearted element (the chase/quest to find the girl with the pink suitcase) but you want to layer it with deeper meaning than that. My first book is like that too and  although it's a romance, it's a gay romance between two men with other issues which get in the way. Like you said, most romance seems to need a female MC.  The feedback I've had is good so far, but I don't feel it necessarily fits into one particular slot (genre). 

            I would love to read your book, I am imagining it now, what he does and where he goes and does he find the girl and the suitcase again.  Good to see you on here, and feel that I am not alone in trying to describe my book and what it is. 

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            • Hello Jane,

              Thank you very much for your lovely comment. So nice to hear that we have similar thoughts. I too believe that most books cross over genres, and the thing is, they get praise for their depth. Maybe our problem is getting too carried away with some of the themes and putting them in front of the plot. Although, pushing the plot to the back in order to have more space for the themes is I think one of the definitions of literary fiction. And that's where it gets confusing for me. Holly and Danny's words have eased my mind though. I guess we should just try our best and see where it lands. Hopefully we'll find a place for ourselves in the market.

              Good to hear that you're getting good feedback with your novel. I would love to read your book too. Maybe we can send each other our stories and give feedback (I'm a very slow reader though, and I'm still editing mine). 

              Your words about my book has actually led me to think about my plot again and I just came up with a few ideas that'll definitely help. So thanks again. 

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            • Welcome aboard Ahmet. As others have mentioned, it sounds like you have a great concept. For what its worth, I think you are better off if someone can market your work within a broadly commercial category--though I wouldn't sacrifice what you think the book is about to achieve that.  Sad truth is, saying a book is "literary fiction" is like setting up someone on a blind date and telling them the person they're about to meet has "a nice personality." If the only thing you can say about a book is that it has literary merit, it means it is probably deadly dull. I'm a firm believer that if you want to actually reach into people's souls, you have to entertain them first-and-foremost. Reading a novel shouldn't be like eating high-fiber cereal. I honestly think that if you are clever enough as a writer, you can make a "literary" novel in ANY genre. And the flip side of that is that if your book is ONLY a literary novel, it will probably just sit on the shelf gathering dust, no matter how glowing reviews it gets from academics.  And frankly, that's not very useful. 

              Good luck! 

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              • Thank you so much for giving me a different perspective Vin. I understand what you mean - and the high-fiber cereal and the blind date analogies are great by the way. Actually, what you say is exactly why I was having trouble defining the genre of my story, because the story is not strictly a literary fiction and definitely not strictly romance. I guess my challenge now is to harmonise the literary and romantic elements (which can be quite different) in such a way that the book can be marketed as romance but also include the extra layers of literary depth (without being too boring). 

                Good luck to you too!

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                • Vin Dova I’m sure you didn’t mean it but calling literary fiction dull and comparing it to high-fibre diet it pretty disrespectful to literary writers. It’s fine not to like a particular genre we can’t all like the same thing but it doesn’t mean that those genre have less merit than others. I’m pretty active on another writers’ forum and their main rule is “respect your fellow writers” as writing can already be a pretty brutal business.

                  Ahmet Ersozlu my comment would be write what you are passionate about because it will reflect in your writing. If your heart  lies with romance then write romance, if it’s literary fiction then go for it. If you want to write books that will have the chance to seen by a wide audience then write commercial if you want to write books that can win prestigious awards then write literary. And yes literary sells less but some can reach a very wide audience like for example Sally Rooney, George Saunders, etc...

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                • L.  My apologies for sounding flippant. Let me clarify my feelings on the subject, I am skeptical of the idea that "literary" is an actual genre. Not to disrespect it, nor those who aspire to write it; I'm just not convinced that such an animal actually exists in the world. (Perhaps it's with the unicorns.) I see "literary" as more of an attribute that a work of fiction can possess--and it's an attribute that's actually quite difficult to define. 

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                  • No worries. Literary, like YA is not a genre but a category that's why you can get literary thriller, contemporary, historical, etc... Literary is difficult to explain however it doesn't make it any less real. Also like everything else literary exist on a spectrum from accessible (like Sally Rooney) to experimental (like Eimear McBride or Mike McCormack).

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                    • And I will say this also about novels with that magical literary attribute: they are the means by which the craft of fiction writing evolves and progresses. Everything we take for granted about "modern" narrative was at one point experimental and "literary." Of course, not all experiments are successful (or interesting)--and some only have a short-lived influence that inspires a brief flurry of imitation, but fails to gain a long-term grip on the reading-and-writing public. So while I don't believe in the existence of "literary novels" as a genre, I will grant that "literary novelists" exist--and am very thankful for them. Their innovation and risk-taking is what keeps the cannon of literature dynamic. After all, if the the craft of novel-writing wasn't in a state of constant evolution, there would literally be no room at all for any of us to make our own contribution. Every story worth telling has already been told; its just that endlessly inventive homo sapiens keep coming up with entertaining new ways of telling those stories. 

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                    • Re Vin's mention of Unicorns - The Unicorn is Scotland's national animal which is kind of weird. I grew up in Glasgow, and thinking about it I can maybe see why they picked the unicorn. If we had to choose an animal that is perhaps the most abundant, it would have to be a flea-ridden mongrel running feral around a council sink estate...

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                      • Funny thing about those dogs--and I know exactly the ones your talking about--they are exactly the same all over the world. Same size, same shape, same color(s) even. Hair length varies slightly due to local climate, but that's all. I saw the same mongrels all over Asia and the Middle-East--and I have a feeling they are the smartest canines in the world. If I were ever to have a dog (more of a cat person, really) it would be one of the *those.* 

                        I do agree that Unicorns are much more aspirational though. Also, more likely to win a fight with a lion.

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                        • Hi Ahmet,

                          You're not the only person out their struggling with their genre. I'm trying to write a 'crime/mystery' novel and can't work out how to pitch the final product.

                          I like the advice to write to the end and then see what an agent thinks. Maybe when I submit I'll find out exactly where, in the market, my book fits.

                          Your novel  sounds like it has a great premise. Good luck with it. 

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                          • Hi Geoff,

                            Thank you very much.

                            Yes, it seems the best thing to do in confusions like this is to just keep writing finish and then pitch it to an agent. I also came up with the idea to define the genre according to the agent's interest. So in my case, if I think I might get on well with an agent and he/she is more interested in romance. I'll just pitch my novel as romance at first. If he/she is more on the literary side I'll pitch as literary fiction or literary romance. Just to get their attention at first. They'll eventually know how suitable the novel is to these markets anyway as they read on. But that's the key point in this, I believe: to make them read on and not just throw it away because it isn't in the genre they mostly represent.

                            I wish you luck with your novel too. I hope we get published.

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