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Half a thought about genre

Hi there, 

I've been enjoying the Summer of Writing and I'm finding it all very thought-provoking and inspiring. I've been having half a thought about genre and I wanted to share it as I wondered if you might be able to help me convert it into a whole thought. :)

A lot of the sessions have mentioned terms like 'commercial fiction', 'book club fiction', 'women's fiction', as well as genres like 'speculative fiction' or 'science fiction' or 'thriller'.

My question is: to what extent is genre about brand positioning/marketing and to what extent is it about the actual content of the book?

I suppose I'm thinking that perhaps it's not always clear cut, and I'm wondering if, in those cases, writers have a choice to make about how they describe their work. 

I'd love to hear your brainings on this topic.

All the best,


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Replies (48)
  • Hi, 

    The content of the book will inform and decide on the position and marketing of the book. They are not two separate thing. The writer needs to know what they are writing otherwise they are at risk of misrepresenting their work. If they self-publish then it can create false expectations on the part of the readers which can lead to disappointment and negative reviews. Also if the writer is looking to submit to agents they might end up selecting the wrong agent or again give the agent the wrong expectations.

    Of course there are some leeway and grey areas and you don't have to be 100% on it. I remember Holly Selddon saying that she pitched her first book as commuter fiction (which is not a real genre) but still with that label I actually have an idea in my mind of what kind of books she mentions and the kind of fiction you would find in station bookstores)

     Comparative titles are also a great way to pinpoint what your book is.

    One use of comp titles I love is for Katie Khan's Hold Back The Stars — One Day meets Gravity (yes, the 2nd one is a film) but with those 2 I know the main thing there is to know: it's a romance with a  different type of narrative and it takes place in space with people in a life and death situation. It also tells me it's a romance  story set in space and not a  science fiction book with romantic element.

    If you are trade published then you work with your publisher, it's a partnership. It's also why it's important to ask plenty of questions before signing with an agent and after with a publisher to make sure they are a similar vision as you regarding your book.

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    • The truth, Marianne, is that you are onto a key fallasy within the world of publishing. (Mind you, it doens't matter how much you educate people about it, they resort to their use of the mashup you have called out.)

      There are, in reality, three types of genre. The problem is that segments of these different genre axes are merged into the general classification.

      The first is audience genres. These are such things as age-, gender-, race-, or culture-defined genres. (As though audiences are so shallow.) Women's fiction, as you mentioned, is one of these. YA is another. There is a little more logic in the younger age-related ones, such as MG and childrens, as those pertain to the complexity of the stories.

      The second is presentational genres. These are when the genre is defined by the setting. The most common are the likes of sci-fi and fantasy, but western and military also fall under this umbrella, as do certain culture-centric genres, especially where the culture is presented through (or for) its otherness.

      The third is story genres. These pertain to the structure of the main story elements, and include the likes of thrillers, relationship (including romance), mystery, horror. (There was a whole year's worth of Writing Excuses podcasts on this type of genre classifications.)

      Obviously, every story is going to have elements from each of the three trypes of genre definition. The challenge comes in deciding - as with the example L. cited - of which is considered dominant. Is it a romance that happens to be sett in space or a near-sci-fi that happens to include a love story? Or is the fact it's aimed at a younger audience more important to the marketing.

      And that is largely what it comes down to: marketing, The mashup seems to be a range of (time-changeable) genre categorisations that many reader choose to identify with. They decide they like X but not Y, so how the book that is both X and Y is marketed determines whether they will even pick it up… And what they will think of it once they do.

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      • Your final paragraph strikes a chord with me. I read Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough as it was touted as a psychological thriller. It started out as seeming to be, but the twist at the end plonked it totally into the supernatural and I would never have wasted my time on it had I known.

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      • This link lists fiction genres and subgenres https://book-genres.com/book-genre-finder/fiction-genres/ 

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        • Ahh, Rick - I think that gets to the heart of it. I definitely want to check out those podcasts - thanks a lot for sharing the link. I like the way your classifications separate things out into those different areas - it's nice and clear.

          To illustrate the kinds of grey areas I'm thinking of... 

          One might be Ian McEwan's recent insistence that his novel Machines Like Me was not science fiction (despite being about AI, robots, and making direct reference to Asimov). Presumably, if he'd wanted it to be, the same book could quite easily have been positioned as sci-fi. But I imagine he felt that didn't sit well with his brand, which I guess might be geared towards 'literary fiction'. 

          The definition of women's fiction on wiki says it's 'about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others, and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship'. That description could easily apply to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, but that's set in space and is very much positioned as sci fi.  

          Naomi Alderman makes it clear that her novel The Power is science fiction, although it seemed to successfully bridge into the mainstream (first sci fi novel to win the women's prize for fiction). I get the impression that a lot of people have read and enjoyed it who might not ordinarily consider themselves sci fi readers (I'm just guessing on that one). 

          As L. says, as a writer, you need to know what you're writing - for sure! But it seems like there may be more than one way to position the same book, depending on your idea of your intended readership. Perhaps some options are a better fit than others, but it does seem like there's a bit of wooliness there?

          I'm not sure to what extent this is something an agent would advise on, and to what extent it starts with the author and their submission package. My impression is that we'd be expected to have a clear position on this before submitting, but it does look to me like it's a decision to be made, in some cases, rather than something that's always going to be obvious. 

          I may be rambling, but I find the topic quite interesting...! :)

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          • Yes, the sheep are certainly jealous.

            And, yes, there is a lot of wiggle room. Indeed, so long as you don't classify your work in a way that puts your prospective agent off (thus resulting in them being your non-agent), they may well change the pitching genre to align with a market trend they are aware of, that will up your chance of getting a deal. So, do your best, but be flexible.

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          • :D Makes sense - thanks, Rick!

            Something for the sheep... https://twitter.com/chaplainaziz/status/1256585867654828032  

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            • Heavily armoured sheep… learn something new every day.

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            • Don't get me started with Women's Fiction, I have real issues about it being a genre.

              When talking about where books sit there are more than one factor and it's the combination of genres and categories (which are two different things).

              Genre: sci-fi, romance, fantasy, crime, etc... (bear in mind that genres also have sub-genre so for example fantasy sub-divides into grim dark, urban, epic, etc...)

              Categories: there are two main categories in books. Age category (MG, YA, Adult), style (commercial, upmarket, literary) which is the reason why you can have a YA Fantasy or adult fantasy, a commercial thriller and a literary thriller.

              The main difference is a category doesn't reveal anything about the book's content whereas a genre does.

              Talking about Naomi Alderman, introduce another concept in genre with is hard or soft. I would consider The Power being soft science fiction in the sense that it is pretty much the world we live in with one major change so not hardcore science fiction which different planets, aliens, etc... So soft sci-fi has more chances to appeal to the non sci-fi reader. Also her book straddles two lines for me in the sense that it's sci-fi but also reading book fiction which means that it raises issue that are good talking point for a book club so given the choice between the two the publisher decided to highlight the 2nd one (reading group fiction) as it will appeal to a broader audience. Publishing is a business so they want to appeal to the higher number.

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                • A new genre: political fiction. Thanks fo the link. Great article.

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                  • I suppose what I am writing kind of fits into that category

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                  • Is there a genre called light crime fiction? If there isn't, I think I might start one, because I've got an idea for a novel where 3 women protagonists turn to crime when their political efforts for social justice go unanswered. They start with petty crime and when that does not produce results, they resort to more serious crime.

                    Nobody dies, there is no shootout, no blood. Just laughs. So, IMO it should be classed as light crime to distinguish it from heavy crime.

                    What do you think?

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                    • Donna, I'd read that in a heartbeat. 😀  I like the occasional crime novel, but I get so disheartened when within the first few pages we're plunged into the gory demise of a (usually female) victim. So much TV crime drama is the same... those poor actresses must get so tired of lying under sheets on mortuary slabs. 😟 I vote for 'light crime fiction' to become a thing... definitely!

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                      • I don't recommend creating a new genre that doesn't already exist because when you go to upload your book to Amazon and other sites, you have to put your book into existing genre categories. There are over 144 categories for fiction https://www.servicescape.com/blog/144-genres-and-subgenres-for-fiction-writing

                        While it may seem like an innovative idea, it doesn't work in actuality, unfortunately. :( 

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                        • Thanks for the advice! Have a great day

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                        • "No blood, just laughs!" - I love it! I'd read it! Go for it, D! :)

                          Also, in case it helps with your marketing, I think 'light crime fiction' would fit nicely as a sub-genre within human's fiction.

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                          • Apart from the Damon Runyon, I mentioned earlier, there was a cult British TV series in the early 1980s "Turtle's Progress", very similar concept.

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                          • I haven't read Damon Runyon but will look him up.

                            I don't appreciate heavy crime fiction. There's already so much heavy crime in our society and the crime genre usually trivializes it, glorifies it, normalizes it. It's rather fashionable to write stories full of gory details and bad sex. A good story needs a "raison d’être". 

                            The idea for my story came from another novel I read, but it was very poorly done. If women (previously law abiding citizens) resort to crime, there must be a good valid & realistic reason behind it for my interest to be picked. And then I came across a real situation in the UK, where social injustice prevails and nobody gives a damn. And I thought: why not write about this? A story where a few women from different social backgrounds unite their efforts for a common social cause, and when their efforts go unnoticed and unanswered they resort to criminal activity.

                            I don't know if I'll be able to write it well. But I'll try...

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                            • I totally agree with you. That is one of the reasons I like Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano books and the TV series. They are crime stories, often with undertones of the Mafia, but very little evidence of violence. 

                              I like the idea of your story and your comment that a good story needs a "raison d’être". I seem to recall that one of Camilleri's books was built around the idea of a justifiable crime. It didn't involve killing. I'll try and see if I can locate it.

                              Enjoy your day and the webinar.

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                              • Ah... justifiable crime. There isn't such a thing, except in the mind of the criminal. You just gave me an idea for a line of dialogue when the police questions my ring leader on why she did it. Her answer: "Because nobody listened to us. And it seemed like fun at the time."

                                So, it's official Folks! I've just started that novel.

                                (I write in fragments.)

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                                • A spanner in the works! Hasn't the definition of a crime been broadened over the years?. Of course, it varies from country to country, especially in terms of "civil disorder' - (e.g. demonstrations). As we move increasingly towards a system of "authoritarian democracy", it seems that Article 20 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association) is being eroded. The women of the Greenham Common era and the CND would probably agree.  

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                                • Absolutely - light crime!

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                                  • I have to say I find the whole categorisation of women's lit intensely irritating (though of course I understand the commercial rationale). I'm a woman writing a book about a woman from the (first person) POV of a man. I think of it as people's lit, but maybe that's just me being perverse.  

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                                    • Most of the genre/categorisation is irritating.  Presumably things will change when enough genius writers write uncategorisable books that stand out none the less 

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                                      • Oh ye of such blindly optimistic faith. They'll just come up with a slew of new categories, because people think people (other than themselves) need pigeon holes to make sense of the world. (And marketing would be at a loss without them.)

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                                      • Not at all perverse. That was much the style of some of Fay Weldon's work and even Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. 

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                                        • Roger that! You are an education...

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                                        • I don't write with genre in mind, to do so is fatal as it can affect the freedom of what you write. I think you should write the damn thing and let it find its own level/genre or what ever you want to call it. It other words, just write what's in you at the time: worry about it later! Or not if that's the way you see it. Just write with freedom, don't be influenced by what genre it might fit in!

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                                          • Keith, I probably started out with your approach and ended up with 1600 pages of a mix of styles written in different moods. Then I started following courses, joined Jericho last year. Obviously. according to all the experts my approach was wrong. I found that I was changing the personalities of my characters I had come to know so well over the years; why? To fit in with a particular genre. I was getting quite depressed about the situation and confided with a very close friend. He asked me 'why do  you write?' I replied because I derive immense pleasure from writing and creating; that was my main motivation, rather than that of being published. The advice he gave me was to continue to write with pleasure and what comes out of it will be good for me, even though it may not be "attractive to the market". This approach probably won't be endorsed by those in Jericho Writers who has been providing valuable advice over the past year and during the Festival! So basically Keith, I'm probably one of your genre of writers! 

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                                            • So agree with Keith and Roger here, although you are probably very sensible, Rick! I’m going to write the damn thing first, for my own fun and for the  fact the writing somehow keeps me connected to my surroundings and to myself. Maybe it is that freedom! 

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                                              • Join the club!!

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