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Why genres don't matter

Plenty of writers stress over genres:

What genre is my book? Yes, there’s a death, but it’s not really a crime story. And there’s a romance, but it’s not really a love story. And it’s set in the 1980s, which makes it historical, but nobody wears a corset or says methinks, so it’s not really hist fic either. Help!

The answer, really, is simple. Genres don’t matter, but readers do.

To understand what I mean, just walk into any large bookstore. The nearest big store to me – Waterstones in Oxford – has fiction dominating the ground floor. There’s a niche set aside for crime fiction and one or two other specific genres.

Mostly, though, the label above the shelves is simply “Fiction”. You’ll see Jane Austen snuggling up with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Delia Owens making nice with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jojo Moyes deep in conversation with Saul Bellow.

Most novels just aren't sold under a particular category label. Readers are smart enough to know that Saul Bellow will offer a very different sort of read to the one provided by Jojo Moyes.

That seems clear enough and yet agents – curse them – always want to know how to bracket your book. The result is that we quite often see query letters say things like, “my novel is a Coming of Age Novel / Romance with a fashion industry setting”, with capital letters strewn around as though trying to manufacture a genre where no genre actually exists.

And no: there isn’t a genre like that. There isn’t a category on Amazon which matches that. There most certainly isn’t a set of shelves in any physical bookshop with that as its sign.

And yet – there are books like that, The Devil Wears Prada for one.

And look, agents want to know something about your book before they start to read it, in much the same way as you want to know something about a film on Netflix before you start watching. Is it a thriller? Or a rom-com? You might be happy with either, but you just want to set your expectations before you start.

It’s the same with agents. If you tell them that a book is a thriller, they will read with their thriller head on. They’ll be thinking, Does this feel like the start of a thriller that publishers could sell successfully to a large audience? If you tell them your book is a rom-com, they’ll think about that market instead.

And if your book has a nice clean genre, then tell them. My books (now) do. They are in increasing order of specificity: crime fiction, detective fiction and police procedurals.

But most books don’t have those nice clear categories. So just describe the book in a sentence or two, much as you would if you were describing it to any reader.

“The novel tells the story of Andrea Sachs, who becomes junior assistant to Miranda Priestly, the fashion world’s most powerful – and feared – editor. Andrea struggles to accommodate the demands of her boss, the fashion world, her love life and her own desire for a meaningful purpose.”

Bingo. That’s the book. You haven’t described a genre, exactly, but you have successfully described what kind of read you are offering.

That’s all agents need. They’ll adjust their expectations accordingly and read with interest.

Same with editors. When they read a manuscript, they’ll be thinking, “How can I package this book to achieve a strong level of sales?” They’ll be thinking about covers and comparable authors and recent hits and possible marketing approaches.

In order to get a good set of answers to those questions, editors do need a good two-line summary of the book – the sort that we’ve just given – but they don’t especially need any genre categorisation at all.

As a matter of fact, I’d go further than that. Genre descriptions can be so restricting that I’d want to throw them off, at least partly. So yes, my novels are contemporary police procedurals with murder stories at their heart.

But they’re also not some of the things you might expect them to be. So although my novels are technically procedural, they show an almost total disregard for actual police procedure. There’s not a lot of shooty-bang-bang stuff. The action is slow, not fast. And the crimes being investigated are, in many cases, so extravagantly unlikely that nothing like them has ever actually happened.

So if I were writing a query letter – or an Amazon book blurb – I’d want to hint at the ways in which my books run contrary to genre, not with it.

Because, in the end, it’s not genres that matter. It’s readers. You do, I think, need to have a really clear idea of what kind of book yours is. What’s the heart of its appeal? What’s that appeal expressed in a sentence? What kind of cover sings about that appeal? Where on Amazon will your very best readers most likely gather? What other authors do those readers love?

These questions matter. Genres don’t. You will, I hope, find liberation in that thought. I know I do.

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Comments (10)
  • Thank goodness.  Have been slowly working my way through Bingham/Jericho's book 'How To Write A Novel....' with enjoyment and 'ah ha' moments and consequential revisions of a book I'm describing as a 'novel of stories' that I've been struggling to slot into a genre for when I go on the trail for an agent.  Pegging my book in a genre has been keeping me awake.

    On here, and from Jericho staff I've been kindly advised to look at Everisto's Man Woman.., and The Dubliners and various other very good books - but, although good for comparison, my attempt is not much like them. So I was feeling rather isolated and dispirited. Although writing a query letter will be a challenge ( um, each chapter is a self contained story, but the, er, protagonist has a personal story-arc, well, a romance, from beginning to finish, and, um, there's an existential threat to overcome).  The idea that I change perspective, from the market-eye of an agent - to the reader-appeal (that seems to be going very well with beta's) is liberating and supportive, and at least this week, I won't chuck it all in.  So thank you very much.

    BTW Harry, the how-to chapter on interiority was so helpful. Especially the frankness 'there should be some on every page'.  There's plenty of advice around on how to punctuate 'thoughts' but still not enough on how to choose/invent well when writing interior monologue.

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    • Your talk about genre makes me much more relaxed, I used to worry sick about genre. Thanks. 

      Question: I was told to say for what kind of readers the book is. It is very close to genre. Should I say "this story is for teenagers and baby boom generation"? Er... what about the others in the middle? "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Bridgit Jones's Diary" are for.........?

      I'd like you to talk about "Point of View". This is a cane in the wheel of my bike (translated from French). Since someone asked me, "From which point of view", I am almost paralysed and it handicaps my writing. What about the author's point of view?

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      • Very good post. Thanks Harry.

        I don't bother much with genre, and when pressed about this I usually say (im)modestly... that my novel falls into "quality women's fiction": the heroine is a sort of modern-day Jane Eyre, with a hint of social comment and humour generously sprinkled about. And I hope this will be enough to give anyone an idea what to expect and to want to read it. (Some will, just to tell me how deluded I am...)

        As to the readers, well... anyone with good taste? I hope. 😂  LOL 

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        • My little brother instincts pushed strongly for me to reply to your email. I shall refrain.

          Genre is one of the issues I have most struggled with in crafting a query letter. It's the weirdest feeling in the world. I -wrote- the story, so why do I find marketing it so challenging? And like you said, however I define the genre will dictate an agent's approach to the manuscript. Lovely. But I think I've been over-defining, trying to capture everything the story is.

          Thanks, Harry. I'm going to apply your advice, simplify my queries, and see where it takes me. Here's hoping. :)

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          • I wish genres didn't matter. I hate being force-fitted into an Amazon tick-box. However I'm looking at a rejection from a big-name publisher, via my agent, that says 'brilliant... but too many genres at play so would be hard for our marketing team to position. Pass, reluctantly.'

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            • Oh No -- But at least you got some wonderful positive feedback, so congrats on that and maybe the next one will strike gold!

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