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Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?


What genre is my book?

I am asked this question surprisingly often. I say surprising because one might assume, most of the time, that the genre of a book is obvious. And, most of the time, it is relatively obvious; authors tend to aim their efforts at specific markets. But once in a while, you come across a book that defies simple classification. In this article, I will look briefly at the main genre categories in fiction, and then zoom in on the problem of books that cross genre boundaries or don't neatly fit the criteria of the publishing industry.

There are several ways of categorising book genres. Let's start with the most commercially direct - the book market. The book market is segmented; that's to say, the consumers are categorised according to their tastes and reading abilities. Publishers and booksellers are aware that a person who reads and likes fantasy literature is likely to choose the fantasy option by default most of the time. So, on the whole, they promote books that fit the market segment the reader inhabits.

For an author, this means that writing in a particular genre is a commercial decision as much as an artistic one. You are writing for a specific audience with specific tastes and expectations. Thus, you are aiming to capture the attention of readers of a genre so that they will recognise your book as belonging to the genre they like and buy it. This is an honest approach to writing, even if it offends the Romantics among us.

There is also a more formal, literary method of categorising books by genre. This depends on definitions and criteria that characterise the book rather than the audience. If a book fulfils the relevant literary criteria, it belongs to a genre. So if a book is set in a quasi-medieval world populated by elves and dragons, it's fantasy; if it is set on another world and introduces novel technology, it's science fiction; if it is set in the time of the Roman Empire and concerns the actions of a centurion, it's historical fiction.

This approach sits under a broader distinction: speculative versus realist. Speculative fiction is entirely the creation of the author; setting, characters, narrative and plot are all original and do not depend on the reader's knowledge of the real world. Realist fiction is set in the world we are familiar with and generally doesn't flout the conventions of that world; ‘real' things happen to ‘real' people.

Simple, right? Well, yes and no. There is another formal criterion that complicates matters a little. This is the distinction between plot- and character-driven novels. Broadly speaking, if a book is driven by the plot - that is, by a set of events - it generally fits quite neatly into a genre. Most genre-specific fiction works along these lines; the story is moved along by the events and incidents that form the plot. The blacksmith's apprentice discovers he has magical powers and uses them to save the world from catastrophe; humans arrive on a hostile planet and fight for the resources needed to fuel their spacecraft for the return journey; an unknown centurion saves the future emperor's life and becomes a key figure in the invasion of Britain. What happens along the way (the plot) determines the trajectory of the narrative arc.

If you look online for advice about genres, you will regularly encounter the term ‘literary fiction'. This is a rather vague (and, I'd suggest, often inaccurate) term for novels that are largely driven by the development of their main characters. That's to say, the story is about the characters more than the events. A person is set adrift from their usual circumstances and they change as a result; eventually, they arrive at a new, generally resolved, version of themselves. The events (the plot) of the novel are there as challenges, problems, and opportunities for the characters to overcome as part of their interior journey to a new persona.

By these criteria, one could argue that pulp romance (or soft erotica for that matter) is a category of literary fiction! However, let's go with the consensus for now. Some novels are more about the characters than the action. This is where complications can set in and confuse the author. Suppose you have written a novel that, in basic terms, fits the category of fantasy fiction; but the focus of the story is the way the main character copes with events, learns more about themselves, and changes as a result.

Is this fantasy fiction or a literary novel? An example might help to clarify matters. K J Parker is a well-known and respected author of fantasy fiction. His books are set in a world familiar to fantasy readers, and genre-friendly things happen. But the characters are central to Parker's books; they interpret events for the reader and change as a consequence. Nonetheless, his books are always categorised as fantasy fiction. Why? Because the setting and plot clearly belong to that genre; character development is important, and introduces a literary element, but it is seen as additional to the basic structure of the novel.

And there is the crux of the issue: the genre of your novel is a question of the balance of its elements. If the plot and setting belong to an established fiction genre, the novel is part of that genre. Even if character development is central, the genre wins out.

If, on the other hand, your book is clearly and only about people - how they respond to events; how they relate to other characters; how they change and mature over time - you have a literary novel on your hands. Setting is secondary; plot is subordinate; character is king. No one ever accused Tolstoy of writing war novels.

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When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.


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Ask the Editor 3: writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

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Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

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