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Is the book SF? Fantasy? A Mystery? A Thriller? What if the genre divide isn't clear-cut?

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Ari Meermans

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Speculative Fiction—perhaps Science Fiction most of all. Perhaps.—has always been about pushing the boundaries of the known vs. the unknown, the possible vs. the only-likely, in fact, the whole gamut of human imagination. Why not genre boundaries as well?

Did you think that if you can't pin down your genre because it has equal elements of different genres, your novel just might be unsellable? Well, grasshopper, you might want to revisit that thought.

Tor. com discusses "Six Recent SFF Novels That Give No Effs About Genre Distinctions".

Science fiction and fantasy exist as strata of various subgenres: hard SF and space opera, epic and urban fantasy, steampunk and cyberpunk, and so on. It’s baked into genre fiction, this omnipresence of tropes and conventions that allow picky readers to know exactly what they’re in for.

But some authors say: screw that noise. Why limit yourself to just one genre when you can toss them all across the floor, grease up your book, and roll it around in the resulting debris, picking up a little of this and a little of that? (You know, metaphorically.)

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Is it a fantasy? Well sure: there’s magic galore, dredged from blood and bone. Is it science fiction? Undoubtedly: Gideon is a citizen of a galactic empire and attempts to book passage on a spaceship that will take her to the front lines of an intergalactic war. Is it a mystery? Maybe that most of all: the plot resembles nothing so much as Agatha Christie on mescaline.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Few fictional characters have been remixed and rejiggered and totally reimagined quite as often as Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. . . Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is an excellent mystery in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, a slightly seedy affair that finds its uptight Watson stand-in being yanked along by the deductions of a possibly quite mad detective. But it is so much weirder than that.

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Though Gladstone throws around a lot of ideas sprung from classic SF (nanotech, artificial intelligence, multiple dimensions, a mind-expanding vision of the future of cloud computing), all of them are taken so far over the top that they’ve basically ceased to resemble science fiction and are something closer to bizarro space magic.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

What fascinates me about the book’s genre savvy is how closely Carolyn’s quest hews to the conventions of the commercial thriller, if one were slathered in phantasmagorical horror.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This is all the stuff of fantasy, of course, but McGuire’s worldbuilding is so exacting, it plays out like science. Where Roger is able to change the world through an innate mastery of language, Dodger has a strong head for numbers and can see the equations that underlie all of existence. Alchemy is, of course, a magical science in and of itself, an attempt to command and codify the impossible. This all plays out in a grab-bag of cross-genre tropes: time loops, alternate dimensions, genetic engineering, blood magic and more.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga’s execution is as offbeat as its setup: its universe is truly weird, a place where magic definitively exists, as do ghosts, as do sentient robots with heads shaped like TVs, as do beasts out of fantasy stories and aliens out of your nightmares (but don’t judge a book by its cover, or an armless spider-bodied assassin by her vast number of eyes).
 

Friendly Frog

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I do wonder whether the idea that genre-crossing books may be unsellable hasn't rather always been a publisher-problem rather than a writer-problem, or even a reader-problem.

As a reader, I don't particularly care if the book I'm reading is fantasy or sci-fi, as long as the blurb doesn't lie about it. I also am often a bit bothered by the pigeonholing of books. Readers aren't stupid, they know some books won't fit exactly in existing categories. (But admittingly, that may just be me. I have had too many grating discussions how Star Wars is not sci-fiiii but space-operaaaa. Mostly because it was been used to deny my younger self the identity of a sci-fi reader because everybody knows girls can't like sci-fi, not like boys. Duh.)

As a writer, well, since I write for personal enjoyment, rather than market, anything goes while writing and I'll have a look at what genre it turns out to be afterwards. Genre becomes only important if you want to sell your work.

 

VeryBigBeard

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I read THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR recently. Terrific book. Had an interesting thought about its genre while shoveling snow but I forgot to write it down. Alas.

What drew me to it was precisely the lack of exact genre, but perhaps I'm strange that way. Oddly, I don't love either thriller or horror in the main. I see where the article's author is coming from, but I read it as straight fantasy. Or maybe (sub)urban fantasy.

It pulls in a lot of genre references, but every one of them works in context and service of the larger narrative so that I couldn't help but read the story on its own terms, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Good books are like that.

Plus, Hawkins gives a (deserved) shout out to the "Learn Writing With Uncle Jim" thread in the back matter :greenie.
 
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Brightdreamer

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Genre has always been about the marketing, I thought, more than a strict, specific, exclusive "This is SF! This is Fantasy! This is Thriller! None shall venture beyond the lines!" thing. Boundaries have been blurred for quite some time. (Was Max Brand's The Untamed a western, or the origin story of a superhero before the term existed?)
 

ironmikezero

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I gave up worrying about genre labels some time ago. I can understand making a succinct effort to advise potential readers, so I just called a certain series work a genre mash-up, where fantasy and folklore enmeshed with physics and forensics (science fantasy/police procedural). That blurb seemed to suffice.
 

Kjbartolotta

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I still don't know how to classify Kindred. I call it speculative fiction because I'm salty about attempts to delegitimize the genre and quite certain Butler would be ok with that description, but I'm really actually not sure.
 

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Speculative Fiction—perhaps Science Fiction most of all. Perhaps.—has always been about pushing the boundaries of the known vs. the unknown, the possible vs. the only-likely, in fact, the whole gamut of human imagination. Why not genre boundaries as well?

Did you think that if you can't pin down your genre because it has equal elements of different genres, your novel just might be unsellable? Well, grasshopper, you might want to revisit that thought.

Tor. com discusses "Six Recent SFF Novels That Give No Effs About Genre Distinctions".

Only read one of these, now I need them all!
 

The Black Prince

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I do wonder whether the idea that genre-crossing books may be unsellable hasn't rather always been a publisher-problem rather than a writer-problem, or even a reader-problem.

As a reader, I don't particularly care if the book I'm reading is fantasy or sci-fi, as long as the blurb doesn't lie about it. I also am often a bit bothered by the pigeonholing of books. Readers aren't stupid, they know some books won't fit exactly in existing categories. (But admittingly, that may just be me. I have had too many grating discussions how Star Wars is not sci-fiiii but space-operaaaa. Mostly because it was been used to deny my younger self the identity of a sci-fi reader because everybody knows girls can't like sci-fi, not like boys. Duh.)

As a writer, well, since I write for personal enjoyment, rather than market, anything goes while writing and I'll have a look at what genre it turns out to be afterwards. Genre becomes only important if you want to sell your work.


Pretty much exactly my view.

I've always been a trans-genre (even pan-genre) writer and I'm guessing that's why I've only been published by very small publishers. The big ones sometimes say they like it but complain there's no market for my stuff because it can't be pigeon-holed. Does it never occur to anyone that if they like, others will also?

Or do they really just hate it and are looking for novel excuses?
 

lizmonster

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I do wonder whether the idea that genre-crossing books may be unsellable hasn't rather always been a publisher-problem rather than a writer-problem, or even a reader-problem.

I think this is kind of an oversimplification. I think we (here on AW, and other places writers congregate) tend to over-estimate how much the average book-buyer notices (and understands) the book market in general.

It's all well and good to say readers don't care about genre, and I think up to a point that's true. But they have to know about a book to buy it. People self-identify as SF fans, or mystery fans, or fantasy fans, or even cross-genre fans - but there are a lot of books out there, and in order for them to discover your book, it has to be placed somewhere they'll find it. No reader goes to Amazon, clicks on "all fiction," and starts searching from A.

Publishing is a business. When a publisher considers buying a book, one of the things they think is "how will I sell this?" This is essentially a mashup of "which readers will like this?" "are there enough of those readers?" and "is there a practical way for us to find as many of them as possible?"

And speaking of someone who has experience with a big publisher attempting cross-marketing (and who's spoken to others with similar experiences)...it is very, very easy for that to go spectacularly wrong.

So yeah, I get it when a publisher gravitates toward books that are easier to classify. It's not about like, dislike, or bias; it's about making money. This doesn't mean the people working there don't love books, and often love books they elect not to buy, but they have to pay rent like the rest of us, and they only have the bandwidth to push so many manuscripts.

(The only time recently I've bought a book outside of a genre I usually read was when I saw the author speak at a con. He seemed thoughtful and interesting, so I bought his urban fantasy - not a genre I read. His work is excellent, but I'll also say it hasn't started me on a massive UF binge, either.)
 
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Friendly Frog

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It's all well and good to say readers don't care about genre, and I think up to a point that's true. But they have to know about a book to buy it. People self-identify as SF fans, or mystery fans, or fantasy fans, or even cross-genre fans - but there are a lot of books out there, and in order for them to discover your book, it has to be placed somewhere they'll find it. No reader goes to Amazon, clicks on "all fiction," and starts searching from A.
Oh, I agree mostly with what you say, and I wouldn't say readers don't care about genre. At least that was not the point of my previous post.

Genre is definitely an aid for readers to find/discover books they might like. But I would say that most readers probably do not care much for the, sometimes rather narrowly defined subcategories, or strict genre-borders publishers sometimes give to books. How many people will call a specific book a space-opera rather than a sci-fi book, or a cosy mystery as opposed to just a mystery book? In my very limited experience, usually only people working in the book industry. That was more my point.
 

lizmonster

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Oh, I agree mostly with what you say, and I wouldn't say readers don't care about genre. At least that was not the point of my previous post.

Genre is definitely an aid for readers to find/discover books they might like. But I would say that most readers probably do not care much for the, sometimes rather narrowly defined subcategories, or strict genre-borders publishers sometimes give to books. How many people will call a specific book a space-opera rather than a sci-fi book, or a cosy mystery as opposed to just a mystery book? In my very limited experience, usually only people working in the book industry. That was more my point.

Yeah, I agree. I think fine distinctions are kind of mystifying, although I get why people reach for distinctions like fantasy vs. sf, even when they're not entirely appropriate. Basically, though, I only want to know if I'm going to get more rockets than swords. :)

I think the trouble starts when a publisher tries to market to two disparate categories. They risk alienating readers of both, which is what I've seen happen.
 

The Black Prince

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Similar issue from which I suffer... Not only do I tend to defy or subvert genre, I also write in different genres. My agent despairs of me - tells me not to do it - and I do get her point. In refusing to stay within genre lines I'm weakening (she says) my brand because people don't know what sort of writer I really am. I've done two off-beat crime novels, an authorized biography, an historical novel and have just had a sci-fi novel accepted (and am writing the sequel). I'm also going to self pub my masterpiece which I can't get anyone to even read. It is (broadly) crime again but also spec fiction - some would probably say more SF than crime.

I would say that my voice is recognizable across all genres and if people like my voice they will follow me, but that will only happen if I am indulged and supported by a publisher big enough to accomplish that. Why can't I be like Kubrick - known for doing just one film in any genre?

In all honesty, it doesn't bother me that much. I have a day job and writing is really just a hobby that pays a little and gives me a bit of audience, which I do enjoy. I just get irritated at publishing decisions that seem a little arbitrary sometimes and based on shibboleths.
 

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