The What’s My Genre/Subgenre FAQ

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What’s genre?

Genre is a loose classification of literature based on similarity of tropes, themes, and subject. Defining the genre of a work is useful for analytical criticism and, functionally, the marketing of the work. In both cases the definition of genre is frequently a fluid and subjective one; in the case of marketing, genre is based on the skilled understanding of how to best to get books shelved in stores to put them in front of the largest number of potential customers who would likely be interested in that work.

In academia, all non-mimetic fiction is typically considered Fantasy of some sort. For the purposes of this room, we will consider Science Fiction and Fantasy as two (conjoined) genres, with the clear intent to present that there is no strict divide between the two, and that many works share enough with both SF and F to be reasonably considered valid examples of either or both, and more importantly, that that's okay.

There is also overlap with other genres, such as romance, thrillers, westerns, mystery, etc., and it's all good and healthy that this is so.

What’s subgenre?

Subgenres are subdivisions within a genre. Examples of Fantasy subgenres include epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance (which is also Romance) and so on. Examples of Science Fiction subgenres include military SF, cyberpunk, steampunk, etc.

There is no exhaustive list, and again, the categories are fluid and subjective, with significant overlap.

Why is there a FAQ on this?

Like clockwork, threads pop up here from people wanting to either:
a. know what genre the story they want to write is, or
b. make a bold declaration on the lines between subgenres, frequently with valuation associated with those categories.

More often than not, this makes us mods nuts. Here’s why:

a. If you’re a writer, write the story you want to tell. Don’t worry about genre. Genre classifications are an artificial means of defining what sort of story it is, and too many writers get bogged down trying to make sure their story fits into the right little box and worrying what happens if they accidentally toss a tentacle over the wall into a neighboring subgenre (or genre) box. IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Once you’ve written your story, and it’s the best story you can make it, then it can be good to think about genre/subgenre in terms of where to submit it. When an agent says they want sword & sorcery fantasy, it’s good to know that your intergalactic shoot ‘em up is probably not what they’re looking for. But defining the genre of your piece is not only rarely an exact science, there are very good reasons for not trying to narrow it down to some infinitesimal point of classification. Not just because (again) those lines are largely subjective to each reader, but because agents and editors get a lot of stories, and they want to make their own judgment about a piece, and they are looking for reasons why they don’t have to read further. If they’ve said they want “romantic fantasy” and you query saying your story is a “post-traditionalist, quasi-apocalyptic Dickensian urban paranormal romance with tragicomic undertones”, well, maybe you’ve NAILED what your story is, but you’re giving a lot of stuff for the agent to think, “Quasi-apocalyptic? Naw, that’s not what I’m looking for.” Why do that to yourself and your story if you don't have to?

So: write your story first. Worry about what genre/subgenre is only to the extent that you need to for subbing, and even then, paint it with the broadest definition brush appropriate. Let the editor decide what it is after reading it – if it’s good, it won’t matter what you called it, and if it’s not good enough, it still won’t matter – and let the marketers decide how to label it once the editor has bought it. You only have to get the ball in the right ballpark.

b. Many SFF fans are nothing if not very fond of trying to define stuff down to the smallest possible incremental differences. We call these “Endless Refinement of Facts” arguments. Genre definitions have certainly not escaped this deluge of anal-retentive need for supreme clarity. As a purely academic exercise, as long as one recognizes one is attempting to establish an ostensibly objective fine network of grids and lines and walls across something that is subjective, complex, and constantly changing, have at it. Enjoy yourself. Or go out to the beach, stand in the surf, and try to pick out and claim a cubic inch of water in the next wave coming toward you. At least you'll get a good tan out of it. And possibly ice cream, if you pick a good beach.

The problem is that very often the people establishing or defending these often-arbitrary divisions between subgenres assign value to belonging in one category versus the other, and use those definitions both to establish themselves as an authority, and to function as a gatekeeper for the purity of their top-valued category. So? Got some FTL in your SF? It’s not "real" SF. Or worse: it's FANTASY, ew, yuck!

It is a very short jump – more of a slight lean, in fact – to go from defining and assigning value to all sorts of subgenres, to devaluing both the work of others, and the people who read and enjoy those works.

And, you know, that’s just not cool. And it’s also very unRYFWy, which is why those threads tend to get into trouble here.

O Wise and All-Knowing Zanz, what should I do?

Write the story. The rest of it is just a distraction.

But what if I really, really, really, reeeeeeeally need to know my subgenre?

Ask. People will surely be all ready to tell you, with all confident authority.

Then go read Peter Watts' Blindsight, which is Hard SF. With a vampire.
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