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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What Does Genre Really Mean?

There are, as most writers and readers will know, almost infinite genres and sub-genres available. So, how do you define the book you’ve written or the books you’re most interested in reading?
I suppose we have to start by listing the most popular genres with their sub-genres. And I will immediately offend some writers/readers, because I will inevitably exclude some of their favourites. That is the nature of the beast.

First, are we talking FACT or FICTION – not so much genre as a label to identify whether a book is a work of imagination or a piece of writing depending on factual information.

Under FACTUAL we could include the following:
Autobiography
Biography
Comedy (or humour)
Educational
True Story
Documentary
And these are themselves generic terms to cover wide-ranging subjects as diverse as History, Travel, Arts, Science and Collecting, to name but a random few.

But my interest is in the genres that appear under the heading of FICTION:
Action
Adventure
Comic (or humour)
Crime
Detective
Erotic
Fan-fiction
Fantasy
Historical
Horror
Gothic
Literary
Mystery
Romance
Saga
Science Fiction
Sequel
Thriller
True Story
Western  
Just 20 separate genre headings there. Let’s break one of them into some sub-genres, and see where we go.

Romance:
Adventure
African-American
Bisexual
Category
Chick-lit
Contemporary
Dark Fantasy
Erotic
Fantasy
Futuristic
Gay
Gothic
Historical
Inspirational
Interracial
Lesbian
Literary
Mainstream
Military
Multi-Cultural
Mystery
Novel With Strong Romantic Elements
Paranormal
Regency
Science Fiction
Suspense
Sweet
Teen
Thriller
Time-Travel
Traditional
Transgender
Urban Fantasy
World War II-Era
Young Adult
So, only another 35 sub-genres there – no problem!

No wonder the issue of genre is difficult for both writers and readers. This imposition of pigeon-holing by the industry does, however, have a purpose. Most readers want a clue to the sort of book they are picking up and genre is a reasonable, if sometimes less than accurate aid.

My own novel, Breaking Faith, is listed as a Romantic Thriller. But what does that tell you about it, as a book? Does the term ‘Romantic’ put you off, as a male reader, or the term ‘Thriller’ make you wary, as a female reader? (sorry for stereotyping here, but sometimes it’s necessary to generalise to make a point). The story is basically a love story set against a historical backdrop (1976), but it examines relationships, familial domestic and romantic. Murder, rape, love and erotic sex lurk within the pages. In some senses, there is an element of the adventure novel and there is also the softer romance depicting a man and a woman in love. The story has made readers of both genders cry, laugh, exclaim with indignation, rant at injustice, sigh with frustration and smile with satisfaction. So, Romantic Thriller does not really do it justice. But how else would you label it?

In the end, we are stuck with genre as a way of classifying books into defined areas of treatment. But it is clearly wise for readers to remember that the labels attached are not by any means accurate or exclusive of other themes and topics than those expected from the genre.

If you use genre as a buying/reading guide, you might be well advised to read the blurb, the opening page and another random page in order to get a more accurate flavour before you commit yourself. Sometimes, you might be offended, disgusted, horrified or disappointed, and at others you might find yourself reading something that delights, surprises, elevates and astounds. I just ask that the simple label or genre doesn’t prevent you considering a book.

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