Earlier this month two literary heavyweights discussed the issue of “Genre” and whether or not it should exist in its current form. Read Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s discussion in the New Statesman.
It all started because Ishiguro’s new novel Buried Giant is not presented as a Fantasy novel despite having a number of elements in it that would brand it as a Fantasy (like ogres). The argument is made that genre is an artificial construct that has no place in the scheme of literature. For example Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was not called a fantasy when it was first published. It was just “Fiction.”
We use genre as a way to identify the category of a book. Where it should be sold in a store. Or who its competition will be.
The best way to describe it is to say that publishers and booksellers sell books out of boxes. The boxes are labeled “Romance” “Thriller” “Mystery” etc.
Before we resist that exercise I would claim that we consumers buy books out of those boxes. It is quite possible that the boxes were created by us (the consumers).
What frustrates the artist/writer is when a book fits in more than one box. Or doesn’t fit in any box. (Thus the concept of being “outside the box!”) The writer, with good reason, resists being branded.
The writer can be further frustrated if they are successful with one type of book but want to write something that would go in another box. Their publisher tells them “you are off-brand”, “stick with what sells”, and “no one will find you over there.”
How Many Genres Are There?
As fiction expanded over the years there has been a corresponding need to identify the various genres. The BISAC (Book Industry Subject and Category) codes are what the industry uses to determine the sales category for each book.
Click through to see the list of almost 150 fiction genres: Fiction BISAC Categories
Someone once said that the internet makes genres unnecessary because there are no more shelves. No need to group books together. The problem with that argument is that even Amazon breaks books down by genre. They know that someone who loves historical fiction will want to read more in that category and helps their visiting consumer with suggestions of other books to buy which are like the one they just bought.
What About Non-Fiction?
Does this problem happen in non-fiction? Of course it does. Instead of genre there are different topics. And success in a topic creates brand expectation of that author. Imagine you have written a successful parenting book and your next book idea is a devotional based on the Book of Psalms. Your books are no longer in the same box. And you are deviating from your successful brand.
Remember the Dewey Decimal system? It was created as a way to organize books in a library by topic.
It can be a challenge for a book that crosses multiple topics. A book of Apologetics could be classified as Theology, Philosophy, or Apologetics. Much depends on the content and the author’s reading audience.
Good question. Those who sell books care because the consumer cares. When a customer wants a new mystery to read, they ask their favorite retailer for a suggestion. They ask either by visiting a physical store and browsing the Mystery section or by going to their favorite e-bookstore and typing in some sort of search (either by genre or author) and seeing what comes up. Or they may check the bestseller list, in that genre, if available.
Thus because the consumer cares and the booksellers care, the publisher cares.
And therefore the writer should care. We want our books to be found by our readers. “Discoverability” is the buzz word of the last couple years.
But What if Mine is Outside-the-Box?
It is hard to tell someone “There is no hope for your book” because it is the wrong genre or cannot be identified with one genre. I never like to say never, because that simply isn’t true. There have been breakthrough books that ended up defining a genre. This Present Darkness all but created the Christian supernatural novel as a genre (published in 1986 – stayed on the Christian bestseller list for 150 weeks!).
But at the same time we must be realistic. Claiming that your book is genre-busting is a bold claim and must overcome sincere and reasonable objections. Ishiguro’s novel mentioned at the top of this article isn’t sold as a Fantasy. Thus consumers who bought it did not expect to find Ogres in the book. In fact his most famous novel is the critically acclaimed Remains of the Day about a “perfect English Butler.” Unhappy readers will think twice before buying his next novel, unsure what to expect.
Do you think genres serve a valuable purpose?
Do you think branding restricts creativity?