A Genre by any other name By Tom Knighton

*Apologies to Tom for putting this up so late.  I can’t even say I wasn’t awake, but for medication reasons I still haven’t had coffee, and I’m prone to just sit and derp without it.*

A Genre by any other name

By Tom Knighton


Tell someone that you’re writing or have written a novel, they’re likely to ask “What genre?” Well, unless you’re dealing with someone like the Books-A-Million employee who responded to a question about novels with, “What? You mean, like, fiction?” They don’t count. Most people know novel equals fiction, and fiction is cut up into genres.

The idea of grouping books into genres is a marketing tool. People who like books about going into space and battling aliens may not be the same people who are interested in a sweet love story about a woman and her probation officer, so they group books together to make it easier for readers to find the kinds of books they want.

However, even this doesn’t always work.

Recently, I got a review on one of my post-apocalyptic stories claiming that I was trying to cash in on the prepper subculture with my story. He made a claim about something in the book being implausible that, well, I’ve done a few times so I know it’s plausible.

So what happened?

Genres are, for good reason, pretty broad. There’s a reason that Alas, Babylon and The Earth Abides are in the same genre with Starship Troopers and 2001: A Space Odyssey. They all deal with fiction where scientific things play a key role.

However, things get dicey when readers get their own opinions of what a genre, or a subgenre, actually should entail. In my own example, I apparently had a reader who figures indie published “post-apocalyptic” to mean “prepper” fiction. As such, he read the story through that lens, and was disappointed. Rather than read about the character throwing the canned goods in the average American household in the pack (which isn’t that much food, really), he may have figured his own well stocked pantry, hence his assumption that walking afterwards was implausible.

Now, before anyone assumes I’m bellyaching about this review, I’m not. It pointed out my own failings in writing the story, namely that I wasn’t more specific as to the quantities involved here. I’ll take that hit and learn from it.

What I’m doing, however, is pointing out how a reader’s assumptions must also factor into how an indie writer markets their work.

If your readers believe that thrillers always have what one author refers to as “manly men doing manly things in manly ways” and you introduce a female protagonist, you’re going to have some difficulties with these readers. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. In fact, I have a cousin with a book in the works right now that does just that…and it sounds AWESOME! She’s like the anti-James Bond, but in meaningful ways. Not a whiff of SJW-dom in it when he and I chatted about it.

The difference is, my assumptions for the genre are very different than those belonging to some other people. Theoretically. (No, I don’t know anyone who classifies any genre in such a way.)

As indies, there will be some assumptions to be made regardless of genre. Some readers will seek out typos as proof we didn’t get editors, for one. Those are going to be there for a while, despite the fact that even the Big Five are letting through a lot of typos as well. We just have to deal with it and move on.

But we can be cognizant of their expectations. This is also why it’s important to read within your genre. How else are you going to know that genre’s conventions and clichés if you don’t actually read them?

It would be nice if there were a pile more choices available for subgenres. I’d love it if prepper fiction and post-apocalyptic were separated. We would all appreciate it if “socially conscious” science fiction wasn’t lumped in with the awesome stuff most of us grew up loving.

As a reader, I would really love this, though it wouldn’t do much for the willfully clueless.

There is one writer of certain infamy that some of you may be familiar with. He’s notorious for lashing out at his critics. I won’t mention his name, because it’s believed that uttering his name will summon him from the nine pits of hell. Or Maine. Either/or, really.

Regardless, he wrote a book about his “good girl” protagonist that sort of absorbs an entity she calls HAL. She uses the power she gains from this, which is supposedly limitless, to solve problems all over the world and stuff.

Most here see this description and see it as science fiction. I know I do. A number of other people as well. A few others have argued it could qualify as young adult due to the protagonist being an 18 year old female. A case could be made for it being a kid’s book due to the writing style.

Nope. This author slapped his book down as women’s lit.

Yeah…let that sink in for a bit.

His argument is that because she’s a woman, it’s women’s lit. Of course, he also argues that his book is sooooooo much more different than anything that’s ever been published before that it defies genre or something, but anyways. He’s ignored any advice to the contrary.

What we have is a book that meets the conventions from one genre slapped down into a completely unrelated genre. Even if he’d written one of the greatest books in history (and trust me, he didn’t. Not even close), no one would bother. Would you read a book plopped down in a genre it didn’t belong in if you weren’t into that kind of book?

For the willfully clueless, there’s no amount of expansion that will do any good. This author would have still plopped his science fiction kids’ book in women’s lit no matter what. As a reader, the willfully clueless will always be a problem. They drop whatever they want, wherever they want, and we’re expected to like it.

Luckily, they’re the minority. Most of the time, it’s just a misunderstanding between what two people think a genre entails. If I weren’t such a libertarian, I’d say that there ought to be a law. Of course, then we know things would get screwed up. Nothing gets so messed up as when the government gets involved.

155 responses to “A Genre by any other name By Tom Knighton

  1. Ah, the delights of categories.

    To be sure then you get into the subgenre and the subsubgenre fields. . . .

    • Tags are your friends from what I understand.

      • Are there anti-tags? Where you can select what it doesn’t have, which you’ve had folks expect to find?

        • Not that I’ve heard of but it would be a novel idea… and theoretically tags are just pre-indexed search items. shouldn’t be too hard to create a secondary repository, though the issue, I suspect would be people tagging themselves into a ‘nothing at all applies’ kind of category.

  2. A lady in my writers’ group is working on a novel that takes place in two different eras, separated by about eighty years. The main character in the then-era is a grown woman with children; the present-day (Well, Seventies…) character is a sixteen-year-old girl.

    She was discussing this project with a publishing house editor and got as far as the age of the latter protagonist. The editor interrupted her to say, “Oh, then it’s a Young Adult Novel.”

    Not really, my friend said. Because… But the editor would not be budged.

    She was pretty miffed and told us all about it at the next meeting. Other writers pointed out to her that YA is about all that _is_ selling, so she gave in.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      If there isn’t any sexual content, I might’ve been happy reading that story when I was that young.

      • Depends on what you mean by ‘any sexual content.’ The 19th-century character has, after all, a husband and children. The ’70s character is a sixteen-year-old girl and the object of attention of a local seventeen-year-old boy (in whom, however, she is not very interested). Too much?

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          ‘On screen’ kissing might be tolerable but boring. Depending on how old I was. On screen groping or intercourse, or a plot heavily dependent on emotions I didn’t feel, hence could not sympathize with, would have been a deal breaker.

  3. Sarah, like I told you yesterday, I don’t care when it goes up. I wrote this to help take some pressure off of you. Here’s hoping it does just that. 🙂

  4. Yup. There is no rule, no advice that would have been a benefit to that author. “Though you grind a fool in a mortar and pestle with grain, you will not separate him from his folly.”
    Sometimes genres are helpful; I tend to gravitate toward military sci fi, and that helps me to make choices. However, I have had my arm twisted until I read both about pixies, and then (gulp) a straight Western romance, and I do believe that a good writer can write in ANY genre and I will like it. I apply the same standard to movies. I’ll see a Quentin Tarantino or Coen brothers movie over and over.
    Aren’t ‘After the Blast’ and ‘Bloody Eden’ explicitly NON-prepper books? If you are driving a car in Albany when the balloon goes up, and have to stuff a bag full of what you can get and walk to the mountains, that seems to me to be about spontaneous survival, not prepping.
    But if you are a hammer, the whole world is a nail, I suppose…

    • If the woman is primarily using her powers to battle the oppression of women, matchmake nice single women with nice single guys, and design outfits and heels that both fit and look great, it could be chick lit. Especially if there is a kicky little picture of her on the front cover.

      • I’m guessing some would be upset she’s matchmaking for women with (OH MY GODDESS) men and not women.

  5. I’ve been struggling with genre and sub-genre since the first of the Colplatschki books. The Cat books are clearly “soft” mil-sci-fi (time travel, hardware, battles with and for alien species). But are the stories set on Solana/ColPlatXI sci-fi (no high tech except for broken bits), alt-history, adventure fiction (possible), women’s fiction (not as the genre stands at the moment), or “maybe?” And according to one guide, the book I’d been thinking is steampunk isn’t, because there are no created creatures or automata. It’s gas-lamp fantasy instead. And the WWI stuff is straight-up alt-hist, except for the creatures called Powers and the Drakonic Houses (sci-fi, right?) I wish my stories would make up their minds. *rueful shrug and grin*

  6. SCSF- we could probably seed it and get them to adopt the name themselves. That would nice.

  7. I hear tell if you say certain said author’s name three times while looking in a mirror, you lose your sanity forever. 😀

    • Nah, that only happens if you read his book all the way through.

    • Maybe that’s what happened to him?

    • Are we speaking of the man who made the stand against it with a girl named Carrie at the dark tower?

        • I thought we were not speaking of Stephen King, but I will confess that he is the only writer I can think of who is from Maine.

          • Oh, this guy is indie. One book.

            • Thank God!

              And, luckily, he appears to be unlikely to inflict anything else on humanity, since he apparently thinks he blew his load on this one and can’t write anything else.

          • For anyone who MMOs, there is a darkly hilarious “totally not Stephen King” character in The Secret World.

            Warning, when I say “dark,” I mean it– the entire thing that I made it through was a love-song to Lovecraft, horror and similar themes. Outstanding stories, but kind of depressing and… well, I don’t do horror very well.

            • One of my works-very-much-in-progress features Lucifer getting literally knee-capped because it’s the only part the character can reach in the pit…

            • Funny thing…

              I just redownloaded Secret World the other day. Kind of annoying, though. I get Out of Memory crashes every ten seconds or so in Tokyo. And whenever I zone into Agartha.

              I know who you’re talking about. Thoroughly unpleasant fellow. Though that doesn’t seem to have kept him from getting on quite well with the sheriff…


              • *sigh* It bites, because I adore the gameplay, the puzzles, the massive amounts of lore and mythology, I miss my Templar… but, well, not horror.

          • This writer refers to King, and all genre writers so far as I can tell, as “trash”.

            Despite the fact that anyone who looks at his book can clearly see that he wrote genre fiction.

            • There’s Trash, and then there’s Garbage. Most books that are fun are Trash. Some of them will be classic Trash (ERB, anyone?). All books that are self-conciously Literate are Garbage. Literature is what survives the era that spawned it. Dickens survived the era that he lived in because, social message or no, hi told a ripping good story. Hammett and Chandler are all that we (for the most part) remember of the pulps that they wrote for, and they are still great reads.

              All one can hope to do is write decent Trash and acoid writing forgettable Garbage.

              ERIC OR LITTLE BY LITTLE was Garbage. It is only remembered because Kipling mocked it. There are a lot of modern versions of ERIC out there. They will be mercifully forgotten, probably even before their authors are decently dead.

            • I despise King’s politics,but he’s one of the most skillful writers of the late 20th / early 21st century. His characterization and plotting skills are awesome.

              • I’m not a fan of King myself. It’s a personal thing. I had to slog through The Gunslinger and never bothered with the rest of the series.

                However, just because something isn’t to my tastes isn’t any reason to classify it was “trash”. Especially when so many other people disagree with that assessment.

                Personally, I find it telling at who classifies what as “trash” and just how they phrase it.

                • Eamon J. Cole

                  The Gunslinger series is a — special case. It’s not really like anything else King has done and is an evolution over 20-some years of writing.

                  Personally, I like early King, even when his politics bleed through. His characterization is so spot-on the politics reads as the character’s rather than the author’s (mostly).

                  Later King? Got weird. Which is saying something, with King.

                  Sadly, ’cause I wouldn’t wish a relapse on anybody, I like the stuff he did back in his addict days better than the clean and sober stuff.

                  I don’t think I’ve read anything from this century, other than the conclusion of the Gunslinger series.

                  • I tried _Cell_. Didn’t make it past 50 pages.

                    • Eamon J. Cole

                      Looking at the biblio, Dreamcatcher is the last one I read. And there’s some predating it that I skipped, as I had read Gerald’s Game and was — turned off, for a bit.

                      Prior to that, I was pretty much buyin’ ’em as he wrote ’em.

                      Though — I don’t know that current me would go for ’em as much as past me did.

                  • Yeah, that other stuff didn’t appeal to me. Mostly, I’m not a horror fan, so that’s part of it.

                    That’s the thing though. So many authors out there, you don’t have to be a fan of all of them, but calling everything “trash” that falls into genre fiction? Well…that just shows how “special” this guy is.

                    That and the recent understanding that he most likely only sees people as their occupations and nothing else.

                    • Really? I wonder how he sees JOATs? Does he see them differently, depending on what they are doing at the moment?

                    • Good question. Honestly, depending on exactly what flavor of JOAT they are, he may see them as anything from “the next DaVinci” to “a handyman”.

                      One of the most interesting defenses he made of his book was that a university curriculum coordinator and a janitor both loved the book, which PROVES that people if very different backgrounds love the book. The fact that the janitor might actually be smarter and more worldly than the curriculum coordinator never dawns on him, for example.

                    • Who wrote the first JOAT story?

                    • Jack Of All Trades.

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            Lee and Miller moved to Maine, I think from Maryland.

            Ben ‘Gryphon’ Hutchins has been writing multicross fanfic since the early nineties.

  8. Some time ago, when I was freshly retired from the 20-year ride in the Air Force, I wrote a cycle of short stories about three military women during the first Gulf War – I deliberately patterned it after Kipling’s Soldiers Three and based the characters on a couple of women that I knew, calling them Leroy, Orvis and Maculhaney (instead of Leroyd, Otheris and Mulvaney). I had a hell of a time trying to market them, because they did not really fit any existing genre at all: they weren’t mil … because women. And they weren’t chick-lit because military setting.
    I got interested in other stuff, and eventually put the stories that I had finished into an e-book collection of short stories. But yeah, figuring out genre categories can be fun.

    • The fact that nobody knew how to market your historical fiction because it was only 165 years old and set in America (but NOT Civil War) should also be a big hint at how narrowly some genres are defined.

      • You know, right? I will never forget the NY agent (who to give him credit, did read all of To Truckee’s Trail and loved it) did say regretfully, that he had talked to a number of other denizens of the NY literary world and … they had never heard of the Stephens-Greenwood-Townsend Party. Hello! That was the selling point – the anti-Donner Party, who did everything RIGHT! and emerged from the same circumstances that killed half of the Donner-Reeds …with all of their party plus-two! BUT NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD OF THEM!
        That was the point where I figured that the NY literary establishment would be a total bust as far as my books were concerned.

        • The ignorance of New Yorkers cannot be underestimated, exemplars of parochialism that they are, convinced they know what needs be known, and smarter than anyone anywhere else.

        • Up until now, I hadn’t heard of them either.

          (Although the other led to one of my favorite Pinky and The Brain jokes, where they infiltrate Santa’s Workshop in a plot to Take Over The World. Pinky: Look, Brain, the reindeer are inviting the elves to a party at Donner’s house.
          Brain: Hm, for some reason, the idea of joining the Donner party is unappealing.)

          • I hadn’t heard of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to read about them. I thought historicals were supposed to point out Cool Things You Did Not Know.

            • Well, that was what the NY agent said – that the best way to super-stardom in HF-land was to write about an unknown aspect of something that everyone had heard about. He gave as an example – Cold Mountain. Everyone’s heard about the Civil War, right? Howsabout Southern unhappiness with the Confederacy in the high mountains?
              Well, I thought that writing about the anti-Donner party would have been a shoo-in … but he said that he just didn’t think that he could market it successfully.
              Over time it’s been my best-seller. I still think it would be a terrific movie, too.

            • I thought historicals were supposed to point out Cool Things You Did Not Know.

              I think this could be worked into the same format as the “people think they want News, but they really want Olds” talk in The Truth.

              I get so tired of the “historicals as the same blooping things with slightly different frills” thing.

          • I will say that even though they did things “right”, as a native Californian I cringed when they got to the eastern edge of the Sierras… in October. It’s one of those default assumptions for Californians, like “it doesn’t rain in the summer” (less than an inch of precipitation between May and October inclusive), that just doesn’t map to Eastern states—”travel through the Sierras after October usually involves copious amounts of snow.” (The last several years notwithstanding.) “Copious”, in this case, means amounts like certain states around the Great Lakes have experienced this winter.

            The Donner Memorial has a plinth that is theoretically the depth of the snow, determined but the cut marks on the trees still standing when the memorial was created. For perspective, Evil Rob is six feet tall and is standing ten feet or more from the base. Snow doesn’t mess around in the Sierras, and the Donner Pass is the second-highest point on I-80 (the highest being just east of Laramie, Wyoming.)

            • Well … yes, they didn’t reach the foot of the mountains by then – and they had no idea of how bloody bad conditions were in the High Sierras. They were all mid-western people, although perhaps the two old Mountain Men among had a clue, based on their own experience in the far west, if not specifically in the Sierras.
              That was one of my themes, though – that the Stephens-Greenwood-Townsend Party had some experts among them, they had strong leadership, and respected that expertise and leadership. They hung together, did what they could, and emerged alive with all accounted for … whereas the Donner-Reeds had none – no frontier expertise, no leadership they could respect, who might have pulled them together. At the worst possible moment, the Donner-Reed party threw out their one strong leader, and fell apart in the desert crossing, even before they started up the mountains. The dreadful ‘ifs’ accumulated. And so, they were stranded, in mutually-suspicious family groups, in twenty-foot deep snow, at the top of a mountain range.

              • I traveled on the California Zephyr once. I was sitting next to a gentleman from Ohio, pointing out the snow on the ground in June, and telling him about the depth and length of snowfall in the Sierras. “You don’t say,” he kept stating, his surprise clear. Midwesterners today also don’t have any gut knowledge of Sierra conditions.

                I say this as someone who was surprised to find out that most of the country expects rain to come in the summer.

          • oooOOOoooooo…. NARF.

  9. Eamon J. Cole

    Turtle polishing service, here for a touch-up (Hey! YOU!! No entendres, whatever their multiplicities!)

  10. Yeah, because if I like urban fantasy that doesn’t mean I like paranormal romance. (But there’s werewolves and vampires in both!)

    I’ll read most anything that isn’t grey goo, myself, and some things that are (I’ve been known to read textbooks when I’m bored) but I’m the exception and most readers aren’t me. Enough so that I have to mind which friends I recommend which authors to, because they aren’t as omnilibrevorous as I am. (Yeah, yeah, spellcheck says there is no such word, but there should be.)

  11. Christopher M. Chupik

    I mean, Dune has a teenage protagonist, but it’s never shelved as YA. Mind you, there’s that new edition with the awful cover that makes Paul look like a sparkle-vampire . . .

  12. When you say, “We would all appreciate it if “socially conscious” science fiction wasn’t lumped in with the awesome stuff most of us grew up loving.” I am reminded of a Monty Python skit about clear labeling…

    Milton What about our sales?
    Praline I’m not interested in your sales! I have to protect the general public! Now what about this one. (superintendent enters) It was number five, wasn’t it? (superintendent nods) Number five Ram’s Bladder Cup. (exit superintendent) What sort of confection is this?
    Milton We use choicest juicy chunks of fresh Cornish ram’s bladder, emptied, steamed, flavoured with sesame seeds, whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark’s vomit.
    Praline Larks vomit?
    Milton Correct.
    Praline Well it don’t say nothing about that here.
    Milton Oh yes it does, on the bottom of the box, after monosodium glutamate.
    Praline (looking) Wel I hardly think this is good enough. I think it’s be more appropriate if the box bore a great red label warning lark’s vomit.
    Milton Our sales would plummet!

  13. “the willfully clueless will always be a problem” – given the effect of such cluelessness on sales, this equates to “the poor will always be with us”.

  14. One should not always confuse cluelessness with willful whoring.

  15. Sometimes we really don’t get to pick our subgenre. When I first published Exodus: Empires at War, I put it in military science fiction because I wanted people to see it as hard hitting, technical fiction about future military operations in space and on the ground. Not space opera, which I saw as Trek and Star Wars. But it still got slotted into space opera on Amazon. Now it’s doing very well in space opera, all of the books thus far hitting the top ten on Amazon in that subgenre, and most going much higher. But my intent was a completely different subgenre, and still it ended up where I didn’t want it.

  16. Professor Badness

    “Nothing gets so messed up as when the government gets involved.”
    With as many friends and family as I have had working for the government, this is so true.

    • Governments are good at brute force and bean-counting. Thus they do reasonably well at war and delivering mail. They also seem to have a history of building, or encouraging the building, of networks that appear that theynwould not have been built on a purely profit basis. The American rail net is an example; society got huge benefits, but without cheap right-of-ways and so forth they wouldn’t have happened anywhere nearly as quickly. Or rural electrification. Or the internet. There are a bushel of PhDs in that somewhere.

      Governments are bad at anything requiring subtlety, nuance, or taste.

      • Government is good at natural monopolies – use of force, transportation, infrastructure, etc. Beyond that the costs outweigh the benefits.

        • They don’t seem to be good at RUNNING transportation; government run train systems are notorious for a lot of reasons. They’re good at building or supporting the building of the infrastructure that allows the travel to happen.

        • Government is also decent at basic tech research–proof of concept, as it were.
          Application is best left to the private sector.

  17. Christopher M. Chupik

    I have one project, which I have to get back to soon, which would probably get labeled “Steampunk”, even though steam engines are a historical curiosity in that world. “Gaslight fantasy”, maybe, but they don’t use gaslights either ;-). It’s a tricky thing.

  18. If your readers believe that thrillers always have what one author refers to as “manly men doing manly things in manly ways” and you introduce a female protagonist, you’re going to have some difficulties with these readers.

    SNERK. Matthew Reilly’s The Great Zoo of China features a female protagonist, a scientist. Specifically, on the focus of crocs and gators. Her abilities are totally plausible too. The whole book is a ‘cannot put it down’ thriller. I’d to a review but I can’t do it without spoiling the book. =/

    • Well, it sounds fascinating from that!

      • It’s great fun, honestly. Most of Riley’s books are. A good number are, from how I like to describe them, are what would result if Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Joss Whedon and John Woo decided to write books instead of do movies, and well, if Marvel decided to produce them. They’re grab-the-reader-by-the-scruff and RUSH INTO ACTION books. He has a series aimed at younger readers (particularly boys) and a book that was a break from his usual style that was also very good (The Tournament) which intrigued me because it’s centered around chess.

        • I should look into this.

          • Professor Badness

            Reilly does some good stuff. I’d never read action like that before. I started with Temple, which is a good stand alone.

          • Several of his books are stand-alone before he started doing series. Contest is the first book he did, and is a standalone, one of the better first novels I’ve read. Temple is another of his stand-alones. He also has a fantasy novel that I haven’t yet read (because I tend to like reading his books in a physical format and it’s ebook as far as I know, and I read ebooks on my laptop)

            Greig Beck is another Aussie author whose works I enjoy in the thriller genre, though his are more in the scary action type.