I regularly read the Magical Words blog, whree a group of speculative fiction authors joined together to offer writing advice and stories from the word-mines. Over time, I’ve become ever-so-slightly more active a commenter on the posts, sharing my own thoughts and experience.
One recent post got me thinking about Genre. In it, fantasy author Misty Massey begins a series of genre-definition posts similar to what you’d find on fellow writer-blogger T.S. Bazelli’s blog. The post and ensuing discussion made me think about genre a lot (so much so that I was accused of overthinking the matter; I deny the charge as I don’t generally think it’s possible to overthink anything, and more likely to underthink something; I’m guilty of the latter as often as anybody else, but I’d rather be guilty of the former, which I think is no sin). So, this is going to be a long post. I’d split it up, but I think I’d lose something salient to my point in doing so. My intention is to inspire deeper thinking on this topic – maybe even overthinking. So put your thinking caps on.
Misty sets off on this whirlwind tour of the many genres and subgenres and subsubgenres of Speculative Fiction by discussing high and epic fantasy. But before launching into discussion of individual genres, she says this:
When you’ve finished your manuscript and are ready to send it out into the world, one of the most important things to know about it is what genre it belongs to. Once upon a time, if a book had magic in it, it was fantasy. Period. Tolkien was fantasy, Tim Powers was fantasy, Glen Cook was fantasy. That’s no longer true. Genres have split and split and split again, becoming more and more specialized as the audiences demanded. Where once agents said they read fantasy, now they say they only want comic paranormal romance, dark epic or dieselpunk. Which puts the writer into a quandary – how do you know what you’re writing?
Now, I’m a geek – and one version of geekhood delights in the categorization and proper naming of things. Among the various kinds of geekhood I subscribe to… that is one of them. I like the proper categorization of things as much as the next category-geek. But I’m also something of a Speculative Fiction omnivore. With relatively few exceptions (full disclosure: Twilight and your ilk, I’m thinking of you right now), I cannot recall having declined to read a particular Speculative Fiction novel because of it’s subgenre. That’s the lesson I learned after resisting reading the Harry Potter books for a couple years at first. As long as a book falls somewhere under the greater aegis of Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi, I’m game to give it a shot, with the caveat that time is limited and I’m already way behind on a teeming horde of excellent speculative fiction that I want to read (partly on account of the three-year reading hiatus called “getting my MBA”).
And, it seemed to me, a lot of the speculative fiction fans I know are similarly omnivorous. We have our preferred pet genres (Fantasy, for me), but we’re generally not allergic to any particular given subgenre of our greater genre community. Now, I know there are your “Hard Sci-Fi Die Hards”, for instance, who won’t even look at your book unless you have an advanced technical degree and your book promises to contain complex formulas and plausible technical specifications in fictional format. Every genre has a few grognards¹. But in my experience – and experience is worth pretty little when you’re talking about markets and audience – the genre grognards are a tiny minority of the greater Speculative Fiction reading community. If my experience is anything resembling reality, the vast majority of Speculative Fiction readers are, like me, omnivorous with few exceptions.
I’m open to the possibility that my experience does not paint a full picture. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case. But I still find it hard to conceive of a world where the Speculative Fiction reading community is truly and nigh fully fractured: with Epic Fantasy readers, and Hard Sci-Fi readers, and Space Opera readers, and Steampunk readers, and Military SF readers, and New Weird readers, and so on, and never the many to meet. Were it so, how could we have such mightily successful, multi-genre and all-nerd-embracing cons such as “Dragon*Con” or (as it is, these days) ComicCon (which has almost as much to do with Comics exclusively as Dragon*Con has to do with Dragons exclusively), and so on? Rather, even if there is some division, the fandoms are intermingled and varied and generally open and inviting. You can have Stormtroopers together in the same room as Vulcans, and Victorian adventurers, and Elves and Knights without any of them coming to blows or proclaiming their superiority over the others.
Still, I know the folly of trying to make generalizations about an audience or a market without data. That’s part of what I studied in my MBA class. One of the highlights of my MBA was a class centered on data-driven marketing approaches, which was all about using data to better understand a market or audience in order to better serve and/or market to that audience. So, yes, I’d love to see some real data about the audience for readers of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and all of the countless Speculative Fiction genres. But in the absence of that data, I have to assume that the largest segment of this population is generally non-specific, in any minute detail, as to the genres they’re open to reading. Because with few exceptions (the phrase of the day!), that’s what my experience tells me.
And the end-user marketing, at the retail level, doesn’t seem to disagree with that conclusion. Walk into a bookstore. I challenge you to find a separate “Hard SF” versus “Military SF” section, or a separate “Epic Fantasy” versus “Sword & Sorcery section. Over most of my life, I wouldn’t even find a separate “Sci Fi” versus “Fantasy” section: all of speculative fiction was usually shelved together in the Sci Fi section. These days you’re more likely to find a separate Fantasy section right next to the Sci Fi section than in the past. More recently, I did see a separate “Paranormal Romance” section, which I think makes sense since I don’t believe there’s really very much overlap between the greater Speculative Fiction audience and the Paranormal Romance audience. It is only the trappings and aesthetics of the former which inform the latter, but the readers often have very different expectations. What’s more… most Speculative Fiction books will give only a few clues to differentiate from one sub-genre to another. You won’t find on the spine more of an indication, typically, than a book being either Sci Fi or Fantasy. Cover art, and sometimes back-copy, are often the only indicators a reader will have, but there is a lot of cross-over in terms of aesthetics and techniques and symbolic representations for cover-art for Speculative Fiction. An airship or goggles means Steampunk, a woman in tight-fitting leather clothing in a sultry pose with a medieval weapon in an urban environment means Urban Fantasy, and so on, but there is a lot of room for playing with expectations there. These are images – art – not scientific binomial nomenclature.
That’s a lot to absorb, but it’s a long way of saying that I suddenly became skeptical of the importance of defining the genre of what we writers write in that minutest detail.
Towards the end of Misty’s article, she says this:
If you recognize your work in what I’ve said, you’re probably writing high fantasy. But wait a second – high fantasy breaks down into further subgenres, and I’ll get into those next time.
Whoa. Sub-genres of High and Epic Fantasy? Which, itself, is a subgenre of Fantasy which, if we want to be purely technical, is a subgenre of Speculative Fiction? A sub-sub-sub-genre?
That’s a pretty granular level of detail. Perhaps too granular.
If the greater Speculative Fiction community is already pretty open about its genre preferences, how much do we really need to classify a work to the level of “Epic Fantasy Type A” versus “Epic Fantasy Type B” and so on?
To a certain degree, though, it makes some sense. For one, as is pointed out in the article, inside the publishing industry, these distinctions matter: to Agents, to Editors, to the Marketing Department. I understand that – again, both as a geek and as a writer with an MBA with a focus on analysis, marketing, and data. The nuance can matter – and inasmuch as a larger publisher might actually have a significant amount of data on the specifics of its audience, it can matter a lot.
Some of the ways it matters²: some agents only read specific genres or sub-genres. Don’t bother submitting your story to an agent who does not represent your sub-genre. The marketing department needs to know what kind of cover art to acquire for the book (to send that subtle genre cue to the potential reader). And even for omnivorous speculative fiction readers, one commenter on that article made this point, which I paraphrase: “If I’ve just read a glut of Epic Fantasy, I may want to experience something different. I might want to read another Epic Fantasy again later, but right now I want something else.” Some of the professional writers stressed the importance of being able to say what, exactly, you are writing.
I ended up leaving a long comment on the article, however, with my own assertions about the importance of genre. It’s not that I discount the importance of knowing in what genre you write. But it’s even more important to understand your audience. Your audience is not your genre. When you are submitting your work, trying to attract the attention of agents and editors, your audience is agents and editors. To that audience, the specific detail of your genre quite apparently matters, and a great deal. When you’re writing on your blog about your book, hoping to attract the attention of current and future readers, your audience is the reading public. The expectations of those audiences are different. And that difference is meaningful – and I think it’s meaningful when you’re discussing genre, as well. In my comment, I said this:
At a certain level of hyper-specificity, however, I start to feel silly. Saying that a story I wrote is, for example, “contemporary pastoral/rural ironic fantasy” seems a little excessive and requires far too much explanation as to what each of the qualifiers means, and in marketing terms if I have to start explaining what I mean by that to a reader, I fear I’ve already lost the battle. The attention span of your average consumer doesn’t last that long, and categorizing a work in a hyper-specific genre label is probably too mentally taxing when you’ve got something like 10 seconds to make a positive impression. So I believe that simple, easy-to-understand and slightly broader genre labels are more useful in a marketing-to-consumer context – something more likely at the “Epic Fantasy” level than the “Urban Epic Fantasy/Steampunk Crossover” level. That’s my gut instinct, anyway.
I still believe that’s true. I don’t want to get lost in a long explanation about the nuances of my genre with a potential reader when all I really want is to entice them enough to pick up my book and give it a try. If I lose them because my genre is so narrowly and specifically defined that I have to explain what it is before I can even begin to tell them about the book, I fear that’s too specific. Some readers will want that specificity. I think most don’t. For those that do, I’d be happy to get hyper-specific with them in a full-on classification geek-out. For those that don’t, I don’t want to lose them.
If I was wrong – and I’m not sure how I would find out whether I was right or wrong – and it turned out that the high level of specificity was actually preferred by the majority of Speculative Fiction readers, I’d have to adjust my thinking. Right or wrong, I’d dearly love to have evidence – data – demonstrating one way or the other. And I’m happy to amend my prescription for how to interact differently with our different audiences – whether our professional, industry-insider audience or our general readership audience. After all, if my long-term goal is to have readers read my books, I’m going to have to learn how best to interact with everybody who’s part of the process in making that happen, and to do it right.
At the end of the day – and I will here grossly generalize and paraphrase the advice of some of the published writers at Magical Words – you’ve got to write your story and worry about the specifics and nuance of how to label and market it later. Maybe that’s not wholly correct. You’ll probably have some idea of the broader genre category into which your story will fall. But the fine-level detail… maybe you can sweat that later.
What about you? Do you worry about the specific, minute detail of your genre? What do you say when someone asks what kind of story you’re writing?³ Do you read only a few very specific sub-genres, or are you more of an omnivore? How important is it to you to know what sub-genre or sub-sub-genre a book is in before you’ll read it? Tell me everything.
¹A word, I realize, that may be unfamiliar to some readers, “grognard” ultimately comes from French and means “an old soldier/veteran”. In the Role-playing Game and Wargame community the term has come to be an old-timer who’s been playing the games since their early introduction and who still prefers – usually exclusively – to play prior editions of a game, even after rules updates have streamlined and vastly improved the game. In this instance, I generalize the term for use in genre discussions to refer to someone who fastidiously clings to their own very narrow definition of a particular genre, – even when the publishing, reading, and fandom worlds have moved on – and religiously reads only that which conforms to that definition. I don’t exactly use the term approvingly, but neither is it pejorative. People like what they like, and you can’t fault them for that. I just find it sad when they some folks aren’t willing to expand their horizons – sad because I’ve been there, and then I realized how limiting my horizons were, and when I expanded them, I was happier. Even so, there are some lines you just can’t ask someone to cross: see, for instance, the above-reference to Twilight. It’s unlikely I’ll ever read Twilight – but I will defend it as being exactly the right sort of fiction at the right time for an audience that was underserved by the market. It’s an audience that may seem, thematically, to overlap with the greater Speculative Fiction crowd, but which actually includes a substantial subset of people who most probably are not and never will be counted in the fandom of the Speculative Fiction community.
²One of the ways a fine level of detail on sub-genre can matter, I realize, is at the margins where genres cross-over, but I couldn’t get this to fit into the general flow of my post. By this I mean when multiple generic tags can apply to the same piece of work, such like Harry Potter is (a) YA, (b) High Fantasy, and (c) a British Boarding School story. Any and all of these genre labels can apply, and applying them all creates a sub-sub-sub-genre that is effectively a cross-over of all of the above. You can take any genre or sub-genre of Speculative Fiction and apply a genre label from outside the Speculative Fiction family and come up with a new sub-sub-sub-genre label. For instance, take Urban Fantasy and add Noir. You can keep elements, themes, and tropes from an almost limitless number of other genres to create some sort of hideous mutant-hybrid-chimera-genre. And, chances are, you’ll still find an audience who’d read it.
³My own answer to the “what genre do you write” question I answered in my comment on Misty’s article this way: “I don’t fret or get stumped when asked what I write. Generally I just say “Fantasy”. And it seems like most people know what that means. Some people default that to meaning ‘high fantasy’ or ‘epic fantasy’, which wouldn’t bother me since mostly my work is in those sub-categories, but generally I find people are familiar with the idea of ‘stories with magic in it’ as a catch-all definition for Fantasy. [i.e. that ‘Fantasy’ is understood as short-hand for ‘magic and mythology’ more now than as just ‘Tolkienian rip-off’, which apparently is what it once meant.] If particular work is in some other specific sub-category, I may label it specifically as “contemporary fantasy” or whatever it is. Usually though, with most people I find I have to explain what that specific sub-category is, because people are more familiar with the broad-level categories than with the narrow, specific categories.”