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Don’t Judge A Book By Its Genre

Posted on August 13, 2014

Have you heard this one? A witch and a vampire walk into a bar and have a drink. They fall in love, but are forbidden to have a relationship. A conflict ensues and they spend the next three books trying to overcome prejudice, political malice, and murderous behavior.

How would you describe that book to a friend? Is it a paranormal romance? An urban fantasy? Vampire romance? Or would you call it plain old fiction or literature? The answer, it turns out, is it depends…

As a writer, genres matter. They’re meant to serve as guideposts to help readers find us. For books that are traditionally published, genres often determine which shelf your book will show up on in a bookstore, what the cover looks like, and even how the book is marketed and perceived.  For a self-published writer like myself, there is a bit more freedom to choose things like my cover design and the keywords for an online search. But even I have to choose some genre label to help Amazon/Kobo/Smashwords determine how to market my book to readers.   The problem is that genres can be a double-edged sword – at times acting as a misplaced marker that can turn readers away rather than pull them in.

The good news is that genre audiences are voracious readers and loyal, staying with the writers and themes they adore: historical romance, fantasy, noir, paranormal, science fiction, etc.  I include myself among those who have anxiously awaited the next book from J.K. Rowling, Charlaine Harris, or J.R. Ward.  Being a genre writer can be like being a part of a secret club, one where the language and customs are known and enjoyed by a self-selected group. The problem arises when, as a writer, you encounter a reader who doesn’t normally read those kinds of books. Even though your book might be right up their alley, they may never discover it, and therein lies the rub.

Some writers and books manage to transcend genres. Like the Spy Who Came in From The Cold, they catapult over the Berlin Wall of labels and categories and become mainstream successes, recognized as much for their literary merit as their genre appeal. Two recent examples come to mind. The first is Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, which features a vampire, a spellbound witch, and a magical manuscript that may or may not be The Origin of the Species for supernatural creatures. The second is Edan Lepucki’s California – an apocalyptic novel written by someone who doesn’t normally write in that genre, giving the book far greater appeal to readers across a wide spectrum. Another good example is Margaret Atwood, who no one ever talks about as a genre author, even though she writes science fiction.

For the record, I adore most of the books and authors I’ve mentioned here. I’ve enjoyed their stories and improved my own writing by reading theirs. But I do ponder how well these labels work for books. In an industry that is rapidly changing – are genre categories even necessary?

On August 17, I’ll be exploring this topic in greater detail at Litquake’s summer session at the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto with fellow genre writers Nick Taylor and Keith Raffel.  Is it a blessing or a curse to be a so-called genre writer? Do we need genres anymore in this age of computer algorithms? As new writers do we need genres to help kick-start our careers? Do genre labels help self-published writers more or less than authors who come from traditional houses?

I’m looking forward to discussing these issues with two writers whose recent works take readers from a baseball-playing private eye who stumbles into a deadly conspiracy, to President Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. As for me, my most recent novel is about a witch, a vampire, a congressional election, the fate of mankind, and political intolerance. Any ideas about what genre to call it?

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