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Over the years I’ve found the subject of genre to be rather puzzling, especially as nowadays the line between genre often appears to ‘bleed’ between two, three or even four different genre. Genre is a French term and although it can be used as a “kind” or “sort” of virtually anything, the most common usage is of course for categorizing stories by television, film, theatre and prose and applies to both fiction and nonfiction books.
But because genre is nothing more than a loose, fuzzy logic way of categorizing these things I often find it difficult to place a certain book or film in one category and if you’re honest I’m sure there are many people who feel the same way.
The two broadest genres are fiction and nonfiction. Fiction books involve events and stories which although perhaps based on truth, have not happened. Nonfiction covers topics which have a basis in fact, ranging from history books to home baking.
Within each basic division, there are a number of categories, and in some cases as I’ve already said, a book may span several genres and this is where it can become even fuzzier.
Some commonly-used categories of book genre in fiction include: romance, young adult mystery, thriller, suspense, horror, literary fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Children’s fiction can also be divided into a different category, such as into picture books, young adult novels, and so forth.
Nonfiction can include things like art, history, politics, gardening, science, travel, sociology, biography, nature, and reference among many others. Nonfiction books like fiction books can also span multiple genres. For example I’ve just read a book written about a game park in Kenya (nature and research), which also covers travel within Africa. The book could be considered a nature book but it is also a travel book, since it involves a discussion of travel in a foreign country. Divisions can be found within each subcategory, as well: art, for example, includes art reference books, books about art history, books which showcase particular types of art, and so forth. Getting fuzzier?..
For many people, book genre is a very important factor in their decision to purchase a book. I write and I love reading mystery murder novels. But I’m not a huge fan of vampire or horror books which scares me witless! However, people sometimes find when they push outside the book genre they are familiar with they discover topics and authors which they grow to love.
Within book genre there are ‘conventions’, which are the many elements fans expect to find in a novel of that genre. For example, in my murder/crime novels my fans will expect a body to turn up pretty early in my books…and sometimes expect multiple bodies to appear!
These conventions are important when it comes to writing a successful novel. If I stumble across a group of readers who love and regularly buy Agatha Christie-type murder mystery books, then it makes good commercial sense to write something that is original and yet still follows the same basic pattern as all the others. Why would I waste the opportunity of tapping into this market by writing something completely different?
Genre fiction is also known as popular, commercial or category fiction and is nowadays sold as mass-market books. It also (usually) places a greater emphasis on plot and less emphasis on characterisation, ‘fine’ writing or the theme exploration itself which is more literary fiction. Then there’s mainstream fiction; another avenue to explore…as this is when a genre novel reaches beyond its usual audience and is bought and enjoyed by readers who don’t normally read that type of fiction.
Because mainstream fiction is genre fiction which breaks the rules…genre fiction follows a well-known pattern
Let’s take a crime novel then…and use examples of genre fiction V mainstream fiction
Conventions say in genre fiction a body should show up in the first few chapters, and preferably in the first few pages – in mainstream my murder isn’t committed until halfway through.
Conventions dictate that the guilty should be brought to justice by the detective or sleuth in the closing pages – in mainstream my murderer gets away with it and an innocent man is arrested in his place.
Conventions dictate that the bulk of the plot should be devoted to the detection of the crime – I spend a large chunk of my novel describing the detective’s troubled sex and home life. The question is have I written a detective novel at all? <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=””>Well yes and no…
The solution therefore, is to market my novel to a more general audience, one which won’t care about all the traditional conventions of detective fiction having been broken; they welcome a break with tradition. Or it could be classed and marketed not as a detective crime novel at all, but a novel about a man’s troubled sex life and the murder could be on the side almost!
This makes it mainstream fiction – but if the quality of the writing and the profundity of ideas explored put my novel into the <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=””>prize-winning league, it would probably be considered as literary fiction.
And so mainstream fiction is…
It is genre or literary fiction which happens to sell well.
Within each principal genre there are many sub-genres which are constantly changing as readers likes and dislikes change.
So I might write in my murder mysteries…Detective Fiction, Police Procedurals, Private Eye Novels, British plot, Women sleuths, Hard-boiled.
And what if my novel spans several genres?!! For instance: murder and romance? I have to decide which to focus on…what is the main theme and thrust of the plot? Is it murder or romance? It is important to recognise my specific genre as all novels within that genre will have similar characteristics which my fans will recognise and expect…I must keep these fans happy! My crime fans will expect the murder to take the main plot, not the romance. Indeed I could lose fans if I did this.
I have to decide whether I want to write the conventional way with genre fiction or as mainstream fiction as I certainly don’t want to fall between the two…I might lose my audience if it’s not conventional enough for fans of that genre and if it’s too much conventional genre it might not appeal or attract a mainstream or literary audience… I could end up with no audience at all! Another fuzzy dilemma!
Out of interest, those people who buy one fiction book a year, about 49% buy a book in the mystery, thriller and crime categories. The next most popular is science fiction (25%), and romance at 21%.
I hope I’ve clarified one or two things as I’m sure many people get confused over genre, especially new writers. There are some interesting sites on Google that go much more in depth regarding genre. One site is wiseGeek, which runs a series of questions and answers and I did use one or two ideas from that site as examples. There’s plenty more if you’re really interested.
Thanks for reading this post and as ever a huge thanks for my own fans of my mainstream murder/mystery/psychological/adventure/drama fiction books! Your continuing support is tremendous and this last week has been phenomenal!
Thanks and happy reading, whether you’re a fiction fan, non-fiction, eBook or paperback lover!
Faith Mortimer on Genres