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The Difficulties of Genre

Originally published August 2018

I have a habit of starting out essays and blogs—maybe these are the same things—with a definition. So here it is:

Genre: “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Origin: 19th cent.: French, literally ‘a kind'”–The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001.

I have struggled with identifying genres for my novels and short stories. As an indie publisher, having never sold a novel to New York and only a dozen or so short stories to “pro” markets and others, I am in my own genre-identifying boat, and always lost at sea.

Workshops help. Sort of. When given the task of writing a synopsis for an identified genre, such as historical romance or urban fantasy, I can generally produce something, using the applicable tropes. But my own stuff never quite fits.

My fantasy is “fiction with a twist”. In contemporary settings, fantastical elements of my own design are in play. There might be witches, ghosts or mages, but the Fae, vampirific communities, or rural settings in alternate worlds never appear. Generally my protags are ordinary citizens living in cities and small towns of twenty-first century America, with special powers they had grown up knowing about and using in small and convenient ways, and who, painfully and with sacrifice, come to understand that their abilities are far more powerful than they ever imagined. Indeed, their actions and choices with this knowledge generally leads to averting widespread destruction. And, romantic threads are always woven through.

What do I say when called upon to write a blurb for marketing or the back cover? Mostly I fall back on contemporary fantasy but that doesn’t feel quite right. I peruse the BISAC codes, where industry genre labels are listed. Are my novels and short stories Fiction, Ghost or Fantasy, Paranormal or Fantasy, Contemporary? I can clearly see the content of Ghost and less so Paranormal, but what books clearly fall into Contemporary? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? One certainly wouldn’t call her a fantasy writer, but she has written several.

I Googled ‘contemporary fantasy’ and the books on the first page that popped were not what I expected. Jim Butcher and China Mieville were predominant entries, and may others featuring witches. Ah. Witches. Mages. Yes, I got those. Maybe I’m on to something.

Next, ‘fiction, ghost’. This search showed me a listing of authorly icons. Henry James, Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson. Not bad company.

I have, the last few years, set my sites on historical fiction, of the 20th Century, to be precise. My first self-published novel is set in 1948 Los Angeles. Los Angeles has become a favorite setting of mine, maybe because I have family roots there. My second self-published historical has three settings in 1914: a steamer to the Caribbean, the Mexican Revolution, and again, Los Angeles. I love the necessary research for these books. My latest, unfinished, is 1945 Livermore, a town east of Oakland where I grew up.

Again, each has as strong romantic flavor.

So, the Google search revealed a plethora of books including Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, a classic favorite of mine. But I would have to call mine a historical, World War II-era book, as none of the ‘action’ takes place overseas, but here at home. There is also ‘historical, general’; this when searched is a broad mishmash of Renaissance, 18th Century, Medieval and Ancient. So, most of mine would fit into the ‘Historical, 20thCentury’, an apt designation bestowed by the Historical Novel Society.

For myself as a reader, I’ll read almost any genre, if I like the writing and the characters. I think there are potentially a lot of readers like me out there. I’d like to entice these readers in.

I guess it’s time to go back to Genre Class.

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