Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Making Sense of Genre Designations

Well, my attempt to game the weather by announcing my plans to enjoy summer activities didn't work. On the up side, I had a nice swim and spent a little time in the hot tub, so my sore shoulder is feeling a lot better. It would have been nice if the hot tub had been a little warmer because I generally find it works best on sore muscles when the temperature is in the "making soup" range, but the water jets did help some. What didn't help was the young thing in the string bikini reading Jodi Picoult as she subjected the DNA in her skin cells to mutation from ultraviolet radiation exposure while I was flopping about with my pale, flabby thighs in the pool, but I consoled myself with the thought that when she's my age, she'll look a lot older than I do if she keeps up the tanning.

I haven't done a book report in ages, and that's not because I'm not reading. I'm just reading mostly for researching a book, and talking specifically about those books would mean talking specifically about the work in progress, which I don't like to do unless it's already contracted (why tease people with stuff they may not ever get to read?). Or else I've been reading and re-reading a lot of Terry Pratchett, and I don't think I need to say much more on that subject.

But since I'm seeing a lot of "what they're looking for" reports coming out of the RWA conference involving publishing terms that no one has a real meaning for, I thought I'd come to the rescue and offer Shanna's Guide to Genre Designations. This is mostly my own somewhat cynical take on the matter, though I believe there's a kernel of truth to it.

First, there's women's fiction, which some people think of as the broad range of novels appealing primarily to women, including but not limited to the romance genre. It seems to me that the industry generally thinks of women's fiction as books appealing primarily to women that aren't shelved in the romance section. That would include chick lit, family sagas, those rebuilding your life after divorce/widowhood books, the knitting circle/book club books, and the romance novels written by romance authors who've "broken out" of the genre and are now big enough sellers to be considered "mainstream." My books are classified as "women's fiction." Yeah, I know, they're fantasy, but they sold when chick lit was hot, so that's where they landed, and the fact that chick lit is no longer hot (and some publishers don't want to be tainted with it) has a lot to do with the reason they don't want a fifth book.

Really, though, when you think of it, "women's fiction" is a misnomer because just about all fiction is women's fiction, as women purchase far more fiction than men. We should just consider fiction to be women's, with then a subcategory for "men's fiction," which would include technothrillers, disgruntled suburban men books (though I think women may still be the primary readers of those) and war books. But they won't do that because while women will read "man stuff," men are less likely to read "woman stuff," so pretending it's all for men, except for the obvious women's fiction, probably means more chance of selling.

A term floating around a lot lately is upmarket women's fiction, which seems to mostly mean "not chick lit or romance." Or, you can think of it as book group fodder. These would be books that are quasi-literary, in that they deal with fairly heavy subject matter that offers a lot of material for discussion or debate in a book group, but that are written in a more accessible style than a lot of literary fiction, so that a busy professional woman can read the book pretty quickly to prepare for her book group meeting. You might think of it as literary subject matter written in a more commercial style that still has some literary flair to it. The literary snobs refer to this as "middlebrow." A lot of the Oprah picks fall into this category (though she's lately trended to mostly male authors, for whatever reason). There may be a romantic plot, but not necessarily a happy ending. Subject matter may deal with family crises, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids, kidnapped kids, marriages on the rocks, illness, etc. This kind of book is pretty hot right now and is what a lot of the publishers seem to be desperately looking for, but it can be very difficult to pull off the literary/commercial balance. Books that appeal to book groups are good because you automatically sell multiple copies at once, and that spreads word of mouth faster.

Then there's the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance issue. Contrary to what it may seem, these are not interchangeable terms. In a Venn diagram, you might get a lot of overlap, but not all paranormal romance is urban fantasy, and not all urban fantasy is paranormal romance. The term "paranormal romance" generally applies to any romance novel that involves elements that don't exist in the real world (although some make a distinction between "fantasy romance" and "paranormal romance"), so it can be set in any place or time and may include elements like ESP, ghosts, psychics, mer-people, etc., and not just the usual urban fantasy type things like vampires and werewolves. I don't think there's any consensus on the definition of "urban fantasy," but the way it seems to be used in publishing at the moment, it means a blend of horror, fantasy, romance and hardboiled noir mystery, with a gritty urban setting where the fantasy world and the real world collide and a tough main character who straddles these worlds. Or, depending on the publisher it may mean "those books with either women in black leather and tattoos or men in black trenchcoats on the cover."

What's the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy? Mostly it's where they're shelved -- in the fantasy section or the science fiction/fantasy section. Theoretically, a paranormal romance would focus primarily on the developing relationship between the two main characters, with some sort of satisfying conclusion to the romantic relationship at the end of the book, while an urban fantasy focuses more on the world building and the mystery/action part of the plot, with the romance as a sub-plot, and the romance may end unhappily or not be resolved at the end of the book. But the distinction really has more to do with which editor bought the book and where they think it will sell best. That can come down to really practical considerations, like where the first or best available slot is, which major chain buyer is most likely to go for that story, the author's track record, where the most similar successful books are shelved, etc. You may think you're writing urban fantasy and end up with a book with "paranormal romance" on the spine, and vice versa. The author has almost no say in this.

There's also a category of paranormal mystery that has a lot of overlap with paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but I'm less clear on those distinctions. I suspect it still comes down to where they think it will sell the best. Sometimes they're wrong. Not to go on with the deceased equestrian flogging, but the "people who bought this also bought" books listed with mine are all urban fantasy, paranormal romance or paranormal mystery, so it would seem that someone made a bad guess. It happens, but the number one rule in publishing is It's the Author's (or the Book's) Fault, so if a book doesn't sell, it's because there's something wrong with it and no one wants to read it, not because it was misclassified, given a bad cover, not promoted, published at a bad time or anything else the publisher might have done.

So, there you have it. Genres in a nutshell. When the Ongoing Quest for World Domination succeeds, this is likely to change.

In other news, I'm totally stuck for a writing post topic for tomorrow. Any questions of a how-to variety?


Angie said...

Just wanted to let you know that your feed doesn't seem to be working in Bloglines.

Shanna Swendson said...

I didn't know I had a Bloglines feed!