I'm a panellist on this topic for QuaranCon'22 on Friday April 8th. (You can catch it afterwards on YouTube). Given the diversity of experiences from the panelists, it promises to be a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion. I can't wait! In preparation, I decided to find out more about the concept of straddling (or blending) genres. It's opened up some interesting lines of enquiry which I've included in this post. Interesting because it seems clear the world of writing has become more complex in recent years. The advent of self-publishing appears to be the cause. Authors are not constrained to identify their work in neat boxes as publishers and agents would like them to do.
I'm going to start with that point. Purely anecdotal but this is a discussion I've had with two brilliant indie author friends of mine, Phil Williams and Bjorn Larssen The three of us write stories which don't fit into the traditional sub-categories of the fantasy genre. We're straddlers. It's something of an issue when it comes to promoting our stories we've found. Broadly, Phil's books are urban fantasy, except their events and settings go beyond the traditional borders of that genre. Bjorn's are mythological. And historical. There's satirical humour too? How do you define yourself as an author to your readers we've asked ourselves. By including inter-dimensional portals into my stories, they blurred the lines between urban fantasy and even science fiction to some extent. The question is - does all this matter?
Do genres matter?
'Authors need to have a firm grasp on all the different genres of books in order to find the perfect home for their own. The tropes and expectations of a book’s genre will inform its content and style during the writing process, as well as fundamentals such as word count. But it’s also central to the marketing of a book, determining its target audience, and those all-important Amazon categories. Get your genre wrong, and you could be waving goodbye to book sales and hello to unsatisfied reader reviews!'
That answers that question then, doesn't it? It's quite a terrifying statement.
And yet, according to award-winning YA author, Andrew Smith (author of Winger and The Marbury Lens) the opposite is true. 'I honestly do not think of “genres” at all when I write. I also don’t envision a targeted audience. I know that this goes against the philosophy of the majority, but it’s how I write. I write the story that pleases me, and I write it entirely for myself.'
The same is true for the highly successful Australian author of speculative fiction,
Marianne de Pierres. She says, 'Blending genres has always appealed to me, and I think, comes quite naturally when I write. I see mixing genres as a stand against literary hegemony. It adds uncertainty and a shake of allspice to stories. The writer is charged with making decisions about what aspects of each genre to adopt, and what to ignore. It’s like cooking without a recipe. When it works, the end result is delicious! And when it doesn’t, it can still be …. interesting.'
Meanwhile speculative fiction author, Michael Marshall references the real world as a factor which impacts on an author's choice of genre: 'There can be interesting conflict between expectation and subversion, between the genre you appear to be in, and what you introduce into the story from the outside. Not only can this be fruitful in keeping the author’s and readers’ imaginations engaged, but it seems to me that it more faithfully evokes real life.'
What are we to make of these contradictions then? The Establishment (by which I mean publishers and agents) will confirm the Reedsy view.
You need to be able to define your product if you want to achieve good sales figures and brand recognition. It makes sense, doesn't it? When people buy a book they want to know what to expect. The alternative is chaos, surely. A product which can't be defined? It would be like shopping in a supermarket and buying a packet or a box of something without any labelling!
In which case, if you followed that logic, a number of classics wouldn't have seen the light of day and their authors wouldn't share the status of Celebrity. I'm talking Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, China Mieville and Michael Chabon.
I'd challenge anyone to provide an accurate label to these literary classics! Mind you, if you read this article its author contends the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is simple: anything that isn't literary fiction is simply there to entertain. I'll leave you to react to that one!
Which brings us back to the authors I quoted earlier. They talked about writing for themselves rather than a target audience. The idea of writing without attention to a recipe. That experiences in the real world aren't defined by genre so why should books? It suggests this argument takes us to the ultimate destination - as writers we are artists. We write what our creative urges dictate. Can you imagine someone telling Picasso or Van Gogh not to paint in their distinctive style? Mind you, not all the Great Masters made a living from their art during their lifetime, so that might shoot down that argument!
Genres and Commerce
Reedsy reckons there are 107 genres and claim Amazon have 16,000! If we stay with Amazon for a moment, if you self-publish you will know you need to select a couple of categories in which to define your book. The list of categories for Fantasy is mind-blowing! It makes me wonder how Tolkein would have reacted! This graphic gives you a good idea of the complexity of the genre market.
This graphic comes from an article which says this: 'Genres reflect trends in society and they evolve when writers push the boundaries. Readers ultimately decide if the experiment has worked by buying these books. The most important part of genre fiction, though, is that it fulfils our human need for good, old-fashioned storytelling. We sometimes need stories we can rely on to blunt the harsh realities of life.'
This idea brings us back to the authors mentioned earlier, doesn't it. It's all about the storytelling - and the purpose behind it. The same article references the impact of self-publishing in changing attitattitudes and breaking conventions. Indie authors often publish for the reasons outlined here - they have a story to tell that may reflect Life. They do not want to be limited (censored?) by publishers and agents. They are the writers who push the boundaries and redefine the genres.
I think this philosophy is particularly true for the speculative fiction genre. Authors are writing stories which directly reflect today's issues. They explore those issues withinin contexts which amplify the issue in ways contemporary fiction cannot. They speculate how the issues might exist in other forms, worlds, societies. Always to make a point about the world as it is now.
According to Forbes, sales of books and ebooks in the SFF genre have doubled since 2010. Partly due to the rise of digital and audio publication, it's generated a 48% increase in sales to indie authors. Further research tells stories of how Millennial indie authors are challenging traditional paradigms and tropes of SFF stories that appear to them as outdated and prejudiced. (With good cause!). Their agendas celebrate a changing world, reflecting my earlier point about Life reflecting Genre Selection.
My investigations appear to lead to a significant shift in the world of writing and publishing. It comes from the erosion of the traditional publishing model with its costly overheads, glacially-slow publication processes and aversion to risk taking (i.e. relying on celebrity names for sales).
It is also true the twenty-first century reader is more open-minded and selective in what they like to read. Just because they're usually read one genre doesn't preclude them from others. It has led to the generation of new sub-genres - Grimdark is such an example. I think the impact of fantasy on TV has played a part here - Game of Thrones introduced new readers to fantasy and media moguls jumped on the bandwagon as a result. The Twilight series did similar things and brought vampires out of the shadows and into the sublight (where they could sparkle like Robert Pattinson!). Vampires no longer belonged only to the Horror genre! Vampires could be romantic too!
I have several writing buddies in my authors' network who are doing that at the moment. It suggests they are willing to ignore the commercial constraints of moving genre and focus on the storytelling instead.
I've stated elsewhere in my blog how much I enjoyed writing in the Contemporary Fiction genre when I created Write Off. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. (I have another story in development at the moment.) I enjoyed writing to a different set of rules especially. It challenged my creativity and that is a major factor when it comes to writing, in my opinion. Perhaps that's another reason for straddling genres!
All these points lead to the conclusion that our discussion on April 8th should prove to be a fascinating insight into this topic. If you're a writer, I'd strongly recommend joining us. I think there will be much to debate about the traditional versus self-publishing processes, the roles of agents and the freedom of a writer to choose their own narrative. I hope to see you there!