Genre Clarification: Why does genre matter?

In writing, genres cover some basic styles of fiction, with subgenres clarifying specific styles even more. What’s interesting to note – and key to understanding genre – is that genre categorizations tend to depend on aesthetic (the look and feel of the world you describe) rather than ideas or even structure.

For authors, it’s useful to consider how the Star Wars movies are far more fantasy than sci-fi in terms of how they’re put together:

Science fiction is just that, fiction about science. The science might be invented, and it might be of any stripe: political science, psychology and sociology, electronics, or the type with beakers and skeletons, but all sci-fi revolves around a central ‘what if..?’ question that addresses a deeper query… The Star Wars movies, however, are not built on this kind of thesis. The story is of a (jedi) knight on a quest to save a princess. The castle may be a star ship, the duels fought with laser swords, but the futuristic tech is never used as a lens through which to examine our own world.

– The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book

Many authors find it difficult to define the genre of their work. There’s nothing wrong with that as you’re writing – seeing your own art as so unique as to defy classification is perfectly healthy – but when it comes to marketing and publishing, you need to know what you’re selling.

That’s why we need to examine why genre matters, how to apply it, and why going deeper than surface categorization could assuage your worries and sell more books.

One reason that so many authors struggle with genre is that they think it’s insufficient for categorizing art, and they’re right. Genre is a terrible tool for describing the heart of a book, and writing to genre – using genre parameters to define what you should write – is likely to stifle the creative spirit.

Instead, think of it this way: genre is for readers. Hundreds of thousands of books are published each year, and they join the ranks of the millions of books that were published before them. Genre may be a clumsy tool, but it’s a good place to start when you’re trying to find something you might like. You may not consider your book fantasy or sci-fi, but if that’s the closest genre descriptor, it’s probably fantasy or sci-fi enough to help your ideal reader zero in on it.

That’s good advice for authors (if I do say so myself), but it doesn’t apply to readers. Readers use genre to find the aesthetic worlds which they want to explore, and that means that Star Wars, with its aliens, robots, and laser-based weaponry, is firmly sci-fi.

It also means that the dominant aesthetic is usually the key arbiter of a book’s genre. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files combines mystery and fantasy, telling the story of a wizard PI. There’s a little crime in there, a lot of detective fiction, and some noir sensibilities, but when a bookseller puts it on the shelf, they’re probably going to file it under ‘fantasy.’

Why? Because it’s more likely that fantasy readers will enjoy the crime fiction than that crime readers will enjoy the fantasy. Genre primarily identifies the flavor of the world you’re going to be visiting, not the nature of the story you’ll be told when you get there. There are interesting roots to this, but they don’t change the practical consequences for authors: the ‘feel’ of your world is the first thing you need to describe.

With a few exceptions for form, genre tends to focus on aesthetic – if your story has a sci-fi ‘vibe,’ that’s more important for attracting readers than its fantasy heart.

Book MarksGenre Clarification

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