Wednesday, January 9, 2013


So I realize as usual I've been off line for a while. My surgery has been delayed three weeks by a cold. If you have kept up with my face book page ("Bets Davies") you will note my current obsession with genres. Now I created fusion fantasy because I can't stay in one damn genre at a time. Larger publishing houses tended to send me back the info that they liked it, but they had no idea what it was, and would I please pick a sub genre of fantasy and stick to the rules. That's right. We don't just have genres. We have sub genres. Am I urban fantasy? Intrusion fantasy? Am I epic or high? Then please read the directions and follow the steps. I understand from my romance writing friends that everything is even more strictured. You have to hit certain points by certain chapters or word counts. If I sound a bit snarky, of course I am, being one of sour grapes who had trouble coloring inside of the lines her whole life (Yes. I knew trees were green and brown. The question was WHY couldn't color them blue and orange and stick a purple horse on top of the whole mess?) But I'm not here to bash genres for once. I'm here to question. Why do we have them? Since the greeks and probably earlier we've been separating things. Comedy. Tragedy. Shakespeare: Comedy, tragedy, history. Even then--we knew it was a comedy if everyone ended up married in the end. And they HAD to get married in the end. We knew it was a tragedy if everyone ended up dead in the end. And they had BETTER be dead. So what is it about the human psyche that we insist on doing it? It is easy to blame publishers from now until antiquity that you didn't get seen unless you played by the rule book and that was that. That's the easy answer. The thing is, you have to ask the next question: Why do publishers do it? What do they get out of it? They wouldn't do it if it didn't help sell books. So it isn't all the publisher. It is us. The reader. Maybe it is just that important to us to go into a genre novel knowing what we are going to get. I once compared the romantic vampire fantasy sub genre to a sonnet in poetry. Truth be told, I got that idea from the poet and professor Diane Wakoski. For all she is a supposed originality Nazi in her workshops, she was an obsessive reader of mystery novels. She explained them as if to a sonnet. We all know the rules. What makes them worthy--what rises them above the rest are the ever so slight ways they deviate from the norm. In Shakespeare's sonnet 130, rather than the norm of the day to compare the author's love interest to the most beautiful, lofty things, he begins his sonnet by announcing, "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun". Is he then, downing his girlfriend? No, he's simply rationally explaining she is a human, who he loves as that. This is a departure. This is why we all keep reading that sonnet. So is that why we make the rules? So that we watch for the small moments of clever breaking of the rules? Or is it because someone who likes reading epic fantasy likes reading epic fantasy, epic fantasy, and epic fantasy, and when they walk into a bookstore or peruse their kindle that all they need is to look for the word "epic"? Are we really such creatures of habit that a cozy mystery novel reader wants to make sure she is reading a cozy and not a procedural from the outset? True, these are flung so far and wide within the genre that a quick page flip or "Look Inside" should tell us all we need to know. Yet the divisions exist. I think we are that much creatures of habit. I stray out of reading my little niches occasionally, but a friend had better give me damn high praise or I'd better be reading for review before I look at something that smells of epic. I'm just not that epic. I like character's whose flawed, petty, humorous lives are celebrated. So while snarking about the petty nature of genres and sub genres out there, I actually sometimes make use of them. The tricky part is, alright, all of us tend to gravitate towards what we like because that's what we like. Fair. A little boring, but fair. But the publishers have kept track of these trends. They look at what sells. They find patterns. They KNOW the cozy market is glutted and they aren't buying anymore. The feel SURE of what makes an urban fantasy. By now they have all their little check points. So they don't want an urban fantasy that doesn't hit the points from A to Z. Writers aren't stupid. Sometimes we find the rules by doing a lot of reading. Sometimes we go to conventions. Sometimes we read a book an agent or a publisher wrote. By now we know that if we want to get pulished, especially that first book, we tow the line. Sure, once you are Stephen King you can write anything you damn well please and you will be published. But most authors aren't Stephen King or J.K. Rowlings. Most of us write and publish if we are lucky, and keep writing no matter what because we are addicts of our own stories. We don't read the story. We create it. But now's the problem. The publishers turn down people who don't play by the rules. This is in spite of the fact that the books that become run away successes and classics are the ones who break some rules. We--the reader, the writer, the publisher--we all made up the genre. Not inherently evil. Just remember. A lot of guys in the sixteen hundreds compared their ladies to a summer's day. We have no idea who they are. Shakespeare's the one who said his ladies' eyes were "nothing like the sun".


  1. I think there are a lot of reasons we classify things in genres.

    Years ago, I remember learning in a college class (psychology, maybe?) about how the human brain is designed to sift information into categories to make it more manageable--rather than getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sensory information, it learns early on what is important (eg, threat or benign?) and fades to background the information that isn't considered essential.

    Just think if you were crossing a street, and instead of noting potential hazards (pedestrians, bikes, cars) you noticed EVERY detail about EVERY passenger, car, tree, road rubble, etc. It would be very hard to take all that information in and still know when you can safely cross. We'd be bogged down with information over load.

    The catch is of course if when we sort information into categories by forcing them--or ignoring things that don't fit neatly into category a or b. It leaves us open to prejudice-once we categorize, say, women as a certain type and expect ALL women to fall into that type, there's a problem.

    As for genres, I think that genres persist because they are a valuable marketting ploy for getting the right book into the hands of the right reader. There's no profit in marketting a romance to someone who has no interest in romance novels but prefers to read, say, political intrigue, after all. And by grouping similar books within a genre into sub genres, that helps refine that even further--okay, this is a person who likes light hearted urban fantasy with a folk lore element. Here are other books with similar characteristics that they might also like.

    And from a reader's perspective... I know that when I walk into a big bookstore, I can spend HOURS literally perusing just the 2 or 3 genres I typically read (sciencefiction/fantasy, romance, and mystery). It would take me days to look through every book in the place! While I do read boooks outside of those three genres, books outside those three categories I read almost exclusively by word of mouth recommendations--I never find them by browsing.

    As Bets says, some of that is an issue of comfort and familiarity--if I grab a book by that says it's a romantic urban fantasy novel, I have an idea of what to expect. I know what I tend to like in my fiction, so this helps me rule out things I'm not likely to like.

    That being said, I dislike how rigid the publishing rules are these days for new authors. It is one thing to group things together because they share common elements so that publishers (and readers) can go--if you liked x you will probably also like y. It is another thing entirely to increasingly restrict writers so that you have to introduce character by x point or that your female protagonist needs to have these characteristics but not those. As Bets said, some of the most successful fiction out there crosses those lines.... Jasper Fford's The Eyre Affair, for example, was a very successful novel that was marketed as fiction but strong fantasy elements... some of the later books in the series had mystery elements as well. JD Robb's in Death series is a similar genre crosser--romance, mysteery, and science fiction all rolled into one, and those are enormously successful. And yet publishers are afraid to risk themselves on new authors who don't toe the genre line.

  2. I think Fujinami is over analyzing Bets' over analysis. Not to say that either of them isn't right. I ended up a social science major in college and went on to business school instead of killing English lit the way I had planned. Probably ended up with a lot better job as a result, but I am sure I would have had more fun had I stayed in lit. I didn't because of my professors' obscene obsession with genre, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre. Way, way too much time looking for the literary device characteristic of whatever we were reading and not paying attention to what the author was trying to say in her or his genre.

    If I had picked up what Bets is saying then, I might fiction taeching professor instead of a fiction reading (yuk) banker

    1. Rick, we may be over analyzing, though I do not have much experience with the way genres are taught in college (having a social science degree myself).

      Figuring this out matters from a professional author's perspective because it makes a difference on whether or not an author--especailly a new author--gets published, and once published, that the author reaches the right audience. Maybe not so much the "why" behind the genres historically, but certainly the way genres are used and marketted today. It matters for readers, too, in that it helps readers find books that they like, but it's more important for authors because most authors have to market their own books.

      For example, I read a review of one of Bets Davies' books who said that the book read like a YA urban fantasy novel.... except for the graphic sex scenes, which the reveiwer thought was out of place in an otherwise YA novel. I was personally surprised that she felt that book was YA in the first place--of all her books, this one is in some ways the LEAST YA friendly--and some of her other books have pretty graphic violence scenes, more so than you'd find in YA books.

      Genres in part is about marketting expectations. If a reader picks up a novel expecting a YA fantasy novel and gets something (violence, sex, whatever) that is obviously NOT YA, than that element is going to be jarring, maybe even off putting to the reader. Where as if a reader picks up something wanting, say, gritty urban fantasy with a strong distopia element and get something YA... it might seem disappointingly sugar coated.

      Genres from a writer's perspective can be really frustrating, especially as the rules get more and more rigid--and from what I've heard from writer friends who write romances, these rules are sometimes VERY rigid, even proscribing narrow and inflexible parameters that your characers and plot structures must fall into. It stretches both reader and writer more to bend the rules, to mix the genres, to write outside the proverbial box. But it also challenges the author more to find a niche when writing outside the comfortable parameters of existing genres.

  3. I agree with Fujinami! She said what I wanted to say and made me feel good reading it (I guess, I feel smart that I agree with her, and she helped me connect that agreement to my own opinions and life.)

  4. Interesting. Thanks, Fujinami for the in depth analysis. You hit a lot of points I was aiming for. Genre and sub genre were of extremely low interest in my writing until I started looking around at publishing companies and marketing--largely left up to the writer these days. Then genre became a puzzle--an important puzzle to me. So much so that while I CAN fit my books into basic niches--urban fantasy, high fantasy--I made up this blog and the whole concept of fusion fantasy. I would love one day for there to be more self acclaimed fusion authors out there, though there are obviously not self labeled people writing fusion already.

    Yeah--I was taught never to respond to a review as it is gauche, but for buyers, let me make it clear. My books are written in very simple language and a lot of dialogue for the most part. However, they deal with concepts, themes, graphic violence and sexuality that means I could not call them YA. A twelve-year-old could probably read my books, text-wise. Should a twelve-year-old read my books? Hey, flip through. You are the parent.

    And, all right, this is my blog, so I am allowed to snark here. I had the same reviewer read two of my books. Both contain graphic sexuality. She only put the warning on the one that involved homosexuality. I mention it now because I will be returning, on my next question, to fantasy's gender bending ways.

    Back to genre. Yeah. I've had people suggest that if I want to hit it big and then do what I want, I should write a romance novel, since they are the easiest to get published and fantasy is the hardest. I like exploring all options and romance is all about characters, so I picked a few up. I tried. God help me, I tried. I couldn't even read them. I could feel every single planned and mandated moment fall like a piano on top of me. I couldn't get through a short story in that world. It's not like I plan to act oddly, it simply happens.

    Fujinami hits home with me that what matters isn't that genres help readers help publishers find things, put them on bookshelves and sell them. The sad thing is when the strictures become so tight on the writers that we lose originality.