Monday, November 04, 2013

On Genre Angst

By Michael Kinn

JH: Please help me welcome Michael Kinn to the blog today to share with us some of the puzzles and frustrations of not fitting into a genre--and the even more frustrating "almost" fitting into several.

Michael makes up stuff as a scientist, a storyteller and a writer, any combination of which sets his creative juices flowing. He loves the ocean, writes under the influence of green tea and finds life a breeze compared to negotiating his teenagers’ freedom charters. Michael is addicted to great stories and in dire need of extra lives.

Take it away Michael...

Thinking outside of the box is good and well if you've got a box.

The scientist in me wears a T-shirt with large print on the back: "There is no f***ing box!"

Boxes are fictions of the imagination: non-rational happenings without causality, peskily occurring in the real world where such things have no place--a true low-fantasy concept according to Wikipedia. And I'll have none of it, thanks very much.

To see the world clearly, you've got to start without a box.

The same goes for writing, or so I’m told. The last thing a writer needs is to mold their writing to a box while dreaming up new worlds. Who needs a stifled imagination or formulaic books?

I don’t write to fit a genre, but, once I’ve completed a novel, I can’t help but ponder genres. I want to put my work in its little niche, protected by sturdy fences. Shameful, but there it is. I crave a box--if only to break out of it.

Venturing into the speculative zone, I dropped my novel straight in the fantasy box. Next, I read the instructions below the label (stupid, I know) and panicked. My story has no magic or secondary world.

Embarrassed, I scrambled for the low fantasy sub-compartment and lobbed the story in there. Low fantasy is all about low fantasy content, including magic.

All seemed well, until readers started calling my story "epic". This confused me no end. Epic fantasy has magic in it. Sure it does. My story has no magic (or does it?). It isn't "epic", I insisted. It's low, so low it's like coca cola-zero--fantasy-zero.

There, I did it. I was home, in my F-0 box. Except, there is no such thing. Wikipedia references pin low fantasy as "a subgenre involving non-rational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world (= the real world or a rational fictional world) where such things are not supposed to occur". Jeez. My story has no such happenings, yet takes place in the rational world. But it seems low, R. R. Martin kind-of-low, with measured doses of magic (ok, in truth, no magic). So, how low can you go?

Should I box it under magic realism in that case? Guess what. It doesn't fit that box either.

I felt exposed, box-less, until Wikipedia finally delivered, with Rod Serling's definition of science fiction. I worship Rod, for he gave me my box.

Twilight Zone's authoritative feedback is crystal:
Science fiction is the improbable made possible. Fantasy is the impossible made probable.
Bang on. And my story, if anything, makes the improbable possible.

Satisfied, I shoved my work into the SF box, clapped my hands off it and moved on.

Except, my readers still insist I wrote epic fantasy. They wonder what other fantasy readers will make of it, it having no magic and all. Or does it have any after all? That's what they wonder. Now, so do I.

Did I write Epic-0? And won't anyone drink that? Did I cross genres, serving fantasy that's SF? If so, I can't wait to try the reverse. But wait, what would that even mean? I'm confused.

Genres suck... when you’re trying to fit in your own work.

The writer in me is gonna wear that T-shirt too from now on.

Genres are crossed all the time, or confused. Genres evolve. It’s a catch-up/rear-view mirror kind of game. When enough novels differ from prior genres, yet share traits in common, new sub genres are born, like the tricky magic realism, or, more recently, urban fantasy and steam punk. New novels are written every day, breaking or crossing genres. Boundaries shift and blur. Small wonder that genres can spark fierce debates.

Yet, pondering subgenres gives me a deeper insight in authors’ choices and the nature of their work. And, breaking/crossing boundaries is fun. Let the academics scramble to catch up.

Writing on… But as a writer, not-quite author (when it comes to fiction), I get genre-obsessed at times.

What about you? Can genres do your head in? Especially the more ill defined ones? Do you feel the sand is shifting under your novel all the time? What’s your take on genres?


  1. I'd call my story YA urban fantasy...except my hero is a grown man and it's set in my own world, so it's really regular fantasy with a noir feel, but that's not a genre, is it?

    I glare at genres and walk away. Unless I'm looking for a new book to read.

  2. Love this post and so well timed for me. I was recently asked to name the genre of my forthcoming book CRAZY written in verse, set in the sixties, about a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother's mental illness. Not historical in the true sense of the word, somewhat literary, definitely realistic fiction? Hmmmm. I see the point here, too well.

  3. Genre is the most important marketing tool the publisher and author has. Genre tells the publisher which of its lines the book fits, where it should be shelved in a bookstore, and how it will be marketed in other ways.

    Without a genre definition, the self-published author is flailing about to find the right audience to market to and often fails.

    A specific genre tells the reader what expectations to have when they read a book, and woe unto the publisher or author who classifies a book as what it isn't and fails to meet those expectations. A romance where one of the couple dies or a mystery without a solution is the ultimate insult to a reader.

    And I really don't recommend that an author brag about the lack of genre definition in their work. For many of us, that means the author hasn't read enough of a genre to understand it so that the book will suck, or have so many cliches it will be embarrassing, or it will have so many different elements it will be erratic or silly.

    For some articles on figuring out your genre, try this link:

  4. Really smiled at Rachel6’s comment. Genre didn’t matter unless you’re looking for something to read - that is the point - helping the reader find a story that they should enjoy.

  5. Hi Rachel, that’s exactly it. Genres are really useful to guide the reader.

    Hi Linda, identifying your genre can be really tricky. A children’s author whose posts I love, argued on one of the forums that her work, and a number of other children’s books, really belong to magic realism. She made a good case, relying on the definition of the genre, yet the issue was not clear cut (as she acknowledged). Anne McCaffrey classified her dragonriders of Pern as science fiction, yet others considered it fantasy.

    Hi Marilynn, genres are indeed a useful marketing tool, and authors need to know about them. Yet they can be a slippery concept when taken at face value. So I found it more helpful to ensure a novel stays true to its core idea than to let the writing be guided by genre. I have a clear idea of my genre, but as it does not necessarily coincide with the genre-as-marketing-label, I am happy to have my genres wear two hats: the genre that is the closest fit to the core idea of the novel and the genre used to guide the reader. The former is my writer’s-compass, the latter a marketing tool. These can coincide of course.

    Hi Annmeier, I love the way you and Rachel put it: genres are really road signs to help the reader find a story they should enjoy.

  6. I enjoyed your post, Michael. I haven't read your novel, so I can't tell you whether or not your novel is truly unclassifiable or if it's the more nebulous "SF" (speculative fiction) category. But I agree that some of us do write novels that are hard to classify (and yes, we *do* know what genre means, that it's a sales tool to help readers to find us, etc.). My own novel, "Elfy" (first half due out sometime in 2014) is a comic YA urban fantasy/mystery/romance. It makes more sense than it sounds, but it's meant to be funny, and there are elements of all three things.

    I'm guessing my publisher will call it a comic YA urban fantasy for short, but I hope she does play up the romance angles as there is a romance that is absolutely necessary to the plot despite my characters being so young. (It's a more or less innocent romance, too. Age appropriate, even. But not boring.)

  7. Hi Elfyverse, that sounds like a great mix and something my YA-s would love. Congrats on the novel(s)!

  8. Michael,

    You don't make it easy to find you online. Do you have a website? A blog of of your own, which I could add to my Feedly blog feed? You don't come up easily on either google or amazon searches. Your google plus page is kinda blank. On the Codex Writers' link page, you have a bio, but no links (even though it's a link page).

    If you're trying to build an author's platform by doing guest blog posts, it would help to link back to an author webpage, even if it's just rudimentary. At least that way, I wouldn't be guessing whether or not your novel is published yet. You talk about readers, but are these beta readers?

    I was searching for your novel because I was hoping to find some sample pages. It sounds like the kind of stuff I want to read, and if the sample pages panned out, I'd totally buy it. Seriously, it sounds exactly like what I want to read.

    So, are you purposely minimizing your online presence until you get a book deal? I can only assume you're playing coy, because there are dead ends at every turn. That's perhaps not the best way to build a platform.

    Frustrated after wasting five minutes of searching...

  9. Hi, so sorry you searched in vain. The post flagged that I was a writer-not-yet-author. My readers are indeed beta readers. I plan to set up a webpage, but am fully focused on writing at the moment and occasionally enjoy contributing insights gained from learning the craft.

  10. I feel like with many forms of media (books definitely included), we are reaching a point where sub-genres can very much be considered genres in the way individuals describe them. "Sci-fi horror", "realist fantasy", "dramedy" and various others now feel like they are more common descriptions of novels or otherwise as opposed to just an average "fantasy". More often in this day and age, people are understanding aspects of work like your "without a box" mantra because they refuse to be confined with certain general elements, even if the author intended it as that. We as the readers are usually able to see more past that "genre layer", consisting of one general genre the book supposedly follows the rules by.