On Genre

College 0013I’m a writer. I’ve written nonfiction and fiction. In 2012 I was thrilled to find an agent who liked my latest manuscript, a fiction story set in 2059. We spent six months on edits and another six months on pitching it to the big houses. Finally even the few smaller publishers we queried said ‘no.’

Why? All agreed it was well written. But there’s Explicit Sex. Sex is a key element in the storyline, not because of romance but because it serves a critical role in the main character’s development. According to the agent who first handled the story and all the publishing houses who rejected it because it was Mixed Genre, the majority of those who read sci-fi do not like explicit sex. And the majority of those who enjoy explicit sex expect a romance story.

While I’ve written a story with a bit of romance as a sideline, this book is not a romance. Can there never be explicit sex in a book that isn’t romance?

So I’m self-publishing because I refuse to edit out the sex or make it a romance. I’d call it science fiction, but there are no spacecraft or laser guns. No otherworldly creatures taking over the planet. No travels to distant galaxies. My options for sub-genre under sci-fi are: general, action & adventure, alien contact, apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic, collections and anthologies, cyberpunk, genetic engineering, hard science fiction, military, space opera, steampunk, or time travel. None of those fit.

Dystopian? Yes, it’s a future society, but the government isn’t oppressing the characters. Utopian? Kind of, only people are dying from a mysterious illness and terrorists lurk in the shadows. Ecotopian? Well, yes, there’s a strong environmental twist in the story, but that hardly categorizes the book.

Not apocalyptic—the world continues. Post apocalyptic? Not really.

I could go to the extreme of calling it Visionary & Metaphysical but it’s really not, and besides, calling my work ‘visionary’ makes me gag.

I’ll agree it’s speculative fiction. Everyone nods to that. But spec fiction isn’t a genre.

I’ve been searching for more information on genre. I’ve concluded that I could spend the next ten years reading all the suggested works by authors from Lois Lowrey to Cormac McCarthy to Kelly Link and thereby reach my own conclusion as to how my work fits in. I could delve into the differences between New Wave Fabulists, the New Weird, Interstitial Fiction, or the Romantic Underground as discussed by Pawel Frelik’s 2009 article on the Science Fiction Research Association website. I could further examine Parallel Universe v. Multiverse v. Metafiction, or Speculative Fiction v. Magical Realism v. Slipstream as critiqued in a recent Book Riot post (February 16, 2015) which undertakes an analysis of “literary fiction” works with a sci-fi/fantasy slant.

Arghhhhh! Help me Rhonda, help help me Rhonda. Can’t I please just write?

Categories available to indie authors through Amazon’s ebook and paperback publishing branches include Magical Realism. Psions are part of my story, including directed energy and telepathy. But is that the best way to describe this work?

I could call it Literary Fiction and step back and watch as the book gathers dust on store shelves. That classification conveys little meaningful information. Oddly, while I’ve been through countless classes in writing and literature and trudged through writing workshops at both the undergrad and graduate levels, I’ve ended up with a jaded opinion of ‘literary’ anything. Who decides what is literary? Is the work adequately focused on ‘big’ themes and presented through appropriately evocative language? What if it is both plot driven and a manifesto on social issues?

Yes, a writer can deem his/her book ‘literary fiction.’ But so what? Nothing is confirmed until the label emerges in a review from the shadowy world of literary criticism.

Who are those critic guys, anyway? Writers tired of writing? Professors? Readers who appoint themselves this task? Is there a degree in literary criticism?

Yes, Virginia, there are degrees conferred in the field of literary criticism. God help us.

Is there really so much time in a critic’s life that he/she can read all the literature, produce scathing or complimentary reviews of said literature, and still have time to pontificate about whether the latest release is New Wave Fabulism or Slipstream? What do they do for fun?

Bigger question: why do I care? Self-published authors aren’t deemed worthy of mainstream criticism. We’re left to flounder in a sea of self-appointed ‘reviewers’ whose blogs clog the Internet. Largely comprised of females eager to receive free books in exchange for what often amounts to a book review, the majority of review blogs focus on romance genre. A few review blogs address the wider range of literature including science fiction in all its forms. All of the review blogs have become crushed under the onslaught of self-pub works, some of which might actually be worthy of reading.

There seems to be no adequate winnowing process by which the better works filter up to informed reviewers. If somehow an indie writer might stumble into a legitimate reviewer’s welcoming arms, he/she might gain a favorable review to encourage the buying reader to try this one. Otherwise the marketplace is an abyss lined with books.

Thus the importance of genre.

I’m a writer. I want to write. I have stories to tell, stories I think readers will enjoy. My stories don’t fit neatly into genres. I don’t want them to. I don’t want to write by formula. I want to create characters who tell me stories that I convey the best I can.

What I don’t want to do is spend hours trying to figure out a label for my work. Or for that matter, prostitute myself at conventions and signings or cultivate online relationships with people who might be coaxed to read my work–but that’s another rant.

For now, I’ve determined that every so often I’ll change the genre designation for this book and see if it matters.

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