Genus, Genre and Gender

Why do people write books? In my case, I wanted to entertain and leave a fictionalised snapshot of unrecorded contemporary history i.e. female medical students’ struggles in the sixties. But all the angst and editing comes to naught if books remain unread. To be found they must be categorised. And how that’s done appears very cavalier. For a start, who decides what the genres are – Amazon? Literary critics? It’s a tough SEO, web-straddling world out there for marketing a book, never mind deciding where it should be placed in the book shop. Yet I have to admit shops shelving authors alphabetically instead of in genre sections can be pretty unhelpful if you are searching for a new read.

The problem is that books are often hybrids. I’ve heard even authors and agents argue about categorisations. The wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pictured) is so right when she says, “Why did people ask what it is about? as if a novel has to be about only one thing.’’ And categories can be deceiving: sadly enjoying one book by an author or in a genre doesn’t necessarily mean I will like another of the same. Much preferable is a peek inside in the shop or online- or Ruby Wax’s advice to look at page 66! As if it wasn’t bad enough, the US Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Bookshop and other sellers use different genre categories. And Amazon Literary Fiction has genre fiction as a subnode of Literary though many academics think ‘genre’ less worthy. Complex.

‘Genre’ comes from the Latin ‘genus,’ as in birth, family or nation. Every book is born unique: no two authors have the same experience or world view. But on publication, a novel is tossed into the maelstrom of other new titles. According to the Guardian, UK publishers produced more than 20 new titles per hour in 2014 alone. And then, of course, there’s the burgeoning world of self-publishing. Daunting. A novel needs a label if it isn’t to sink without trace. Genre is variously defined as  ‘style or category’ (OED) or ‘ a form of communication … with socially-agreed-upon conventions agreed over time’ (Wikipedia). Globalisation has added new genres like Anime and TV/film/books characters have generated new ‘Fan Fiction.’ It is ever evolving. Collins Dictionary simply states genre is what ‘people consider a class. ’ But which people?

There is consensus that a novel’s genre depends on content, form or style. I have heard much made of literary fiction being ‘that which uses words as art.’ I like this definition: the writer is not just telling a story but painting it with carefully chosen words depicting emotion and atmosphere. Yet there are literary novels I cannot finish due to too much introspection, clever-wordiness or mind-numbing inaction. Similarly hugely populist books remain unfinished, especially if they contain numerous, albeit hilarious, misplaced modifiers. They are now everywhere, even in quality broadsheets. Richard Branson watched the moon landing in his pyjamas. Painful, (Daily Telegraph 20th July 2019). It will only get worse: lol, btw, Tweet. Who needs grammar? Me!

Graphic novels are easily defined: less grammar, more pictures. Zombies? Horror. Cowboys? Western. But Literary? Who decides? My uni tutors deemed my first novel Not The Life Imagined as Literary; my publisher agreed. But Literary is the biggest category on Amazon: 6,000,000 books. Newbies come well down the table in searches. My NTLI has wry humour (essential in medicine), so Dark Humor (US spelling) is an apt sub-category, as is Medical Fiction. So far so good, but the story also deals with coming of age, mental health survival, medical ethics, rape and #MeToo themes. There is a subset for ‘Coming-of-age,’ but not as far as I can find, one for novels highlighting mental health- surely a burgeoning need in our increasingly aware society? With the majority of my protagonists being female, it could sit in Women’s Fiction, but there the subcategories (or browse nodes as Amazon calls them) are limiting e.g. African-American (yet no other ethnic category), Divorce, Friendship (apt for NLTI), Mothers and children, Single mothers and Sisters. (Do people really search for stories of sisters?) But by defining a book as Women’s- are we reducing potential readership? I have lovely reviews from male readers, so am glad I didn’t confine NTLI in Women’s Fiction where I doubt men venture. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a Men’s Fiction genre with a ‘browse node’ of Fathers and sons. Pity: so apt for my novel.

My subsequent books concern murders. It’s a relief. It must be crime genre. But I also have some psychological thrilling, romance and  mystery. Surely all books need mysteries to keep you turning the pages? Real life is a tapestry of sadness/humour, love/divorce and family/friends relationships: no one lives a single-genre life. Books reflect life. I hope that authors won’t write solely to genre for sales l or we may lose the rich resource literature has provided in entertainment and thinking over the last 500 years since ink rolled over Cervantes Don Quixote‘s plates.

In the early days of Western novels,  Sir Walter Scott (sadly, not a fan, despite him being Scottish) defined romantic fiction as that  with ‘marvellous and uncommon incidents.’  Not quite Mills and Boon, and as for Fifty Shades? Word meanings are as fluid as genres. Further back, the Greeks had a word for everything, even genres: epic, comedy and tragedy. Doesn’t help me- my two-decade epic mixes tragedy and comedy! Chris Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004) also confirms my book’s mongrel status. Not The Life features all his categories: overcoming the monster (sexism!), quest (medical degree), voyage and return (university/home) comedy (maiming examiners etc), tragedy (suicide), rebirth (after addiction). Overall it’s about surviving, with humour. There’s no such a genre.

So, should we write to genre? Or should we become more adept at keywords to enable readers to find us?

My next research has to be #SEO Optimization…

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