The Illusion of Genre

So to pass the time while the current administration keeps throwing spaghetti at the wall, I thought I’d write a little about genre.

Genre is a marketing construct.

Is that little enough?

To be more specific: genre is a way of categorizing books that helps publishers sell them to the people they believe will want to read them. The divisions between genres are often fuzzy, and even incomprehensible to people who aren’t readers of those genres; but they exist, mainly, to set the expectations of someone who might consent to spend money on a book.

There’s a distinction between genre and category: YA is a category, and a book of any genre can be YA if it’s aimed at a particular age group. Literary, I’m told, is a category; but it’s my perception as a reader that literary tends to stick with contemporary fiction, and is much more resistant to claiming genre books. (That said, I’ve seen both STATION ELEVEN and THE FIFTH SEASON referred to as literary.)

Science fiction is a genre. Fantasy is a genre. There are fuzzy edges there, of course; but I think of SFF as a subset of speculative fiction: stories that could not take place in either our current reality, or in a past reality. And lots of people would argue with me about that.

Romance is, in a way, the easiest genre to define, and is simultaneously the most maligned. Maligned, of course, because it’s considered formulaic, as if needing to include a crime makes Mystery formulaic, or requiring a speculative element makes SF formulaic. In reality, romance is maligned because it’s produced and consumed primarily by women. It’s also the financial backbone of publishing, never mind how often it’s ignored by awards and Best Of lists.

These divisions can be useful for readers, especially when trying to recommend books to friends; if my friend likes military SF, for example, I can steer them to Linda Nagata. If they like ghost stories with personality, I can hand them Daniel José Older. If they like mysteries but don’t care for historical tales, I can offer them Julia Spencer-Flemming. If they like historical romance but are tired of the Eurocentric focus, I can point them to Jeannie Lin.

But they’re sorting categories. They’re guidelines. They’re artificial, and they say nothing about the merit of a particular story.

There are dust-ups about this all the time. Yesterday, for example. Apparently someone wrote an article for HuffPost or Buzzfeed or another one of those blog-by-the-pound sites talking about essentially writing a romance novel on a bet during the pandemic. The article was full of self-congratulatory “not a boring, mediocre, predictable romance like the rest!” nonsense, and Romance Twitter (which is not to be trifled with) proceeded to surgically, and with great wit, destroy the entire article.

The bottom-line conclusion is a good one, regardless of what you’re writing: Don’t write in a genre you don’t like and respect, because your contempt will show.

There are Great Works of Literature that are genre books. Not just FRANKENSTEIN, an early work of spec fic, but all of Jane Austen, much of the Brontës (I feel obligated to point out WUTHERING HEIGHTS is not a romance; it’s gothic horror, and I’m still stunned when someone tells me Heathcliffe is somehow a swoony hero), Daphne du Maurier (mysteries, largely), and even Nathaniel Hawthorne (also mystery). MOBY DICK is a suspense thriller/horror story. And Dickens? Dickens wrote mystery-driven melodrama for money.

The idea that genre fiction somehow lacks class or sophistication is absolutely false, and I could snark a lot about the sorts of people who make that assertion, but really, I think their voluntary self-limitation is its own punishment.

I don’t re-read THE COLD BETWEEN a much as I do my other books, and it’s mostly because of how everything around it went wrong. I was flipping through it the other day, and I found I’m actually pretty happy with most of it. (There are things I’d change. There are always things I’d change.) It’s science fiction–space opera, to be more specific; the plot spins out pretty expansively from the inciting incident–but it’s also a murder mystery. It borrows, a little, from COLUMBO: the first half is a whodunnit, and the second half is a whydunnit.

It’s not a romance, but I steal a trope: two characters who are sexually compatible turn out to be also morally and ethically compatible. I needed a way to make two people trust each other quickly, and this (along with blowing up all of a character’s other trusted relationships before the start of the story) did the job. Tropes are tropes because they can communicate efficiently, and I think this one carries its weight.

I blame myself for the marketing issues. I knew. I knew. But I was stuck on being Nice, on being the Good Author, on the belief that other people understood the markets better than I did.

When THE COLD BETWEEN was released in March of 2016, I’d been choosing books for more than 45 years. I’d been buying them with my own money for 40. Trust me, kids: if you’ve ever been a rabid book buyer, at any time in your life, you can trust your instincts about marketing.

Which isn’t to say that any of it’s easy. I think it’s remarkably difficult, actually. When you see a book that’s well-marketed, you don’t realize how much work (and, yes, luck) has gone into that. When all goes well, it looks effortless, and I’m sure that’s deeply frustrating to the people who spend months–sometimes years–pulling everything together just right.

I have some idea how I’d have wanted things to go with THE COLD BETWEEN. I have no idea if the book would’ve done better. I don’t know if it has an audience it could have found. I do know I’d have referred to it as character-driven, and not dwelled on romantic subplots. I’d have emphasized the mystery/thriller aspects, and not called out heroic archetypes. (There are space battles and wormholes, FFS. Stuff blows up. A lot. One sex scene in the book, and everybody forgets about the explosions.)

I didn’t know it was space opera at the time. It’s still tagged as SFR on Amazon. The biggest book retailer in the US has canonicalized this book as belonging to the one subgenre it absolutely does not.

All of this is ancient history now. It’s not even worth fighting for corrections. If my work is still in print, it’s a small miracle, and I’m grateful for that. All I ever wanted to do was share stories; if people are still buying them, even only now and then, I’m pleased.


I have a couple of reactions every time I see a pile-on on Twitter. Part of me always winces, just a little, and wonders how much control the author has had over what happened. In the case of the “my-romance-is-better-than-yours” author, it’s clear that person either believes what they’re saying, or was coached to attempt some very bad points. My cousin wrote romance back in the 1980s; I’ve had several decades to roll my eyes at people who disparage the genre.

But sometimes genre stuff can bite you. Subgenre stuff can bite you. Very, very badly. You don’t get a second chance with a debut novel. The blunt truth is yours is the name on the book, and you’re the one who pays.

Publishing is rough.

Write what you love.

And then fight for it.

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