Genre – should we pigeonhole our books?


I primarily write science-fiction, but I’m a sucker for a good story with believable and sympathetic characters, whatever the genre.  (As, I’m quite sure, are you.)  The same goes for my TV and film choices. So my recent viewing has included dramas such as ‘War & Peace’, ‘Dickensian’, ‘Humans’, ‘The Bridge’, ‘Detectorists’ (yes, I know it’s comedy, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s still drama), ‘Dad’s Army’ (ditto), ‘River’,  ‘Prey’, ‘True Detective’, ‘Ten Little Soldiers’… and of course, ‘Doctor Who’. Films like  ‘Transcendence’, ‘Big Hero 6’ and ‘Avatar’ rub shoulders in my DVD collection with ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ , ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ and ‘Gone Girl’. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. A good story is a good story, regardless of genre.

A book is the longest of long form drama…

A book is, ultimately, the longest long form drama of all, isn’t it? The visuals take place in your imagination, rather than on a television or movie screen, but the dramatic principles are the same, only the way in which they are presented changes.  Now we get to the question of genre – the one thing we are taught that we should know about our stories when we write, pitch and market them.  But what if your story appears to cross genres? How do you market it to attract all the readers who might want to read it? And so we find ourselves taking part in the Genre Game. (“Nice to see you, to see you – nice!”)

…the journal of  a missionary travelling through the Brazilian rain forest in hopes of converting the inhabitants to Christianity…might have led me to question their motives and methods, but the drama had me hooked as surely as any fictional adventure…

I know some folk simply prefer certain genres. Some will tend to read mainly stories in those genres, and perhaps prioritize their TV and film viewing that way, too. I started out (obviously) reading whatever was chosen for me as a child – adventure stories, morality tales thinly disguised as children’s fiction, and so on. When I was able to make trips to the library and  to choose my own books, I worked my way through the adventure section, then the science-fiction section. As I got older, my tastes broadened to take in contemporary fiction, adult fiction, natural history, travel stories (an account of a train trip across the then Soviet Union was as fascinating to me as the journal of  a missionary travelling through the Brazilian rain forest in hopes of converting the inhabitants to Christianity – I might have questioned their motives and methods, but the drama had me hooked as surely as any fictional adventure).

Either character on their own could hold up the narrative, and engage reader empathy. Why, then, must (we) choose one over the other for the sake of genre?

One of the most essential elements in any drama, be it written (books), spoken (radio/audio drama), or visual (films, TV or theatre) are the characters who people it, the journeys they undergo, and the empathy their stories produce in the audience. In my humble and perhaps relatively inexperienced opinion as a writer, the setting is of secondary importance when compared against the characters and the story being told… and that’s why I found myself not feeling comfortable with the idea that my latest book must be pigeon-holed as ‘science-fiction’ or ‘crime’ – but not both. Depending on which of the two main character viewpoints I chose to go with, the focus could be either the science-fiction element, or the crime/mystery. These two characters both have a path to travel, and will be changed by the end of the story. Either character on their own could hold up the narrative, and engage reader empathy. Why, then, must I choose one over the other for the sake of genre?   At a fundamental level, ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ is about consequences… in either genre. The story refuses to be pigeon-holed, so I have decided to pitch it to both audiences. Only time will tell if that is the right decision…

Given that the goal of an author is to tell a story and for your audience to to enjoy it, knowing for whom we are writing is quite important. I write primarily for myself, it has to be said. So if I enjoy the story, won’t others too?  I live in hope.

Have you faced a similar problem? How did you resolve it?

 

Elaine Jackson January 2016

 

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One thought on “Genre – should we pigeonhole our books?

  1. I have this problem myself writing non-fiction. I don’t categorise myself as a particular genre writer. Others do, usually tagging me with whatever my last book was about. I guess it’s a symptom of the wider human drive to find and impose pattern over things, whether it is justified or not.

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