The Genre Bar:
A not-so-scholarly discussion on the concept of genre in the American publishing industry for new authors trying to find their place.
The first thing a new author is told when trying to sell a story or book is that they must know their genre. In America, a lot is made of genres in the literary world (possibly in other countries as well, but this author is too lazy to check). Most publishing houses and literary agents won’t touch anything ‘cross-genre.’ They seem to think that a not-easily-categorized story might give them heartburn or the plague. They want clean divisions and easily labeled book spines. So it is best to learn what guidelines define each genre.
Unfortunately for the novice author (and the not novice author alike) each genre’s guidelines seem to be ill-understood concepts (especially by the publishing houses who are too busy making an appointment with acid reflux/plague specialists to put any guidelines somewhere easily accessible). So what is a new author to do? Never fear! The best way to understand the genres is to understand the people who read them, and we are here to teach new authors just that.
To simplify these oft-misunderstood categories, we shall use an old literary standby: simile…or is it a metaphor? (*texts the poets*) Either way, the literary world is like a sports bar. (The poets just texted back that this is a simile because we used the word like. We shall not repeat what they said after that…mainly because we don’t know how to pronounce it). Every screen shows a different game in the sports bar, and the patrons try to outroot each other.
The Sci-fi geeks excuse us; Sy-Fy fans are shouting the loudest. They are American football fans. Not only that, but once you get into the ‘It’s speculative fiction” level, you are dealing with a level of rabid devotion only matched by a certain fandom in Green Bay Wisconsin. For legal reasons we will deem them Cheeseheads (Yes, we know that’s their real name. Cheeseheads don’t take kindly to being misidentified).
The Cheeseheads will try and tell you who the best player is. They will disagree, and an ugly Asimov/Orwell battle will ensue with the Douglass Adams fans jumping in to hand each side weapons that become ever more ridiculous as the fight continues.
The fantasy readers are huddled in a corner plotting. Every once in a while, one throws a glass of mead in a Cheesehead’s face while their fantasy brethren switches the football game to a hockey game. The sci-fi fans pretend to be offended but will watch through a few fights before demanding it is switched back.
The fantasy fans can tell you which teams have the most wins and losses and which realms, uh, regions they rule. They will pretend to tell all the nearly identical white players apart by the number of remaining teeth and the viciousness of their crosschecking. In reality, the only way to tell them apart is to check to see if the player has hairy feet or if they have a fondness for Turkish Delight. The fantasy fans know this, but will throw multi-sided dice at you if you mention it.
Historical fiction sits very close to Fantasy and constantly reminds them that hockey is just modern soccer, which is just modern Mayan hip ball, which is probably just a modern human adaptation of an alien game. They will then correct everyone from other groups who used the term ‘soccer’ as true fans know it is football. This conversation always ends with the Cheeseheads trying to butt in, and a brawl breaking out to settle the question of who has the right to the term ‘football.’ The Douglass Adams fans predictably take both sides. The Fantasy fans start tracking which side gets the most jabs in and throwing dice at brawlers who seem to be losing. George RR Martin will show up at this point and start writing graphic sex scenes involving all of them (including the dice (Chuck Tingle will not object he already wrote that one…um, we’re told)).
The mystery readers occupy the most space because they track every move their teams make on the screen with maps and charts. The push-pin boards alone take up two or three tables. They are watching cricket. They understand all the rules, including the ones that the players themselves forgot one or two plays ago.
The mystery fans have complete genealogies compiled for every cricket player – EVER. They scrutinize every movement only taking breaks to claim that their beer smells like almonds and tastes like digitalis (this is not a complaint). Occasionally they all disappear only to be discovered under an assumed name in a hotel bar a few towns over performing the archaic ritual to once again resurrect Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle is always very cross, but he shows up anyway so that he can be near the Fantasy fans and start conversations about fairies.
The Noir fans pretend they have never met any of the mystery fans before, but they are the ones who put on their fedoras and find the mystery fans when they disappear. They cannot have a single conversation without using the words dame, doll, or joint (they do not mean the drug).
The horror fans are watching wrestling. They know it’s fake and all about the entertainment value, but keep getting annoyed by everyone else pointing this out. Occasionally they will switch to something like curling or ribbon dancing because their high prophet Papa King told them it’s cool. They know that there are others who they should seek guidance from, but every time they try to find another leader, they pull the curtain aside to find Papa King. They are beginning to suspect Anne Rice and Mary Shelly were just Papa King in drag. How old is he? No one knows. (They asked the mystery genre to look into it once and ended up with awkward secret children named ‘Vampire Detective Novels’ (Even Chuck Tingle was embarrassed for them))
The western fans are hiding behind the bar looking at tintypes of old rodeo queens, pretending that they all would have been more at home in ‘the good old days’. None of them have ever ridden a horse and get mad when one of the other genres switches a station to the modern rodeo with its safety gear and designer jeans. All western fans wear designer jeans, but they don’t need to see it in their sports, thank you very much. They prefer things done the way God (Louis L’amour) intended! (What do you mean he wrote western speculative? ‘The Haunted Mesa’ wasn’t haunted by ghosts it was aliens…oh wait.)
The spy genre is watching the Beijing Winter Olympics. Yes, it’s a re-run, but they feel they missed something. The Fleming fans know someone fixed all the events to keep the British off the podium. The Clancy fans are offering to blow things up.
By far, the largest numbers of people in the bar are romance fans. They take over the whole bar slowly, starting with one person per table. They will watch anything and everything. They have their phones out and are texting each other non-stop about what players from each sport they would ship with other sports. Occasionally one of the other genres realizes that a sex scene was not written by George RR Martin, Clive Barker, or even Chuck Tingle but by a (*gasp*) woman. The outed romance fan is then booted to an all-pink table kept in the back of the room, where a time-traveling Scotsman and a rakishly anachronistic duke are fighting for the honor to sit next to Nora Roberts. Historical fiction and sci-fi are pretending to ignore them (RR Martin is taking notes surreptitiously. Adams fans are proselytizing the importance of towels to the mostly unclad male leads.)
One unfamiliar with how the literary world works may ask, “Where is Non-fiction? Literary fiction? Poetry?”
Poetry was there. Then they discovered a coffee and absinthe joint (they might mean the drug) down the road where they could hang out with modern artists and discuss how the bourgeois and decaf coffee are ruining art (they are not wrong.).
Non-fiction and literary fiction are the hipster bartenders who keep trying to get the other genres to try the new ‘supper-hoppy-high-brow-beer” which always tastes exactly the same as every other super-hoppy-high-brow-beer but that the bartender will tell you is one of a kind and a ‘fresh taste’ in the literary world (You can tell them apart because literary fiction is wearing a Rolex and looks like the soon-to-be-dumped fiancée in a Hallmark movie, while Non-Fiction has a goatee and is wearing flannel.)
All the genres will take the beer. The genres are there for their love of sports, but the beer isn’t a bad addition. Besides no matter how blasé the beer it beats the swill always hawked by the writing teachers. Because let’s face it, even romance readers won’t touch memoirs.