On Genre

This post was originally made over at eltettensor.com, but it has relevance here too, so I’m cross-posting…

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre lately.

With THE BLOODBOUND in full publicity swing, and advanced reader copies of MASTER OF PLAGUES about to start making the rounds, the question of how a book is categorised — how it’s labelled and marketed — has become an important one in my world. And it got me thinking that reading is a lot like eating: what you expect to taste can greatly affect the extent to which you like what you actually taste.

Let me explain.

Have you ever gone out for dim sum, or tried dessert at an authentic Chinese restaurant? Have you bitten into a sticky bun expecting it to be sweet, only to be disgusted when you taste salt instead? I’ve long had a theory about this, that it’s less to do with the fact that you don’t actually like salt — I mean, really, who doesn’t like salt? — and more to do with the fact that you were expecting to taste something very different. Your taste buds were primed for sweet. When they got savoury instead… ew. Whereas if you’d gone in expecting salt, you might have had a very different dining experience.

I think it’s like this with books, at least to some extent.

I’ve drawn this conclusion not only from my own experience as a reader, but from reading loads of book reviews (not just of my books, but of books by authors I admire). So many reviews refer to expectations, and the extent to which the book did or didn’t meet those. Fair enough. But what shapes those expectations? Lots of factors. The cover. The blurb. For lots of people, though, it is heavily influenced by where the book is shelved, or what book blog they found it on.

Enter marketing.

When DARKWALKER came out, it was reviewed on a lot of urban fantasy sites. As a result, it was read by a lot of urban fantasy fans, some of whom were disappointed that it didn’t meet their expectations of the genre. Again, fair enough. But the thing is, I didn’t write an urban fantasy book. I didn’t write a Victorian book (for the record, it’s much more 1800 than 1900, but let’s not nitpick). Maybe I wrote a paranormal mystery book — I’m still not sure. But I’m convinced that these ‘cues’ influenced how people consumed the book. For example, people who picked up the book because they saw a Sherlock Holmes-like figure on the cover will have been primed to expect an arrogant detective, and were probably more tolerant of Lenoir’s moodier moments. On the other hand, people who are used to reading about badass vampire killers with katana blades running around the sewers of New York were probably not very entertained by the comparatively slower pace of the novel’s plot.

I think it’s easier if you write novels that fit cleanly into a category. DARKWALKER doesn’t do that. Neither does THE BLOODBOUND. YA readers are looking for more angst. Epic fantasy readers are looking for more worldbuilding and less angst. Romance readers are looking for more bedroom time. There is no way to please all these markets. There is no point in trying. So the question is: which one to target?

And that’s where I am with MASTER OF PLAGUES at the moment. Do we go the urban fantasy route again? Mystery? Something else? You can go all of the above, but at the end of the day, the book is shelved somewhere, and as the author, you have little to no control over where. That’s frustrating, since where it sits = expectations, and unfulfilled expectations often lead to disappointment. Of course, many readers love crossover fiction — the warm reception of both DARKWALKER and THE BLOODBOUND attests to that. Even so, as an author, you don’t want people to feel they’ve accidentally picked up the wrong book.

So in case anyone asks, MASTER OF PLAGUES is an early 19th century mystery with light paranormal elements following the rough format of a zombie apocalypse.

There’s a shelf for that, right?

  • He110Ne0

    I would categorize it firmly under “Mystery.” I did not understand whatsoever people calling Darkwalker UF. I’ve read tons of UF, and I knew from the first few paragraphs that this book was not that. I see what you mean about people’s tastes, and I think for a large part that is true, but reading requires…reading. Active interaction with the book in front of you. You can tell a books true genre (especially for us voracious readers) within the first chapter, and definitely by the third. Find out whatever the marketing plan was for DROOD by Dan Simmons. It was set in Charles Dickens’ life time, but followed his friend and fellow author, Wilkie Collins. It stayed true to history for a lot of it, but wandered off a lot into the paranormal “what if” realms where you were never quite sure if Wilkie’s hallucinations were real or just the result of an Opium plagued mind. In many many ways, I’d shelve Darkwalker right next to DROOD. So yes…there has to be a shelf for that somewhere. Either mystery or historical fiction. Who knows.