Friday, May 14, 2010

A Question of Genre

I am about 40 pages away from finishing Victor LaValle's novel Big Machine. I don't know how well this book sold, but it did well enough to be reprinted as trade paperback after its run in cloth*, so it must have done respectably enough, and it's won awards and been reviewed well here and there. Which comes as no surprise, because it's pretty good, so go read it.

What does surprise me, however, is that it's been marketed as a work of literary fiction. I don't deny that it is, mind you: the language is wonderful and the book deals with such deep subjects as identity, doubt, trust and the existence of God. But it also veers sharply into "X-Files" territory, with some Edgar Allen Poe thrown in for good measure. So this is like a paranormal literary fiction.

It's not sold as paranormal, and on the jacket copy the suspense is played up and the theology/weirdness is played down, but this is a strange novel about strange events, the real world's edges and underbelly being home to supernatural activity and beings. But you won't find Big Machine in the "horror" or whatever section of Barnes & Noble, you'll find it in the general fiction section, and the book is being discussed as literature.

I also can't help noticing that in the YA section of book shops, there is a lot of zombie/vampire/supernatural activity going on, and it's all called "YA" and not "science fiction" or "horror" or anything. And it further seems to me that there are few people who read only zombie novels, or only police procedurals, or only vampire romances, or only literary fiction about estrangement from parents or whatever. I do not believe in the idea that I hear often from agents and editors that people don't stray from "their" section of book stores, and so I begin to strongly doubt the notion--again, one we hear often from agents--that your book had better fit into a neatly-defined genre.

Because readers don't read like that. If you ask readers what their genre tastes are, I think most of them are going to look at you as if you're speaking a foreign language. Readers, I think, don't think about "genre," they think about books and authors that they like. And bookstore workers are generally well- and widely-read enough that they aren't afraid of a book if it doesn't fit neatly into one of their previously-defined genre slots. They do, after all, have that big "general fiction" area.

Where, really, am I going with this? I think that what I realized while reading Big Machine is that whenever someone tells you that you are ill-advised to mix genres in your work, that you really need to focus on one style or another, they are full of it. Writers lead the way; agents and editors all follow, always. They follow writers and they follow buying trends begun by...writers, yes, that's right. As my very own agent says about agents, "We're all sheep." If you are writing a really cool, really good book, you should follow your instincts and just write that really cool, really good book.

Yes, at some point you will need to market it to an agent who will have to sell it to a publisher, but you do NOT have to say what genre it is in your query, as long as you send it to an agent who you think will be interested in your book. My agent and I have never once discussed the genre of my book, and I didn't say "literary fiction" in my queries. I just talked about how really cool my book is.

And now, kids, I have to work. Which sucks, because I really want to go finish Big Machine.

* Yo, Victor LaValle: I bought your book in cloth to help you earn out your advance. Just saying.


  1. I support the idea that a writer should write whatever she or he wants and not worry about genre until after the fact. At a party, I met one writer who felt that she wrote a literary novel. But, when the time came for her to find an agent, she decided to call it Young Adult because she thought it would make it easier to find representation. She did find an agent and the book went to option, so so far she is happy with her decision and believes the readers will find her book wherever it is.

    Personally, I do tend to stay around my preferred section of the book store. For me, there is literary fiction, and then there is "other." I spend most of my time in literary and only sometimes wander around other sections to see if anything catches my eye.

  2. I think that maybe we writers tend to be more limited in our reading than non-writers tend to be. Mighty Reader, for example, reads the big names in literary fiction through the ages, interspersed with what she calls "trashy mysteries." I think she's more like a normal reader than I am.

    The author you are talking about found the YA label after she'd written her book, though, right?

  3. That's right. She wrote her book, and only thought of querying it as a YA book later.

  4. I've been mulling over a book on writing recently and came across the topic of genre. It seems to me that nowadays much of the fiction being published particularly in the YA, SF and Romance genres are actually cross-genre books. The genre walls are crashing down, maybe.

    As for bookstore shopping, I usually search in the general fiction area and rarely in a defined genre. But I guess, you could call general fiction a genre.

  5. Thank you for such a great post. Writers ALWAYS lead. I love it.

    We need to get tear down this "literary vs genre" structure. Every story should pay attention to characters, craft and language. Every story should also entertain. This is our responsibility as more, no less.

  6. Michael Chabon's "Maps And Legends" book is, in part, about the way genre fiction has influenced a lot of today's literary writers who don't necessarily see those boundaries.

    There is, of course, the idea that the more serious a writer and his work, the more it will directly reflect the "real world" and the more important the work will be. I used to feel that way, but my doubts about that grow stronger all the time. Though while writers seem to be ignoring genre distinctions, there is also a critical backlash going on in some circles, especially against magical realism in otherwise "straight" literary fiction. So it's a mess. We need to ignore all of that and just write good books.

  7. Publishers and agents seem to prefer if you stick to one genre or another and don't mix them in one novel... until a novel lands on their desks that does this extremely well. Of course, some genres don't sit well together because the contrast does them no favours - eg thrillers mixed with static character studies. But nothing's impossible.
    If an author really knows what they're doing, the small matter of a novel being unconventional doesn't matter. If, as Mayowa says, the novel entertains and is satisfying, that will always win.

  8. My experience has been the opposite. During my second book I came to an impasse. I couldn't move forward until I figured out what kind of writer I wanted to be.

    When I watch American Idol (yes I watch it, sue me) I really get what the judges are saying when they ask what kind of artist are you?

    I proudly put horror on my queries. If the agent wants to sell it as a cheesecake I don't care. But I'm horror writer and I want the agent to know that's who they're getting.

    Speaking of horror, I have this student... that sounds bad. My student is not a horror, though he did try to bite me one time-he just likes Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies a lot. And that got me thinking. Vampires and werewolves have been "crossed". What do you think would happen if a vampire/ werewolf was bitten by a zombie?

  9. FYI- I'm zucchini. I was logged into my personal email and didn't realize it.

  10. Thank you - I agree that many readers don't think too hard about genre, although there do seem to be some people who ONLY read romance, scifi, historical novels etc. I hope writers continue to lead the way in cross-fertilizing genres, because that makes for more interesting books and that's what we should care about, isn't it?

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I have never once gone into a bookstore and looked for a particular "genre". I look for the fiction section and browse my heart away. I have never once thought, gee, is this "literary"? Is this women's fiction? Because, gosh, I'm a woman, so I better stay in my own area. For Godsakes, wouldn't that be stupid? So for the past several months I've bemoaned my inability to settle on a genre for my query. Is it literary? (How could I presume such without an MFA?) Is it women's fiction? Is it paranormal (because it includes psycic experience)? Does it have YA crossover potential? The only thing I can say for certain is that it is fiction and not about vampires. If what you say is true, that you do NOT have to say what genre it is in your query, then a tremendouse weight is lifted from my tired shoulders. I have added Big Machine to my "to read" list. It sounds good. And I LOVE this post.

    Did I say thank you?

  12. Now I know what I like about word verification. It gives one an opportunity to edit. It forces us to slow down. I saw with horror what I'd carelessly written on the run at work but didn't have time to dwell on it until now, in the quiet of the home front. The burden should not be on you to slog through typos. The fact of the matter is that I hate typos, and pride myself on spelling. Who was it said "typos are worse than fascism"?

    Forgive my carelessness.

    (I linked to this post. I assume that is okay?)

  13. I'm like Davin and usually go straight to the literary fiction section of the bookstore, but I don't stay in there. I often wander over to other sections and don't even realize where I am.

    The truth is, we like stories, and who the heck cares what genre the story falls into as long as it's a good story. I think we all find our preferred "genres" to read and write, just like we all have particular food tastes, and some people just like everything.

    I like what you say about not worrying too much about the genre when you query. I kept thinking I HAD to know before I queried.

  14. I picked this book up on my nook after reading about it here. Really incredible novelist. I'm going to pick up his short story collection next :)

  15. Ken, I haven't read anything from LaValle but "Big Machine," but I'm going to look for his other novel and his story collection. I also hope he makes his way west and does a reading out here.


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