Genres Part Five – Crossovers

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Once upon a time, the genre standards were very clearly defined.  Mystery meant the discovery of a dead body and the subsequent investigation to find the killer.  Romance was a beautiful young woman meeting a handsome man she at first hates, and only comes to love after 200-odd pages of tribulation.  Westerns were cowboys on the lonesome prairie, with the obligatory gunfight.  Horror terrified the reader and only in the last pages let the hero win.  Thrillers were exciting tales of kidnappings, heists or political intrigue.  Erotic fiction was….well, you get the idea.

Fantasy and science fiction had, and to an extent still have, their own conventions.  But somewhere along the way, writers got bored with sticking to the rule books, and started playing with the standards, borrowing plot devices of other genres and weaving them into the mix to make their own work a little different.  These used to be called crossovers.  Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series, which features a gumshoe detective living and working in the fantasy city of TunFaire, is a prime example of a fantasy/mystery crossover.  In fact, as someone pointed out last week, urban fantasy almost always involves a dead body or two.  I’m working on a fantasy that takes place in the post-Civil War western territories, which once would have been called a fantasy/western crossover but is now called a weird western.

We no longer call them crossovers because those genre conventions are no longer so clearly defined.  Books can have a little horror and a little romance but still be, primarily, a fantasy.  It all comes down to what the writer decides it is.  Margaret Atwood, a literary author, wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which was hailed as a stunning work of dystopic science fiction, but she argued that since science fiction was, in her view, only about things we can’t do yet, her book should instead be considered speculative fiction.  She ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987, all the while claiming she had not written a science fiction book.

Look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  It’s a story of a father and son travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with winter coming on.  There is no civilization any longer, and every breath the characters take is fraught with worry and fear.  They encounter cannibalistic nomads, and see horrors like an infant being roasted on a spit and people being kept in cages as food stock.  But this book isn’t classified as horror, or science fiction.   It’s called literary by the reviewers.  It was even selected for Oprah’s Book Club, which doesn’t choose genre fiction.

As you’re working on your own books, keep this in mind.  You may know what your genre should be, and you should be familiar enough with the conventions of whatever you’ve chosen to fit into the marketing scheme comfortably, but once the book is out in the world, readers might redefine your work.  And if they do, well, at least they’re reading it and talking about it.  There are worse things than having reviewers and magazine columnists arguing over what genre your book is.  For example, they could be talking about someone else’s book.  Which would you rather have happen?

I’ve enjoyed talking about genre these last few weeks, and I hope the information has been useful to you.  If you have any other questions about genre, please post them here in the comments and we’ll see what we can figure out together.

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12 comments to Genres Part Five – Crossovers

  • Misty, I’ve always written crossover novels, even under my other penname, and way back when, this made it hard for marketing departments to buy my books. Editors made me tone down the crossover parts! So I am really happy to be living in the day with crossover is all the rage. And fans can classify my books any way they want as long as they read thenm and argue about them!

  • The market is becoming more open to ‘cross-over’ novels, but it still has limits. When I was trying to sell Dreaming Creek back in ’06 and ’07, I had several agents tell me they liked the book but wouldn’t take it on because they thought they wouldn’t be able to get it past the various publishers’ marketing departments. I was told that because it had paranormal elements, mystery elements, romantic elements, and comedic elements, the marketers would know what shelf to put the darn thing on, and then when they don’t know what to do, they generally say ‘no thanks’ and move on to easier material. That’s why I ended up going to a small press with it. When several different agents all said the same thing — Small press is more likely to take a chance on something outside the box — I figured there must be something to it.

    I didn’t say all that to convince anyone to change the book they are writing. It just reinforces, in my mind, anyway, the basic premise that Misty started out with when she began this series on genres: you need to know where you books fits in the spectrum of genres because it will play a major role in when/where/how/if you sell the book.

  • Many of my projects on the back-burner are crossover in one way or another, even my UF. At the moment, I’m working on epic fantasy with a romantic element, though the romantic element may not be enough to push it to the romance shelf. We’ll see, I guess. Quite a few of my other projects are some form of sci-fi/fantasy cross.

  • I’m almost finished reading a very nice Western-Fantasy now by Midori Snyder titled “The Flight of Michael McBride” (published by Tor). I love it when the Tuatha De Danann of Irish myth go over to Texas to help sort things out with renegade fey. Reading this book while I was in Texas (back home in Cincinnati now) actually helped me understand the stories of the Tain Bo Culaigne (or the Cattle Raid of Cooley) much better than I had previously, precisely because of the cowboy elements in this book. So crossed genres are not only fun for the author to write, but can make a work a more meaningful experience for the reader.

  • Just as Edmund said, it is harder to sell multi-crossover slipstream novels because of “shelf confusion.” But lately, it is getting better because bookstores and publishers are expanding their shelves to include crossover books. Just a fe wyears ago, you did not see a Urban Fantasy shelf in the bookstore. Now you do. I’ve even some Paranormal Romance shelves.

    So as they expand their shelves to accommodate these stories, the markets will open up, I feel.

  • In a sense, everything I’ve ever written has been a crossover (‘hybrid’ is the term I usually use), and yes, I think that slowed down the start of my career as a published author. Right now, though, I’m focussing on children/YA where crossover is the rule rather than the exception, partly because books stores shelve such books by age group rather than by genre. This gives the writers a little mroe freedom because I think readers come to them with few genre restructions in mind. I hope so, anyway…

  • I think you’ve hit a really important point, AJ. “…shelved by age group rather than genre.” I have two YA readers at home (three, really, because my wife reads anything the kids leave lying around), and though they do have genre preferences, they are much more open to exploring new literary territory than most adult readers I know.

  • Hmmmm… I’ve been wondering how I would market some of my future projects in idea generation stage. I’m thinking phantasms and voyagers is a weird west/horror and zombie cyborgs is space fantasy. Maybe I should consider YA characters to make it easier to sell. lol

    Great series of posts, Misty.
    Cheers,
    NGD

  • I’m writing more crossover now than I ever did before, mostly because, as Misty put it, I got sick of playing by the rules. I started to find the limitations of “plain fantasy” boring. I’m having much more fun now.

  • […] the understanding of what a genre is.  In her latest post on genres over on Magical Words, MistyMassey relays the story of Margaret Atwood, who swore in that her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was “Speculative” but not […]

  • Tim True

    I saw a fun thrill ride of a movie this past weekend: Cowboys and Aliens. It’s a crossover between western and science fiction. A few years back I gave my wife a jazz CD featuring Renee Flemming, normally an opera singer. Sting put out an album recently of John Dowland songs–a 16th century composer. And Bobby McFerrin has made a career of crossover–one day directing an orchestra and the next recording the smash hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in his garage (something like 1984). Point is, crossover is popular in other forms of media; so why not writing? But now the question is what do we tell our editors and agents who want a specific genre and we as authors can’t name one?

  • Rhonda

    I know this is a SF/F centric site (and so am I) but I’m wondering now if non-SF/F genres can cross over with each other as easily as SF/F can meld with them?

    One thing I considered a few years ago was the nature of the definitions of genres. Most of the other genres are primarily defined by their plots. Most of the examples given in the beginning of this article are plot-based descriptions.

    SF/F, it seems to me, is more defined by its background than its plot (excepting the epic fantasy “quest for the magic mcguffin” plot) and so could very easily adopt the plot conventions of other genres without interfering at all with the development of the fantastical nature of the background. I’ve ready quite a few like this; David Brin’s “Sundiver” comes to mind immediately, because it’s a textbook whodunit plot mostly taking place on Mercury and in a solar research vessel with several alien species along with the human characters taking their turns at being helpful, obstructionist, ambiguous, dropping red herrings, outright lying, and trying to kill people when they’re discovered. Also, he calls the parlour scene the “parlour scene” in the narrative.

    By contrast, making a hybrid of two plot-defined genres strikes me as a bit more difficult, because the time you spend developing your first plot is time you can’t spend developing your second plot, unless one of them is demoted to a subplot. Then it’s a mystery with a love interest instead of a romance/mystery crossover, for example.

    Am I wrong here? I’ve never tried to hybridize two genres without one being SF or fantasy, and I can’t think of a book that demonstrates it. (If anybody knows of one, let me know and I will read and learn! I’d be interested to see the technique.)