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.