So let me get this straight, genre is a requirement of the agent or publisher rather than the reader? I certainly know of more than one author whose novel has been rejected on the grounds of not fitting a genre or not being in the genre of the moment, and so it’s good that indie and small publishers (including my own!) are so much more flexible on this issue. But the commercial advantages of selling a product that’s easy to categorize are obvious. I mean, generally speaking, we know what we want and what we like and when we make a purchase, even if we are venturing outside our comfort zone, we have certain expectations which are based on packaging and marketing. If a book crosses genres, it’s more difficult to pitch and package and there’s a risk of confounding the reader’s expectations.
Then there’s what Sarah Duncan calls ‘the promise to the reader’ which the writer makes in the first few pages. If a book crosses genres, what can the first page do to set up the kind of story the reader can expect?
What made me think about all of this is a book I’ve been reading by Gillian E. Hamer called The Charter. It’s a well-written book with a great location and a dramatic historical sub-plot. There’s good pace and plenty of excitement. I haven’t quite finished it yet but I certainly shall as the heroine is one a hell of a fix now and I need to know how it all ends. But in the beginning I was perplexed. It begins with a prologue describing a nineteenth century shipwreck (oops, I feel my prologue allergy coming on, but I’m okay with this one) then in chapter 1 we have a contemporary funeral scene. Cliché perhaps, but not one that will put me off too much. I sense timeslip/paranormal coming up. Then we meet a nameless (well almost nameless) villain straight out of a macho-feel thriller, followed by two rather engaging cops in the local North Wales nick who (genre-wise) would not look out of place in Edinburgh or Oxford (and just to ram the point home, one is called Lewis!) Anyway, it’s not that any of these scenes falls short. They are entirely convincing in themselves. I just felt they belonged in different books.
What kept me going? Well the book is set on Anglesey, my second (well maybe third) home and the descriptions of the coast are lovely I was also intrigued, I admit, to see how or if it would all gel in the end, which despite some occasional qualms, I think it does. I am still reading it after all! So if you like a good read with a touch of history, spookiness and plenty of old-fashioned action, I can genuinely recommend this.
They do say that there are no longer rules about what makes a good book, and maybe I’m just too set in my ways to appreciate something that breaks a mould (or uses more than one.) But it has made me realise that the genre-crossing game does make life more difficult not just for the publisher but sometimes for the reader too. If as writers we take on the challenge, we need to smooth the way as much as we can. With an adult novel coming out that some people have wanted to label as YA, it’s something I need to think about as much as anyone else.
By the way, I’m delighted to say that Gillian, whom you may also know as a columnist for Words with Jam is going to guest here soon to talk about the author cooperative Triskele and her path to publication.