What is Genre, Anyway?
By Jeff Salter
What is Genre?
The “rules” about genre are no longer as clearly defined as they were a generation (or two) ago. Sure, we still have Westerns and Science Fiction and Romance. But these days most of the books that formerly would have been lumped in with the traditional ROMANCE authors / titles… are now hybrids or blends. And some of the blends which have taken off… have later developed hybrid branches of their own. I like that flexibility – both as a reader and writer – because I don’t like being pigeon-holed. Also, I don’t care for labels. I’m an author and I write believable characters in interesting situations. Who cares if it’s Western, Sci-Fic, or Romance?
Can Romance be Compartmentalized?
Some 30 years ago, I was selected to make a presentation – part of Shreveport’s Artbreak – to several school kids who were aspiring writers. To make one of my points, I mentioned the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. I said it was an adventure story, an action film, a historical (and archeological) treatment, it had religious themes, and it centered on a romantic relationship. “So,” I went on to ask, “how would you classify it?” In other words, where did it FIT? Furthermore, did it NEED to fit some particular pattern? I thought it was a brilliant question about a ground-breaking film… and should have generated a spirited discussion. However, I made the cardinal mistake of citing a movie that was released (1981) when these middle school kids were mere toddlers… and none of them had even heard of it. LOL.
But my point is still valid: a great story – whether on film or in book pages – can (and likely should) involve MANY different threads. Would that episode of the Indiana Jones franchise work as well if he’d had NO ex-girlfriend (Marion) to rescue and woo back?
As other examples of romantic themes featuring prominently in atypical settings, consider these:
* Most of the popular western movies I’ve ever seen – and that’s a bunch – have featured a romantic relationship of some sort. [Often, the standard formula: dastardly villain trying to cheat lovely maiden out of her inherited property… until the traveling cowboy deals with the bad guy and falls in love with the girl.]
* Almost every “war movie” of the 1940s and 1950s also had a substantial thread of romance. In many cases, it was a jarring disruption to the primary battle story, but the audiences of that era wanted it and needed to see romance on screen.
* Would the action film “Die Hard” be as interesting – and tense – if John McClane didn’t have an estranged wife (whom he still loved) to rescue?
Do those oft-featured romantic threads turn the “genre” movie into a love story? Not really. But it does demonstrate that viewers/ readers want a BLEND of plot threads… and one of these threads is almost always ROMANCE.
A Little History
I’ve been writing since grade school – beginning with little poems or very short stories – never truly imagining I might one day write novels. Back in the mid 1970s I decided to see what romances were all about… so my wife handed me a Barbara Cartland paperback. [No longer remember the title, but it featured a beautiful heroine who encountered a sheik.] Frankly, I was not impressed… and I told my wife that “I could write that” — which are famous words almost every writer has at least thought, if not spoken.
Years later, in my career as a public library administrator, I read many articles about publishing, book purchasing, reading, etc. I no longer recall the exact percentages, but I think it was about 75% of the books borrowed from public libraries were checked out by females. And about 75% of those borrowed books were categorized as Romances. The statistics in books being SOLD were similar: the vast majority were purchased by females… and a huge proportion of those were Romances. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where the market was.
Will Anybody be Able to READ it?
More years later, after I’d retired, my inner muse nudged me toward writing long fiction: novels and novellas. But if I managed to complete a novel, what were the chances it would ever be published? I already knew the general numbers about books being published, what was selling, and what library patrons were borrowing. But I didn’t totally comprehend all the MANY roadblocks to getting “general” – i.e., non-genre – fiction published.
First of all, in earlier times – before self-publishing evolved into accepted practice – you couldn’t get anywhere without a literary agent. In generalized figures, I learned that a completed manuscript’s synopsis and cover letter had about two chances in 100 of finding favor with an agent. [That’s assuming the agent’s intern even liked it enough to pass it along.] Once an agent “liked” your story enough to request a “full” manuscript, you had about two chances in 100 that she / he would offer to take you on as a client. Once you secured a contractual relationship with this agent, your manuscript had about two chances in 100 that any publisher would be interested. You see the challenges here?
The Rise of Independent Publishers
Cue the rise of small publishers, digital-only publishers, or digital-first publishers. Suddenly there were numerous independent publishers who were willing to consider your novel’s synopsis and cover letter — even withOUT an agent!
But what were 98 per cent of these independent publishers publishing? Well, NOT poetry, (mostly) NOT short stories, and NOT general – so-called “literary” – fiction. They were publishing Romance novels. But not only the romances your grandmother and mother read! Remember my discussion about hybrid romance and blended romance? Suddenly there were all kinds of possible TYPES of stories being published… without an agent’s involvement. The gatekeepers had been bypassed. And these new, smaller publishers cared more for the CONTENT of the story than parsing which specific market niche it represented.
Shifting the Angle & Perspective
Actually, however, this hybrid trend was not as brand new as my wording might suggest. It harkens back to those war movies, western films, and the more modern action flicks. In many ways it was the same TYPE of story, but a difference in the point-of-view. Yeah. Shift the POV from the cowboy drifter TO the beleaguered maiden — and you’ve got a romance-driven western. Shift the POV from the soldier bracing for battle TO the kindly barmaid who notices how frightened he is — and you’ve got a romance-driven wartime story. Shift the POV from the male scientist on the mission to dock with the orbital space station TO the female physicist who knows how to make the trajectory correction — and you’ve got romance-driven Sci-Fic.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple or simplistic. Not only can the POV shift, but the camera angle can vary. Plus, you can focus on what’s happening way over there in the corner of the background… instead of the louder, splashier stuff up front. All these factors add interest, and allow the reader / viewer a DIFFERENT experience than what we saw – for instance – in the 1950s B-Movie Sci-Fic films. Or the westerns and war movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Or even the gangster films of the 1930s.
I Write What Interests Me to READ
Often a story concept comes to me in this fashion: I think “what if” the ghost was a woman and the man was not afraid? Or “what if” the heroine takes the wrong pill and finds herself only 11 inches tall? Or “what if” the girl who was not allowed (by neighborhood boys) to play in their tree house… grows up, builds her own tree house to live in, and won’t let any MALES visit? Or “what if” a 2014 woman who LOVES Jane Austen’s Regency stories wakes up after a car crash and thinks she’s in 1814 England?
Each could be a totally different story if the primary POV was different… or if that POV had unusual camera angles. And that’s what I do — I look for those unusual angles… and I write them.
Question: What “blend” of genres do you enjoy writing or reading?
[JLS # 425] — corrected