I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.
One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.
(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)
Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)
Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.
On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.
But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.
And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.
For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.
And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?
Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.
When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)
And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.
Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.
Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.
If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.
That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.
(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)
I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”
I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.
And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.
All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.
Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.