Sunday, February 15, 2009

Genres? We don't need no stinking genres!

by Lisabet Sarai

Jamie’s topic for this week at Oh Get A Grip asks the question, what’s your favorite genre to write? My reaction is perhaps not so extreme as my title would suggest, but to be honest, I’m rather fed up with the whole concept. The way I see it, genres are primarily a marketing issue. The market slaps a genre label onto your work and puts you in a box.

I don’t like to be cooped up in a box. (Well, not unless my Master put me there!) My writing tends to cross genres. I write M/M, F/F, M/F/M, M/M/F, and pretty much every other combination of genders that you could imagine – in the same book. I have BDSM elements, paranormal elements, cross-cultural elements and historical settings – all bound up together.

My recently released novel Exposure is labeled as “erotic suspense”, and I suppose that is as accurate as any single label would be, but then I worry: will my readers be upset by the F/F scenes? And what about the readers who love lesbian fiction? How will they know they can find it in my book?

Incognito is tagged as “contemporary erotic romance”, yet nearly a third of the book takes place in Victorian Boston. Raw Silk was contracted to its original publisher as “erotica”. Now it’s selling as “erotic romance”. I probably changed no more than 1% of the text. Was that enough to change the genre? Of course not!

I recently pitched a story to one of my publishers, a contribution to a menage anthology. The editor rejected it because it had some male/male interaction, and this anthology was supposed to be restricted to M/F/M only.

Grr! I mean, it’s up to her what she wants to publish, but I can’t help thinking that she has a rather narrow definition of menage.

I understand why publishers want to assign genre labels. It’s a short cut for readers looking for a particular sort of subject matter. You liked the last two werewolf novels you bought? Here, try another one. Or twelve. But perhaps readers might be happier experimenting. As much as I love well-written BDSM, I can’t take a steady diet of it. Am I weird, wanting to have some variety? Wanting to mix it up? (My husband will energetically assert that I am indeed weird, but not for that reason!)

From what I’ve observed in my two and a half years in the ePublishing world, genre labels seem to encourage a distressing level of uniformity. We see piles of shapeshifter books, hundreds of vampire romances. Every week a dozen new volumes set in mystical realms inhabited by beings with magical powers hit the cyber-shelves.

Maybe most readers really are looking for predictability. Not me. When I read, I want to be surprised. Astonished by the author’s original premise. Sucked into places I didn’t expect to go.

Weird, right?

One genre label that drives me crazy is “inter-racial romance”. To me, categorizing a romance based on the race of the protagonists smacks of bigotry and prejudice. Sure, a black woman and a white man (or vice versa) may be more of a turn on for some people than a same-race couple, but to me, using the “inter-racial” label seems to be validating and perpetuating the old myths associated with segregation and slavery.

I’ve been assured by authors who explicitly identify their work as “inter-racial” that this sub-genre sells well. Ah well, I suppose the market rules. As for me, I’ve written stories featuring mixed race lovers, but I’ll never use the word “inter-racial” to try and sell them. Just my feelings.

It suddenly strikes me that my argument against the inter-racial label sounds similar to the complaints some people make about BDSM. It encourages violence against women, they say. It makes cruelty and abuse acceptable and sexy.

Now personally, I know that this is hogwash – at least for the type of BDSM that I write. The BDSM relationships in which my characters are involved are intimate, enjoyable, fulfilling, even healing. I suppose, though, that someone who had never read my work or experienced the potential joy to be found in a D/s relationship might well find BDSM fiction alien and threatening, sick and dangerous.

This, in turn, makes me realize that another purpose of genre labels is to warn readers away from fiction that would make them uncomfortable. I suppose I can understand this, but it still makes me wonder. If they’ve never read BDSM, or FF, or MM, how do they know they won’t like it. Do readers really want the same stories, the same experience, over and over?

Maybe they do. Maybe I’m just weird. Maybe that’s why my writing doesn’t sell better!

What do you think?


  1. Lisabet,
    I'm with you regarding genres. It's not always easy to evem ascertain which genre to assign to a novel. For example, when trying to sell Sarah's Journey, I knew it was historical, but it wasn't a romance, although it had a romantic element; western didn't really fit either, but Women's Fiction really did because the story is primarily about what one woman in the 1800s faced, stood up against, and was forced to make a difficult decision. So, I promoted it was Historical Women's Fiction. I guess you can say I made up my own. I hate boxes, too. :) Great post.


  2. I don't specialise in Romance even as a 'general' description of genre.
    But my first essay into the field started from a breakfast table comment about a strange dream my wife had had .... and which I recognised as a dream I had had, IN ITS EVERY DETAIL, many times.

    OF COURSE there was a story there - but how to treat it? There was only one way to find out ........

    Over a QUARTER OF A MILLION WORDS LATER I am perhaps halfway through Vol. 2 of a planned trilogy, and I still can't define the genre.
    There are elements of paranormal, and plenty of romance. Myth and Legend abound, but there are a lot of references to real historical events and real people. It's only "accidentally, and once-in-a-*while" historical in nature...
    in other words, it has strands of just about any "genre" you want to claim allegiance to!
    Boundaries, like rules, are there to be explored and where possible broken!
    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this - keep 'em coming!

  3. Hi, Ginger,

    One issue is that the genre you select may well affect your sales.

    Maybe what we need is another option, labeled "Other"!


  4. Hello, Paul,

    You know, the most interesting and memorable books that I've read did not fit neatly into any genre category either.

    Thanks for dropping by.


  5. I don't stick to a single genre or cross-genre. Very seldom anyway. It's frustrating...and sometimes have a publisher label the book paranormal romance and have the reviewers call it everything from epic fantasy to mystery, Neo-Pagan parable. Shrug. In the end, I think the mish-mask makes it appealing.

    As for I/R, one one hand, yes...I see how it could be seen as rather bigoted. But, the truth is, people who enjoy I/R use it as a way to find books they like and get annoyed when the books aren't marked for them. People who don't like I/R use it to avoid them (the bigoted side), and people who don't care, one way or the other, don't bother to read labels or content notes.

    You're right. It's about marketing. Me? I LOVE writing stories about I/C (intercultural) struggles (two species of weres, fairies and humans, aliens and humans...which might also be called I/S...interspecies, though that sounds less appealing to some people envisioning bestiality). That is my thing! But there is no opportunity to label the books I/C. Rather annoying to me, since I/C and I/R share a lot of the same sorts of issues, in some cases.

    Ah well. No winning, either way. Great subject for a Sunday morning!


  6. As you know, I can't begin to agree with you enough. The argument is that the market rules, but as you point out towards the end, the buyers can only choose from what they're offered. Personally, I choose books based on the synopsis on the back cover, or because I know the author and like their writing. I'll also choose books because one reviewer has likened that author to another one I like. Or on the recommendation of a friend.

    I also think that your encounter with the editor who didn't want any m/m in the menage stories is WAY wrong, and the market says so. I LOVE a little m/m and I know for sure a huge number of women readers do as well.



  7. Hi, Brenna,

    (I've got lots of time to comment tonight - tomorrow will be a different story!)

    I love the notion of an inter-species genre. It almost sounds like a parody!

    Thanks for dropping by!


  8. Hey, RG!

    To be completely fair, this editor does publish M/M/F stories. She just didn't want one in this particular anthology. Because, I believe, she thought that it would be targeted towards readers who don't like M/M interaction.

    Ah well... as Brenna said, you can't win.


  9. I suspect most authors are not thrilled with the constraints of genre either, even while we willingly crawl into the box to write those romances, mysteries, vampire stories, etc. our publishers want.

    Hmm... This is more of a BDSM relationship than I realized!

  10. I struggled with the interracial label for Coming Together: At Last, but I think we pulled it together in an uplifting way.

    As for labels, I stick to "erotic fiction" for my work. The former is always true. The latter? No comment. ;)

    The "romance" label drives me bananas because every relationship is a romance in some form. It's like saying the ocean is wet. And I absolutely cannot stand having my characters tagged as "hero" and "heroine." That's fine for Disney movies. Not fiction for gr'ups.


  11. Genre is something I never consider when I write. I just put the story together. Let someone else determine what genre it fits in.

    I've found even when my work gets into the correct genre I still end up disappointing people.

    My latest e-book suffered from that. Although it is most definitely romance one story has an element of bondage in it. So the BDSM tag was slapped on it and I know that chased a lot of people away.

    The rest of the stories have fairly ordinary people as the central characters; no alpha males or spunky, busty heroines. And the stories deal with things not often dealt with in romances; rape, divorce, serious physical injury and culture shock; along with how they affected the characters.

    The reviewers loved it but the readers, not so much. Myself I think that's because reviewers like well written interesting stories whereas a lot of readers want the fantasy of romance.

    So, personally, I find genre an extremely limiting thing and always likely to mislabel the story.

    My $0.02.

  12. I completely agree with you ab out genre labels. Sometimes if a label "warns" a reader away, they miss something wonderful. I had never read BDSM until I judged one for the Eppies and since then I can't read or write enough. But I don't write BDSM for the sake of BDSM. My books are love stories, romantic suspense, sometimes paranormal ()I fell in love with the wolf!), so to be pigeonholed and lock out other possible new readers makes me uncomfortable. My books, like yours, Lisabet, are filled with multiple elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. I'd hate to think someone didn't buy one of my books because the genre label turned them off.

  13. Oh God! This got me into 'rant' mode this am....too damn early, too.

    But I definitely agree....little limiting boxes. How is the public ever going to expand their tastes? How are they ever going to break out of a box and find the delightful other chocolates?

    And I have picked up a book of a certain 'genre' and found it wasn', it's self-limiting.

    Ahhhh, who sez that writers have to goose step to the 'accepted' forms of publishers??

    Let 'em rip. Let the juices and blood flow between the barriers. These 'safety' labels are just for the squeamish...or comforting for the publishers?

    Ok...I have a very limited experience as I have just published ONE book, ("A Seasoning of Lust") and it's got a mixture of stuff in there, hard to catagorize..bdsm poetry? f/f short story? romantic flashers?..but three more are coming soon...and I have no idea how they will be received. Or pigeon holed.

    Time warps, fantasy, bdsm, cultural shifts and cultural issues,
    I got them all in there.

    With this ONE book, I am finding that the public (ok, the public I've talked to) don't care about the borders, genre, etc. They are just looking for a couple of things: A good read, some investigation into 'other' lifestyles....bdsm, D/s, etc..and they don't really care about categories. They want to be entertained, and some want more fertile ideas for action (behavior) in their lives. Or that is what it seems to me.

    Jane Kohut-Bartels

  14. Genres, subgenres and all the other labels are selling tools--nothing more and nothing less. Rather like the warning notice that precedes a movie "This may not be suitable for everyone, etc. etc." The problem, as I see it, is that most readers don't want to take a chance on "different" simply because they have specific demands. Publishers and bookstores know this, so they save the readers time (and themselves a ton of returns and complaints) by ascribing genres and subgenres. Also, as I know from posting excerpts on the various loops, readers insist on something in the subject line to indicate content so they can avoid whatever it is they're trying to avoid. For this reason, I use things like adult excerpt, m/m, m/m/f, m/f/m, etc., and while my publisher may use terms like interracial or multi-cultural as a sales tool, I prefer to stick with the belief that people are people regardless of the who, what, why, when and where.

    Christiane France

  15. Hey Chickie,

    Don't blame this topic on me- I chose Valentine's Day last week. (Wasn't I creative?) We can blame this one on Jude. Of course, I blame everything on Jude. LOL

    Nice post, L'il bit!


  16. Very good post!!!

    I'm not sure how I feel about all the sub-genres though. I mean do we really want five or six sub- listed. I guess we do so it will reach more readers but still.

    I don't want to read the same things but I will admit when I first started reading erotic romance I only read m/f.

    My first m/m book was by accident. And now I'm hooked on them. I never thought the images of two strong alpha males would be so yummy! But them I read some m/m/m/ and ohhhhhhhh yes!

    Same with BDSM. I didn't plan to read any. I didn't know anything about BDSM other than I bought a short story. Now I have read stories with light and heavy aspects of BDSM. Oh and I love them!

    Its such a shame that I missed out on so many at the beginning.

    Hey I have even ventured into writing m/f/m and m/m/f. So who knew!

    I would tell all the readers to try one. You just never know!


    ~Author of The Were Chronicles~

  17. Beyond being a selling tool, genre helps identify a writing style.

    Literary fiction is all about the beauty of words - sometimes to the deteriment of anything actually happening in the story.

    Romance is, by definition, a story about a relationship that ends happily. (As an aside - it cracks me up that romance book blurbs almost always ask: "Will they end up together?" Well, of course they will. It's a given. Why even ask? If porn is erotica without suspense, then the romance genre is surely emotional porn.) But (getting back to the genre question) romance is also an indentifiable writing style that differs from the writing style of other genres.

    Genre, from a reader's standpoint, is like picking up a pint of ice cream. S/he would be pretty upset if the label on the pint promised chocolate, but was filled with strawberry. With the thousands of books in my local Borders, I'm glad I don't have to flip through the gardening books and primary readers when I want to read a true crime novel. But frankly, I'm okay with true crime being shelved with mystery and suspense. I don't need, or want, the genres more defined than that.

    Few stories are pure examples of their genre. I think that's why we pile so many genre descriptions onto our books Paranormal-suspense-erotic-romance, for example. We want to pique interest in a wide range of readers. The problem is that this seems to further splice subgenres and create more definitions, more rules, more ghettos. The question to me is always: Are we building the genre ghetto walls ourselves, or are the readers?

  18. Lisabet, this was my contribution to the list of topics, and I had no idea it was going to get so wild, but I love it! Yes, I'm a sh*t disturber when I can be. LOL

    I adore mixing genres when I write, but it also means readers might bypass a book of mine for one that's in a specific label they're looking for. I once was involved with a group of authors who put together an anthology. The writing was extraordinary and each of the stories was amazing, but we covered a variety of genres, m/m, m/f, f/f, m/f/m, paranormal, suspense, romance, erotica, historical and a variety of sexual practices, including anal. Gasp! The readers, I think, backed away because there was just too much variety. The book did sell, but not well and I think we all knew why, and we learned from the experience. Anthologies need to be more focused. Not necessarily a single genre, but not a dozen either.

    When I buy a book, I'm looking for a specific thing, usually. But, if I spot a cover that's cool, I'll look at it. Now, if the blurb grabs me, I'll buy, no matter what the genre or who diverse the book might be. But, as an author, maybe I don't buy books like a reader does.

    Genre labels are for marketing purposes, but they're also guidelines for the authors. Certain genres sell well. That changes of course, but it allows us to focus our writing on one or two things that hopefully we know will do reasonably well. It's up to us, and our publishers, to keep up to date on what the market is doing. It's our choice as authors if we want to aim for a specific genre or not.

    I also believe ebook authors are pushing these boundaries. In brick and mortar houses you'll find more single genre books. Westerns, sci-fi, paranormal, romance...etc. In the online publishing houses you'll find those genres mixed, romantic paranormal, erotic western, m/m sci-fi... and many more. You'll also find the books don't cost as much, so hopefully the readers will be more willing to explore. Try a new author and a new mix of genres.

    Oh, and I like to write: BDSM, D/s, m/m, sci-fi, paranormal, f/m, romance, erotica and a bunch more. LOL


  19. One of my favorite teen romance books did NOT have the HEA, yet we all devoured it insatiably and I modeled my 3rd book after it. What's wrong with one book in a series that DOESN'T have a happily-ever-after? Keep reading!

    I too had my genre wrong. There was romance, a HEA, and yet no one was interested. I jokingly call me series 'Young Adult Smut', because it's a little graphic for the under-15 age, but I do have some mature 12 and 13-yr-olds who love my books and can't wait for the next one:)

    Finally, I had an editor inform me what I was writing was Women's Fiction. Hopefully the rest of the series will find a home, even though there is an F/F storyline as well as interracial.

    My alter-ego is definitely Contemporary Erotic Romance...but the social issues insist on entering into it too:) So who knows where the rest of the work will end up?

  20. Great post Lisabet!
    I didn't realise these things were so rigid until I had a comment on my first m/m novel The Gold Warrior when a reviewer felt she had to 'warn' readers there was a m/f scene! Sorry, but I was writing a book about characters and their interaction and that included men and women - I couldn't just ignore any relationships that didn't meet the m/m genre label! *lol*

    I've heard a lot of arguments since, from both camps. Some people don't *want* to take an adventure with their reading, it seems they want to know exactly what to expect. But plenty of authors take exception to being so tightly categorised.

    And how on earth are we going to foster an integrated, well-balanced portfolio of fiction out there that reflects ALL the readers, if we keep setting up 'special', individual categories?

    I think I'm a little naive in that belief, but I'll still cling to it! LOL
    Clare :)

  21. Hi Lisabet!

    Interesting post! I think about this question a lot.

    This morning on National Public Radio's "To The Best of Our Knowledge", they had an hour devoted to the subject of fiction genre. You can hear it on your Internet at:

    It's definately a market thing as you say. The writer's they interviewed all hate the idea of being typed in a genre, but its just one of those things that sells books. One referred to this as "Apartheid", where writer's like Ursula K LeGuin (whose book "Steering the Craft" I've been studying on my knees) who should be regarded as great literary writers are ghettoized in the fantasy aisle with paperback covers of embossed silver letters and pictures of wizards, when her stories go far beyond that.

    I think as far as fiction that makes people uncomfortable that would be the thing someone should try to read. Having said that, gay fiction just doesn't do anything for me. I dunno.

    C. Sancha-Garcia

  22. Hi Lisabet,
    Lets face it. What are all genres or labels really for? Apart from the obvious marketing role of herding readers down a well worn but comfortable path in order to fleece them, they are an insidious form of censorship by publishers who think they know what's best for the reader. Also excluding by genre is an easy way for publishers to gently tell a writer their work is crap.
    In my opinion, if the writing is good enough the publisher should allow the market to determine the demand.
    Pity the writer who finds themselves outside all defined genres. Sadly, I often find myself in this situation.
    Mad About Golf - just over 20,000 words
    Urbane librarian Bill Burke, disillusioned by a string of tragic events, which culminate in the death of his best friend and golf buddy Hank Wainwright, decides to escape Chicago, for a quieter life in the mid west. Bill's new position as Lakeview's town librarian has its challenges, but he soon moves into a snappy Art Deco bungalow and meets Susan Fry an attractive psychologist he would like to get to know a lot better. When asked to join a golf foursome captained by local sports teacher Godfrey Bates, his move to Lakeview seems complete. Bill expects to play a relaxing round at Lakeview's idyllic Malum Island Golf Club. However, the legend shrouded Malum Island and events beyond his control conspire to complicate his new life beyond his wildest imaginings. Bill may have been mad about golf, but he was not as mad as some.

    Dear Paul,
    I've had a chance to review MAD ABOUT GOLF, and while your style is intriguing I'm afraid this one doesn't quite fit the needs of our current list. I wish you the best in placing this elsewhere, and hope you'll submit to us again in the future.
    Kind Regards,
    Senior Acquisitions Editor, Eternal Press

    Oh well... my search for a nurturing home that appreciates my intriguing style continues, or God forbid, I just write crap and don't know it.

  23. Jamie - I apologize for attributing this topic to you when it's all Jude's fault...!

    Clare - I empathize with your M/F scene in your M/M novel!

    How can we get some publishers over here to read this post and all your great responses?

    Thanks to all!


  24. As a reader, I don't care what genre a book is labeled. I usually don't agree with the labels anyway. I'm willing to read any genre if the book sounds good. I'm also willing to try different authors. If I don't like an author, I don't read the person again (I always give an author 2 tries before discarding him/her, in case the first read was a fluke). I don't like pigeon holes for myself so why would I like them in my literature. I can spend hours on a website or in a book store looking for what appeals to me. Just use the authors' names to shelve books and maybe fiction/non-fiction.