Are we all a victim of genre?

We are all chained to genres – readers and writers alike.

I didn’t know I was writing historical fiction.

But I was.

I thought I was writing thriller.

Does the story happen tomorrow?


Did it happen yesterday?


It’s historical fiction.

Novels are being caged.

Authors are being imprisoned.

The cages and prisons all have the same name.

They’re called genre.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and she writes science fiction: pure, raw, honest, and unadulterated science fiction.

Stories of a distant time.

Stories of a life that is to come.

But are her novels really science fiction?

Or are they speculative fiction?

Or apocalyptic fiction?

Or post-apocalyptic fiction?

Or dystopian?

Or steampunk?

She doesn’t know.

She’s as confused as I am.

And it damn well matters. Amazon makes it matter.

Your novel may be listed under one genre today and another genre tomorrow.

Do you have any idea why?

Neither do I.

On line I found a definition for genre as presented by Darwin, whomever Darwin may be. It said: Book genre is something (readers) would like to read. Except in very specific instances where a writer (often an academic) deliberately chooses to fit his or her book exactly into a certain format, books in one genre can and do cross over into other genres, which is part of the genius of creativity. It is easier to market a book if you think you know what group of readers you need to target also, so in a way genre is also an artifact of the modern publishing industry. In addition, new genres arise all the time as interests change. Some folks insist that books that fall into a genre are formulaic and simplistic, unlike “real” literature, yet others are quite aware that literary fiction is itself a genre, at least in terms of readers being able to find what they want to read and publishers being able to market the books.  

Figured out what Darwin is talking about?

I’m not sure either.

But then, this whole dependence on genres is usually chaotic and usually confusing.

For example, I write thrillers. At least, I thought I did.

They follow an operative, probably a spy, for an intelligence group that probably doesn’t exist, into war-torn Europe during Hitler’s mad march for power. It is filled with intrigue, suspense, espionage, uncertainty, anxiety, terror, conspiracy, a little romance and a touch of adventure.

It has all of the ingredients for a thriller.

I know.

I read the rules.

But, alas, the novels are set in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

These novels aren’t thrillers. That’s why I’m told.

They are historical fiction.

Foolish me.

I thought historical fiction focused on wagon trains and settlers moving west, fighting tough times, bitter weather, Indian threats, and holding gunfights in the middle of a Dodge City alley.


Those are Westerns.

But if the cowboy kisses the cute little schoolteacher, it’s historical fiction, maybe even historical romance, and if she takes her dress and pinafore off often enough, it’s erotica.

In my reading life, I always thought the novels featuring Sherlock Holmes were mysteries.

I felt the same about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

And Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

I guess those stories are historical fiction, too.

So did Jules Verne write science fiction when his characters went from the earth to the moon or journeyed to the center of the earth?

Or did he write historical fiction as well?

They did happen a long time ago.

I’ve often wondered: In what year do contemporary novels begin, and when does the past end?

Can anyone tell me?

Does anyone know?

Do you write a romance?

Or romantic suspense?

Or historical romance?

Or is your novel modern enough to be chick lit?

Or sexy enough to be erotica?

Is your heroine a nurse?

Maybe it’s medical fiction?

Or is she a detective?

Maybe it’s only a mystery or crime fiction or a romantic thriller

We are all chained to genres – readers and writers alike. There was a time that I separated novels into two categories.

Books and authors I liked.

Books and authors I didn’t like.

I read Shane one week, The Guns of Navarone the next, The Robe when mother was watching, and The Martian Chronicles before the month ended.

I never gave genre a thought.

They were good books.

I liked good books.

Why can’t Good be a genre?

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  • I agree – I used to read mostly good books. Now they’re called ‘classics’ or ‘mysteries’ or ‘contemporary women’s fiction.’ And I don’t quite agree with them, because the mainstream category has disappeared – and that’s where I though I belonged best.

    I think this is why Amazon gives you seven keywords/phrases and two categories. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than being shelved in a store in ONE place.

    Just re-did mine, and selecting ‘literary suspense’ – which PC is – landed my in the thrillers category strings (thrillers, mysteries, & suspense > literary), which feels odd. I don’t care, if it sends potential readers, and I can always change keywords and categories. The previous set wasn’t working all that well, and I can’t change the actual BOOK, so I redid keywords, categories, book description, and ad copy – searching for a sweet spot.

    Maybe it will work.

    It’s a new world, it isn’t going back, and we have to be discoverable here, too.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I think you’ve helped solve the mystery, Alicia. Maybe it’s more about key words than genre. Great books spread out in several directions. There’s a romance in one chapter, a mystery in another, and it’s all written with the prose of good literary fiction. It speaks of the past. Historical fiction? It dreams of the future. Science fiction? And females will probably enjoy the story most. Women’s fiction? Maybe we need more than seven key words to do a novel justice.

  • Jackie Taylor Zortman

    Great question. I’m trying to figure out exactly what genre my pending novel falls into. I have to figure that out before I send it off to a publisher.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jackie, I’m in a dilemma with Back Side of a Blue Moon. I thought I was writing a historical romance, but I think it suddenly turned into mystery. I’m only one vampire shy of being really confused.

      • Jackie Taylor Zortman

        Perhaps you wrote a historical romantic mystery? Whatever they call it, I call it superb.

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