Does book genre really matter?

Does genre matter?
Classical Greek or vampire thriller? As long as we enjoy it, do we care? (Image source –
The great genre debate. There are a cornucopia of articles on the Internet discussing it. So what is it? It essentially boils down to a showdown between genre fiction and literary fiction. The former being books with such well–known epithets as crime or romance or fantasy, the latter usually being a work that defies classification, that is well-written and provokes thought. Which is better? Can a book be both? Is literary fiction even a genre in its own right? (Short answers – neither, yes and the jury is out.)

So does genre even matter?

It certainly does to the marketing departments of publishing houses, and to shops like Waterstones, both of which rely on the use of genre to boost sales figures. But sales figures aren’t my concern (at least not yet).

Genre as a reader

As a reader, it doesn’t seem natural to me to think in terms of genre, at least not when I am purchasing a book. I prefer to choose books based on the feeling evoked by the cover and the styling and especially the blurb on the back. As alluded to in my previous blog post, I am often drawn to books that creep me out and stop me sleeping at night (which isn’t great, given I’m an occasional insomniac at the best of times). Books as varied as Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and (cough) the Twilight series fit this description, but I certainly wouldn’t dare to claim they belonged in the same genre.

Aside from an overriding feeling of gloom, there are two thing I tend to look for in a book – beautiful or unusual prose (the odd guilty pleasure read aside) and unpredictability. They might be a marketer’s nightmare, but I love books like these, books that are often described as crossing genres. I adore books that make you vigorously shake and wake the person sleeping soundly next to you just to say, “Oh my god, you’ll never guess what just happened in my book”.

I might not believe that genre is something I consider particularly closely, but that elusive “feeling” I look for when making a purchase decision is dictated by design and description. As my husband and I found out on our recent foray into the production of draft covers for my book, these things are very intentionally formulated by marketers based on, yes you guessed it, genre.

Genre as a writer

When I tell people I am writing a book, their most frequent first question by a long way is, “What genre is it?” This is the point at which I start to um and ah, blush a little and then concede that I do not know yet. There is usually a moment of silence, a frown, and then – “But how can you not know? You’re the one writing it”.

It’s a fair point, but the fact remains that what I REALLY want to tell them is that my book defies genre, that I don’t want to stifle my creativity by trying to neatly slot my work into a little hole marked “thriller” or “paranormal” or what have you. Let’s be honest though, that sounds horribly pretentious.

Some writers thrive on knowing – from the moment finger touches keyboard – exactly what they are writing and who they are writing it for. This is great. My preference is to just write and see what ends up on the page. This is great too. It takes all sorts, after all.

However, I am nearly finished with the first draft and have the scary prospect of trying to convince an agent that my book is the one they want, and an agent will definitely expect a more solid answer to the question of genre than “I don’t know”. After much consideration, next time someone asks the question, I will probably say, “Historical fiction with a literary influence and elements of psychological drama and magical realism”. Still pretentious perhaps, but at least slightly more informative.

So, again, does genre matter?

I think genre is a sliding scale, not a binary choice between one category or another. It’s an endless collection of relatives, not one or two absolutes. Most books that I read (and, in my opinion, the one I am writing) fall somewhere between literary and various types of genre fiction, and I don’t care precisely where or how as long as I am enjoying them. Meanwhile, I understand that many readers (including me on occasion, probably more than I realise) find genre useful in selecting their next bedtime/commute/beach read.

So yes, genre does matter, to readers, writers and marketers alike. I, however, am happy to just carry on reading and writing and doing my best to pretend that it doesn’t exist…