Literary author Michelle Davidson Argyle recently asked this question about her recent novella, Cinders:
If you have read Cinders, what genre would you put it in? Why?
This reminded me of something important about genre: no book occupies the same genre. When they do, it's coincidence. There are at least three genres for any given book. They may or may not overlap. I think taxonomically, and I'm a splitter not a lumper. I need to categorize, label, and sort in order to understand the world. Let me try to explain what I mean about book genres for those of you who are not geared in the same way, because odds are you don't instinctively think that way.
Genre #1: Absolute Genre. I'm using the term "absolute" a little too freely here, but what I am referring to is the genre which a book occupies from an analytical standpoint. Here, the only things that matter are style, structure, and content, perhaps with a nod to authorial intent. For many writers, this is the only genre they think of.
Genre #2: Marketing Genre. It sounds distasteful to our artistic integrity, but every book also has a genre in which it is most marketable. How will you classify it in order to get the best promotional package, the most passerby patronage, the most press? This is the business side of writing, and if you're an author who is hoping to make a living at writing or at least a major part of one, you ignore this genre at your own peril.
Genre #3: Locator Genre. People need to find your book. This has become less critical in the internet age, but it's still important. When someone is browsing a bookstore and they suddenly remember that they wanted to look for your book -- where will they default to as the first location to look for it? If someone is recommending your book to a friend, where will they assume that friend can find it? If a used bookstore manager is sorting out books in the store, where is she most likely to shelve yours?
Case Study: Cinders. Since it's the book that started the question, here's how I think of Cinders fitting into these genres. Is absolute genre is literary fiction, assuming you consider that a genre. It is in the same tradition as books like Animal Farm, The Man Who Was Thursday, and perhaps most appropriately The Princess and the Goblin. It uses the forms, structures, and tropes of other genres, but really focuses on writing craft and has its long-term goals set on internals rather than externals.
On the other hand, its marketing genre is most likely YA fantasy with the tag, "that adults can also enjoy." There's no question that Cinders is difficult to pigeonhole from a marketting perspective. I don't believe it can be sold as traditional fantasy, because while it employs some elements of fantasy (magic, sprites, curses, etc...) it does not really emphasize these or world creation for their own sake, nor does it -- with the exception of the middle -- unfold as a fantasy plot. I don't think it can be sold as historical fiction, because while it include such details for authenticity they are minor, and the characters themselves are not drawn from history, and the plot is not the narrative of events one typically sees in historical fiction. The same holds true for romance. The YA fantasy genre, however, is more forgiving. It tends to treat both fantasy and romance with a softer touch, and often shifts the emphasis from action to internals. Here's what it boils down to: your marketing genre is the one with the most receptive audience, the most appropriate promotional venues, and is least likely to leave readers saying, "Um, this isn't really a blank book."
Sometimes the trickiest genre to anticipate is the locator genre, which is most likely to be fantasy or historical romance for Cinders. This genre is really ex post facto. How do casual readers who have read the book think of it? This is often a gloss of their entire experience, and will most likely hit on the things that stand out first in their memories. For most casual readers of Cinders, that will probably be the fantasy elements or the touches of historical romance (descriptions of the kitchen and meals plus bedroom scenes = historical romance). Why is this important to the author? A couple of reasons. First, if there's a mismatch between the locator genre and the marketing genre, people can have trouble finding the book. Second, identifying the locator genre can sometimes tell you if you were successful in achieving your aims for the book. Often times, the best way to determine the locator genre is to ask your beta readers what genre they think it was, especially if you have a few casual readers.
I feel like I may have rambled here, but I hope that helps. Does any one have any additional genres that should be considered?