An acquaintance of mine is struggling with genre. She’s writing what I would call a military SF romance. But she refuses to call her novel SF--or even romance. Her fiction is something unique. She’s upset that publishers will expect her to categorize her story. She’s also afraid if she assigns too many genres, her manuscript will get tossed out or deleted unread. She believes publishers are too strict and formulaic. In an effort to be sympathetic, one of her friends pointed to Harlequin as a prime example of a publisher determined to pigeonhole genius.
The whole conversation annoyed me, and not just because I’m a Harlequin author. Harlequin has a ton of different imprints and series. True, each imprint or series has some basic heat-level/plotline requirements. That's so the devoted reader can be reliably satisfied. But Harlequin as a whole? The publisher has only one requirement: the story has to be a romance with a happily ever after. That’s it. And with Spice, Spice Briefs and the Carina Press imprints, that's probably not even true anymore.
Aside from the unfairness of pointing at poor Harlequin as the pinnacle of closed-mindedness, I think it’s a bad idea to indulge an author’s genre whining. The Amazon boards are full of self-published authors complaining about the rigidity of the standard publishing world. Here’s an example:
The publishers may not be able to devote the time to think creatively about marketing an unusual, genre-tangential book. But it's [sic] creator can… And now we have a world of options. [Self-publishing, I suppose]. It beats papering the walls with rejection slips from those who lack our vision.Here’s another one:
I thought it might be of interest both to readers and to writers here at Amazon to consider the genre of "sensuous literary fiction" as a possible alternative to "Erotica." ... If you've got a book that you feels more accurately fits into this newer category, we'd love to hear about it.Authors who use the genre excuse for rejections aren’t doing themselves any favors. Why bother getting better at writing or learning about your market if you can always claim your masterpiece wasn’t published because the publishers are idiots? I’m also bugged by authors who describe themselves as “literary”, as if “literary” is just another word for superior fiction, not a genre with strict requirements of its own.
On one of these Amazon forums, a self-described visionary suggested using “tags”, rather than genre, as a way to circumvent the indignity of assigning genre. I guess I don’t see the big difference. Tags, if they say anything about the book, are defining the genre. At most, a tag will also describe sub-genre or niche.
Self-publishing fiction doesn’t give an author a pass on having to figure out genre. "Special" or "unique" isn't nearly descriptive enough to be genre. And genre is what readers use to decide what to read.
Here are a few interesting blogs on genre:
The academician's view of the romance genre
How to determine the genres of your mutt masterpiece