In a previous post, we took a look at the basics of genre, from fiction to non-fiction. Where things get exciting (and complicated) is with the intersections of genre: Can your work be both historical and mystery? What about science fiction and romance? The short answer: yes—but where there are seemingly infinite permutations of genre, combined to create sub-genres, and modified for time, space, market, and format, how do you accurately define your work? Let’s break it down:
- AUDIENCE: When positioning your work (in a query letter, for example), first identify your audience: Who is the intended reader? On the children’s side of publishing, there are well-defined categories based on age range (and format): e.g. picture book, middle grade, and young adult (read more: Kidlit: Identifying and Understanding Your Audience). “Adult” is a much broader category of audience, indicating readers aged 18+.
- GENRE and SUBGENRE: Next, you’ll want to label your “umbrella” genre: fantasy, horror, crime fiction, etc., as well as your subgenre, where applicable: Is your memoir also humorous? Is your women’s fiction also a thriller? Is your mystery novel also historical?
- TIME: Where appropriate, you may also point to the “timeframe” of your work: If it’s historical, what period? Dynastic China? French Revolution? Cold War? Fiction that transpires within the last fifty years is often referred to as “recent historical” (consider the explosion of new literature set in the 1980s and 90s). Or is your setting contemporary? Near future? Distant future?
- SPACE: You might also include the “space” of your work: is it “realistic” or “magical realism” (a realistic narrative with surrealistic elements)? Is your fantasy “grounded” in the real world, or is it “high” fantasy with an entirely original world of your making? Is your work an alternate reality or alternative history? Dystopian? Steampunk? Action/adventure? Do you have a modern take on classic novel forms such as picaresque, epistolary, or bildungsroman? Is your fantasy novel “portal” (involving travel to another world) or “urban” (based entirely in this world)? Is your science fiction “space opera” (set in outer space) or “hard science” (scientifically logical), or both?
- MARKET: Additionally, you may distinguish your work as either commercial or literary, where commercial emphasizes plot and reader accessibility, and literary suggests high craft and thematic focus. For example, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad would qualify as literary fiction, whereas Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall falls under commercial fiction. As a sub-category of commercial fiction, we refer to “upmarket” and “mass” market, where upmarket refers to “book club”-worthy fiction (think celebrity endorsements, i.e. Oprah and Reese) and mass market suggests a “massive” audience. “Upmarket” then has a slightly more elevated writing style and high concept, whereas “mass market” appeals to a broad demographic of readers, think James Patterson or John Grisham.
- FORMAT: As for format, is your work a novel? Novella? A cookbook proposal? Short story collection? Graphic novel?
What about genre-blending and -bending? Can your work be both science fiction and fantasy? All things are possible, but it’s essential to have clarity in your representation of your work—be very wary of inventing your own genres! You are welcome to point to the established genre and speak to how your work branches off from there, but it is important to stay within the framework of publishing language so that readers and professionals understand what space you occupy on the shelf and in the market.
And if this is your first project, be sure to label your work “debut”, a term that holds meaning for industry professionals with respect to your submissions and sales!
There will always be exceptions to the rule, but this simple formula should help you correctly categorize your work: audience + genre + format + (space) + (time) + (market).
Let’s take a look at how we would apply this model to some blockbuster books across genres:
- Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth: adult literary fiction, 12th-century England historical family saga
- Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter: debut Indigenous-centered contemporary young adult thriller
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: adult literary post-apocalyptic speculative fiction
- Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians: commercial women’s fiction romantic comedy
- Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil: middle grade commercial action/adventure fantasy
- Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer: crossover literary recent historical graphic novel
In our next segment of this series, we’ll look deeper into “micro-genres”—from cozy mysteries to coming-of-age—how to reflect representation, diversity, and inclusivity in labelling your work, and the way in which trends affect categorization!
Still unsure how to position your work with genre? Sign up for a one-on-one consultation, and ask one of our editors! Feel free to drop your proposed description in the comments, and we’ll let you know what we think!
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