Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Biology of Genres

by Allison Pang

When I was (much) younger, it seemed to me that genres were a lot broader than they are now. You had your basic fantasy (the sword  & sorcery stuff), the sci-fi, the mysteries, the horror, the romance, the western...and that was more or less it. (Not counting contemporary, I suppose.) And I tended to linger in the sci-fi/fantasy reading material myself, for the most part - except for occasionally pilfering my mother's romances (the old-school bodice ripper, "his knee forced her thighs apart" sort of dubcon that was fairly prevalent at the time).

If you take a look at evolutionary niches in general, it can be pretty easy to see how species change over time to fit into a certain environment. Whether a species lives or dies can often be determined by their adaptability, especially during an abrupt change in habitat. (Your favorite plant died out? Too bad - better eat this other one and like it or you're gone too...)

Books are very much like that - except the reader audience and publisher expectation make up the
environment. As a literary species, books and the authors who write them have to change or risk being forgotten. (Just look at the poor western genre - so robust in the 70's and 80's...but now it's mostly tumbleweeds. Heck, even the straight pulp horror books I remember seeing on the shelves in the 80's are nearly extinct. I seem to recall there was a huge run on "killer animals" at one point - probably inspired by Jaws, but you name it, there was a book about crazy animals and how they killed people. Cujo and Swarm are the ones I remember most, but there are some great cover gems here. )

Anyway, I'm going off topic, but again, we don't really see a lot of those sorts of books anymore. (And probably for good reason?)

But you know what we do see a lot of? Vampires.

Vampires started out as creatures of horror - but over time, they've become seductive, sparkling beacons of misunderstood angst. In a sense, they evolved and a new genre niche was created - Urban Fantasy. (You could actually split UF into several sub-species as it were - particularly if you think old school UF like Emma Bull, vs the UF spawned by Buffy, who essentially became the progenitor of the mainstream smexy vampire that birthed a thousand undead babies.)

Vampires have slowed down now, but the niche certainly expanded to allow other supernatural beings in - werewolves, demons, angels, fae - pretty much anything can show up in a UF. Although there's always that fine line to straddle between writing something the reader wants/expects and being original. Publishers say they want original, but it often feels as though they just want more of whatever is selling, which is why writing trends tend to come and go in waves. Much like the hawks and doves concept - when a market is saturated by one thing, consumer interest often wanes, creating a gap for the next "big thing" and then there's a new wave of a certain idea - and success is very often being in the right place at the right time, or having a trunk book that fits the bill just as the wave is cresting.

At any rate, I'd say we're seeing far more diversity in book genres overall - a cross-pollination, if you will. (e.g. UF x Romance = Paranormal Romance or Romance x Mystery = Romantic Suspense)

This is a good thing - diversification allows authors to reach more readers. Readers who are only familiar with romance might become more interested in UF after reading a PNR, for example. (And anything that increases audience potential is great.)

Where it potentially becomes problematic is when a book straddles too many genres. (Like those pesky monotremes. Mammals who lay eggs. What the hell is that? By the same token, your steampunk-zombie-dystopian-ya fantasy might be a tad confusing to describe.)

But from a publisher perspective, if a book doesn't fit into a box they can easily sell, then there's a chance the book will be rejected. Doesn't mean it's not a good book - many such books have gone ahead to self-publish and done great, which...again - change in environment. Self-publishing allows for additional change and growth that wouldn't be able to happen otherwise.

The  best advice I can give, though, is not to genre-hop simply to chase a trend. (Unless you can pump books out obscenely quickly.) By the time the book hits the shelves, there's a good chance that genre may no longer be "hot".  In the end, write the book you WANT to read, whatever the genre - it's passion for the story that sells books, not necessarily the label on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment