Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's Your Genre?

Today I welcome friend and co-author of our shared anthology of short stories, Sunny Frazier. She is multi-talented when it comes to all things writing. She knows whereof she speaks. Welcome Sunny:


Although I do astrology, I no longer ask people “What's your sign?” As an acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press, I now ask authors, “What's your genre?”
           
The worst thing a writer can do is give me a blank stare. “Genre” is an essential part of the lingo in publishing lexicon. It's how we classify a book and decide if it fits our line.

Labeling books has practical reasons. Bookstores (when they existed) found it useful to put books of the same sort together on one shelf. That's why there's the romance section, sci fi, fantasy, horror, Westerns and mystery. Sometimes the classifications were wrong because of all the crossovers. But, anything's better than dumping the titles under General Fiction, which is the kiss of death.  

The genre I write in is mystery. My Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries are defined by several sub-genres: police procedural/amateur sleuth/paranormal. Crossovers in all genres are widely accepted. It's a great way for authors to expand their fan base.              

For years, literary writers looked down on genre writers. The word conjured up cheap reads for the mildly illiterate. Also known as “popular fiction,” these are books average people want to read. Call it commercial fiction—books that sell and make money.

On the reverse, genre writers have tagged literary works “A whole lot of words about nothing.” Pretty words, insightful, meaningful, intellectual. But, we ask, where's the plot?

Don't get me wrong: genre writers can get a little literary. I love to let readers coast along with the plot I've woven before slipping in a sentence or paragraph to make the astute reader sit up and pay attention. I know my craft. Elizabeth George and P.D. James can certainly be called literary. Even Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, noir hacks in their time, are now respectable. With time comes veneration.        

When I received mystery manuscripts from two professors on both sides of the USA, I noted the terrific prose but wondered: Where are the bodies? Personally, I like a corpse to show up on the second page to get the ball rolling. Long intros and endless description went out with the Bronte sisters. Tough to reject these teachers, but that's what I did.

Both instructors not only listened but brought my novels to the classroom to teach genre fiction. In New Jersey and California, students are learning from my books. I was invited to speak at Mt. San Antonio, the largest junior college in the states. Reality meets the Ivory Tower. I left with several student submissions and rewrites from the teacher.

I recommend authors define their intent before writing. Whether you write Steam Punk or Zombies, hold your head high and claim your genre.

Sunny Frazier

What do you write? Are you writing cross genre? Or literary?

27 comments:

Marja said...

I don't care if a mystery writer displays a corpse by the second chapter, but I want to see SOME kind of action in the first chapter. You can always build up the suspense, leading to the cadaver, if it's done right. IMHO.

Good post, Sunny. And what would we do without being able to cross over genres?

C.K.Crigger said...

I'm another who doesn't demand a corpse by the second page. What I demand is an introduction to the main character(s) and by golly, they'd better engage my attention and make me sit up and take notice. But then, since I dabble is several different genres, not all my books have a corpse.

C.K.Crigger said...

Oh, yeah, I got so busy with my own opinion I forgot to say, "great post, Sunny." As always, I learn a lot from your words.

Bill Schweigart said...

Great post, but I think Hammett and Chandler were pretty well-regarded even in their day. I love genre, but I also love it when it stretches. Chandler is a great example. He'd write a novel with the bodies piling up, but he'd write a line so finely-tuned and so beautiful as to instantly elevate it to the pinnacle of his genre and into the "literary." Read The Big Sleep - the last page is so devastatingly poignant that I'd hold it up against any work of literary fiction today.

William Doonan said...

Steam punk or zombies? Why does it have to be either/or?
Love your post, Sunny. I write mysteries and I'm proud of it. They might be cruise mysteries, or archaeological mysteries, or young adult pirate mysteries, but being a genre fiction writer is something I'm very proud of. And I'll say as much to any of my colleagues in the English department. Just don't let me down when I send you the completed manuscript for Steam Zombie.

William Doonan
www.williamdoonan.com

Carrie Daws said...

I'm definitely romance ... I like to be the book that people reach for when they just want to relax and let their brain unwind from a long day. But, I love to put in tidbits here and there for people to munch on later, too.

Blue Remy said...

Sometimes it's HARD to define what genre a book is though. My books are a toss up between paranormal romance, thriller, suspense or horror. But I do agree. If a book doesn't catch me by Chapter 2, I put it down.

alabamagoddess said...

I'm aiming for literary with my 1st novel (in it's infant stages). But I expect there to be quite a bit of cross-over. For one thing, I'm still so new to this novel writing thing. And I'm torn between literary and psychological thrillers. To those who look down on one genre or another, I recall my tween love of the Sweet Valley High series. Would I even want to be a writer without SVH? Hard to say. Sure, I wanted to be a writer as a 7 year old, but it takes a passion for books to propel one there, IMHO.

Sunny Frazier said...

Not when they were writing for Black Mask. It was pretty much pulp and definitely popular fiction. But not respectable literature. That came later.

marta chausée said...

You tell 'em, Sunny. No one can put it as clearly as you. Thank you!

jrlindermuth said...

Right on, Sunny. The genre writers of the past are the classics of today. Dickens and Wilkie Collins, for instance. And who writes more literate prose than mystery writer James Lee Burke?

Patricia Gligor said...

Sunny,
I love your no nonsense approach to writing - and life. You say what you mean and you mean what you say, which is something I've always tried to do and something I respect in others.
I classify "Mixed Messages," the first novel in my Malone Mystery Series, as Mystery/Suspense. (Did I mention that it's coming out in April?)
I'm in agreement with Marja and C.K. I don't "demand" a corpse at the very beginning of a novel either but I sure as heck hope there's one somewhere in the book. Can you tell I'm partial to "murder" mysteries?

Sally Carpenter said...

I write funny amateur sleuth mysteries and I'm darn proud of it! And a "cozy" mystery can have as much character development and stylistic prose as a literary piece. There's no reason why an "entertaining" piece of writing can't be well crafted. Thanks for your great post, Sunny!
Sally Carpenter

D.M. McGowan said...

Great post perhaps because you agree with me. Well, okay, I agree with you.
I write westerns located in Canada and I try to include some history. So, perhaps western/historical fiction/Canadiana/morality
I'll have to quit; this could go on forever.
www.dmmcgowan.blogspot.com

Sunny Frazier said...

This from Radine Trees Nehring (who had trouble getting her post to take)

PROUD TO BE A GENRE WRITER. I do have a non-fiction book that's shelved as "literary" at Barnes & Noble and called that elsewhere, but gee, isn't genre fun!

Gloria Getman said...

Most of us read for entertainment. I like a good story, whatever the genre. When I read your first book, Sunny, with your astrology angle, I thought, "Wow, she has a really clever idea." Great post. Keep it coming and we'll keep reading.

John Brantingham said...

Everyone at Mt. San Antonio College loves it when you come, Sunny. Come on back and bring your books!

cynthia hartwig said...

I just finished a novel that's literary fiction. Would you mind touching on the difference between lit fiction as a broad category and what I think of as genre writing which in my mind covers mystery, or historical fiction, or romance. Is literary fiction a genre of its own? In my case, it would be obvious that my novel belongs in the fiction category which is typically alphabetized in big book stores. I appreciate your post; I'm in Cora's WANA112 group.

Augie said...

Sunny, fantastic post as usual. Okay so I love the Bronte sisters. But my writing is more of a Victorian Thriller if i thought it would fly I whist use thee and thou in most of the prose--but I know better. Oh perhaps some day (lol), you think Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt are dead in today market? I really hope not. Sunny, Keep on telling us the truth. Augie Hicks

timdesmondblog said...

Enjoyed this as always. Read it earlier, but didn't have time to post. The genre questions are not always answered by agents, publishers and editors, nor by professors, as you noted. I suppose they assume that a writer knows, or should know, what and for whom their work is intended. In other words knowing their audience. And speaking of the noir era writers, and now our time, I'd like opinions on Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly, as well as comparing these to J.A. Jance and Sue Grafton. All the best.

Linda Adams said...

I'm writing in a crossover genre, contemporary fantasy/thriller.

Genre started out as a tough area for me because of lack of information. When I started writing novels (before the internet), all I had available was what I saw in the bookstores and what was in the craft books. I knew what I was writing I had seen in the bookstore mystery section -- at the time, I was writing thriller. But when I read craft books on mystery ... well, that didn't match my book. It was further confused by one agent who said thriller was part of mystery and another agent who said he took mystery but didn't take thriller!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

I'm always amazed at some places who don't take 'genre' fiction. Uh, then what are they looking for? Isn't literary fiction a sort of genre? Aren't Oprah books their own genre? I could never quite understand the term literary fiction. Literary. Meaning you read it. Fiction, meaning it's not true. Well then, a comic book could be considered literary fiction. Many books today are cross genre.

Sunny Frazier said...

You've just mentioned four of my favorite authors.

Yes, Elmore is noir-ish, but his dark humor saves him.

Michael Connelly was much more noir in his earlier works. Bosch had more angst. Now I think Connelly is phoning it in.

Jance gets more noir in her stand-alones. I'm a Beaumont fan.

Sue is my lady. I wouldn't call her noir at all. What are we going to do when the alphabet ends?

Sunny Frazier said...

I think today's reader wants just a little more in Victorian thrillers than the woman-fleeing-from-the-castle-in-a-storm novels (we used to call them that because that's what the covers depicted). Right now I'm reading a very intellectual type, not quite Victorian because it's a century earlier: The Alchemist's Daughter. It's full of Sir Isaac Newton and stuff way over my head, but it still qualifies.

I loved Wuthering Heights and have read nearly all of Thomas Hardy's books (for pleasure--I'm such a nerd). Anne Perry's book have caught my interest briefly. So no, with the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes films and the movie Hugo, perhaps it's time to bring the Victorian thriller back.

Sunny Frazier said...

I like to think of all books as mysteries because the question is: What happens next?

However, I think literary fiction is prose over plot, reaching for higher ideas rather than who killed the victim. They try to be more intellectual and, frankly, turn off mid-level readers.

Literary fiction is the stuff they can't seem to fit into a category.

Cora said...

Ah, Michael Connelly. I always loved Bosch, but then I couldn't get into Connelly's work after that. I thought it was just me. Glad you mentioned this.

Cora said...

I heard Jonathan Mayberry answer this question at Cuesta College Writer's conference in Sept. He said it is "in the moment, being pursued, about stopping something-a race against time, the clock is ticking. It has to move or it's not a thriller. A page turner."