Hi. My name is Bob. I’m a storyteller. As such, I’m a student of the human condition, since humans are essential to stories. Some of you will say ‘That’s not true!’ But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Instead, I’m going to talk about Literature and Economics and Psychology. If we’re both lucky, I’ll make you laugh. If we’re even luckier, you’ll like the way I write and maybe go look up other things I’ve written.
One of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in the last decade has got to be Terry Pratchett’s The Science of Discworld. In typical Pratchett fashion, the book is both entertaining and chock full of interesting tidbits of philosophy. Actually, this one is even more full than most. The thing that keeps coming back to me lately is his discussion in chapter six, where he talks about how human beings like clear lines of demarcation, about how we like things to be this or that, with no gray area in between.
I’ll get to why in a little bit. The thing that keeps coming back to me lately is his discussion in chapter six, where he talks about how human beings like clear lines of demarcation.
OK, he talks about it in more places than that, but that’s the first place where he mentions it specifically. Moving on.
When I sold my first story to Decadent Publishing this past summer, I really thought the hard part was over. “After all”, I thought, “everyone who reads my novella thinks it’s just dandy.” I’ve since encountered some who don’t, but the overwhelming weight has been with folks who tell me some variation of ‘I enjoyed reading this’. The best so far has been ‘I enjoyed reading this so much that I have begun reading a genre I previously eschewed’. Yeah. Cue the giddy “SQUEE!” Everything’s golden, right?
Those of you who are published (and some of you who aren’t but study the industry) know this is manifestly Not The Case. There is Promotion to be done. I need to tell people about my book. “But Bob!” some of you are saying “Everyone who read it liked it! It must sell well!” Trouble is, even if every person reading one of my stories experienced continuous rapturous joy while doing so, until they are reading they aren’t getting that joy, and they have to spend money before they get to see if joy exists on those pages or not. Worse, from my perspective, are the hordes of inconsiderate folks saying that their story produces just such joy, when it manifestly does not.
I seem to be in a Python mood, so ‘on to something completely different’. As Eric Flint pointed out in his Salvoes Against Big Brother, the biggest problem a writer has is connecting to an audience that likes his work. Every reader likes something different. Every author has readers out there who will think what they’ve written is literary manna from heaven. The trouble (from both sides of this quandary, really) is finding them; for the author, finding his readers; for the reader, finding the authors that produce the type of writing they like.
Defining a type of writing is hard. Defining a type of story is easy. Not really, but this is another Pratchett concept from Science of Discworld, the Lie-To-Consumers. Thus, to answer the completely natural question of “What type of story do you like?” we create the entirely artificial concept of “Genre.” Once you have “Genre,” you can then subdivide again and again and again. Because while the concept is artificial, and as Joel Spolsky would say, the abstraction is leaky, it holds enough conceptual water to be useful, which is the only real criterion we as a species have for whether we keep something or not.
Which makes one wonder about why we like fiction so much, but that’s another essay.
At any rate, because readers want to find books they like, and humans like clear demarcations (TOLD you I would come back to it), we wind up with the leaky but useful abstraction of genre, which is the driving force behind a lot of the promotional tools currently out there. Do you write Romance? Put your title on the Romance lists! Paranormal Romance? There’s a site for that. OK, LOTS of sites for that. In fact, for just about any genre out there, there are sites dedicated to it.
Now, here’s where I run into a personal dilemma. As I’ve said, most who read my stories like them, the trouble is getting people to pick them up and read them. The trouble, in case you haven’t guessed from the title and my words so far, is that my stories cross genre lines.
With wild abandon.
Didn’t I tell you authors are narcissistic? Oh. Yeah. Forgot that. Many of us are. It’s one possible defense mechanism against putting something intensely personal in the public eye. Moving on.
Fae Eye for the Golem Guy is officially on the site as Comedy, Fantasy, Urban fantasy, and Steampunk. Unlisted but implied are Paranormal Romance and Erotic content since it has a Heat Rating. It’s got Tattooed Elves, Gay Pixies, Heroic Golems, and Evil Socialites. I don’t think anyone who has read Fae Eye would argue against any of those things being IN the story.
It’s not a laugh a minute farce, so purists will tell you it’s not Comedy. It doesn’t have a heroine with gratuitous tattoos and heaps of weaponry or magic or both, so some people will nix the Urban Fantasy moniker. By word count, only maybe fifty percent of the story involves characters mooning about, and there is almost no angst, which some would say means it’s not Romance. There is Erotic content in the story, but it’s only one scene in the denouement, so as PJ tells me so often, I don’t write Erotica.
Even though I’ve had at least one person tell me each of the descriptors is wrong, none of them have told me it’s a bad story. So like all the other published but not yet popular authors out there, I’m still searching for my audience.
Anyhow, moving AWAY from my personal dilemma back to the wider world, crossing genres can be tough for any author. Some authors won’t do it, chopping their stories mercilessly to keep them within a single genre. Some publishers won’t carry those cross-genre books because they’re ‘too risky’.
OK, personal again for a moment. THANKS LISA! THANKS HEATHER!
But let’s, just for a moment, take a second to think about the books which, at the time they were written, crossed genre lines. From newest to oldest, just the ones I can think of off the top of my head:
Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Prior to this one, I don’t recall seeing Paranormal Romance on the shelves in bookstores. Urban Fantasy, yes. Romance, yes. But it was too risky to combine the two; mainstream Fantasy readers didn’t want icky girl stuff, and mainstream Romance readers didn’t want hocus pocus. Yeah. Right.
Mercedes Lackey’s Elves on the Road series. Again, prior to this one I don’t recall seeing too many things I would define as Urban Fantasy. Yeah, there may have been a few, but this is the one I remember blowing the doors open for Urban Fantasy to become its own genre, instead of a few lovely lonely orphans shoehorned in amongst the swords and sorcery.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. Science Fiction, but cleverly wrapped up as Fantasy. There are others out there, I know, but this is the one that showed me, as a reader, that genre didn’t matter. Good writing mattered. This one didn’t exactly spawn its own genre, but for a while the entire boundary between Science Fiction and Fantasy wobbled like a Jello mold.
Piers Anthony did the same with… Ok, about half of everything he wrote. Xanth is fantasy. Bio of a Space Tyrant is Science Fiction. The rest? Science Fantasy. Speculative Fiction. That last utterance, for those of you who don’t remember, was a Phrase of Power, although whether it was deifically good or infernally evil is still a matter of debate in some circles.
Bringing this back around, and pulling off the BIGGEST genre cross of all, Pratchett did this with nothing less than Non-Fiction (that which IS) and Fiction (that which IS NOT) in the aforementioned Science of Discworld. Now those are some stones. Talking about how humans think, delving into every major branch of science I can think of, and then merging all that seamlessly with a story about wizards living on a flat world riding on the back of a turtle. Best of all, he winds up making it seem as if these two things are not unrelated.
Man, I wish I could do that.
OK, Bromance Love Fest over. On to the obligatory plugs. If you’ve been at all amused by this meandering about genre and publishing and whatnot, please take a moment to check out my stories at Decadent Publishing. You’ll be glad you did! If you’re not sure if you liked this essay, here’s a hint for you: if you’ve read this far, you either amused or morbidly fascinated. This has gone on longer than some short stories I’ve seen.