Is Genre Important?

Finding where you belong on the shelf.

One of my favourite things in the world are those handwritten genre tags taped to shelves in used bookstores.

Often they are meticulously elegant, with a neat script and dainty flourishes. Sometimes they are entirely illegible as if scrawled by someone under great duress.

I’m sure great effort goes into making them. Writing them. Cutting out the tiny horizontal pieces of paper, sometimes in different colours. And of course, choosing those genres in the first place.

What genres are worthy of one of these scraps of paper?

Used bookstores don’t seem to be unanimous on this, though there are quite a few repeat offenders.

Sometimes it’s very dependent on geography. Here in Nova Scotia nearly every bookstore, new and old, have a local interest section where every cover is sure to feature a lighthouse, a fishing boat, or a row of vibrantly painted homes — the iconography of the East Coast.

But is genre important beyond where something ends up on a shelf?

Yes. It’s very important. Especially for writers.

I’ve heard people say that genres are too restrictive. That they limit creativity. That they’re arbitrary.

People who think this are making the mistake of thinking that writing within a genre means they have to follow rules. And that’s just not true. There is no definitive genre guidebook. No series of check-boxes that must be ticked off before you classify your book as a certain genre.

Genres represent reader expectations. Or, in other words, tropes.

Many writers see ‘trope’ as a bad word, but it need not be. Some tropes are overdone, but some are expected. If I buy a romance novel and there’s no romance in it I’m going to be seriously disappointed.

It’s like buying wine. My favourite wine is Malbec. Dark, red wine with strong flavours like tobacco and coffee. One Malbec may be very different in taste from another but they are going to have enough in common that I’ll likely enjoy it. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, and sometimes I’m disappointed. Genres are exactly the same.

If you want to write outside of genre then you’re going to have a very hard time marketing your work. Even readers who say they don’t pay attention to genre when they choose a book actually do. That’s because books are marketed to appeal to a certain audience.

We always judge books by their covers even when we don’t know it. If we really liked that sci-fi book with the spaceship on the cover, chances are we’ll buy another book with a spaceship on the cover, regardless of where it’s located on the shelf.

And it’s even more subtle than that. Often genres use similar fonts or colour schemes so when you walk past those covers will feel familiar and you’ll be tempted to buy one.

Back cover descriptions are written very differently depending on genre. Go look at the literary fiction section of the library or a bookstore. The description will likely be vague, focused on motion and character. Then check out the fantasy section and you’ll see it focuses on plot and action. Sci-fi typically highlights the technology or scientific aspects of the story.

You might think you don’t have to think about any of this until you’re ready to publish, but if you pay attention to how books in your genre are marketed you can gain really important insights on why people read those genres. Then you can incorporate those insights into your writing.

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