The Genre Conundrum in Fiction: Categories and Keywords

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Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Part 1 of 3

As the publication date for my next novel draws ever closer, my thoughts are now turning to how to ensure it catches the eye of prospective readers both online and in book shops.

An attractive cover and an engaging back-cover summary will of course be essential – and by working with my editor and cover designer I’m confident I’ll get both of these things right.

But nailing the precise genre and the single words and phrases that perfectly describe the book’s content are equally – some might say even more – important. And it’s here that I’m not so confident. And here’s why.

In the real world, bookshops and libraries shelve books according to genre. This makes it easier for readers to both seek out and browse the books that interest them. Similarly in an online book store, prospective book buyers will click on genre type or associated keywords in order to find what they might be looking for. It makes complete sense to organise things this way.

And if writers and publishers get it right, you won’t find cookbooks in amongst books on mountaineering and you won’t find detective novels in amongst science fiction. Simple.

Only sometimes it’s not that straightforward. What if the book you’ve written is cookery for mountaineers whilst they’re out on the mountain? Or, what if the seasoned, somewhat cynical detective with the disastrous personal life is part android/ part Martian and investigates crime throughout the solar-system? And no, I haven’t written a book like either of these examples.

But I do find myself in a similar quandary when it comes to classifying my new book, just as I was with the previous two.

All three books have a strong romantic element to them. But they don’t fit neatly into the romance genre. For one thing, the protagonists aren’t young, and besides coping with relationship issues, they are also facing up to other serious challenges.

In my first book, Change of Life, the main characters are a couple who have been married for more than twenty years and who are in their late forties. Their marriage is already under strain as the story begins with the female protagonist, Rosie, suspecting infidelity on the part of her husband, Tom. She is then faced with the even bigger shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple’s children and wider family too, all have significant parts to play in supporting Rosie and Tom as they confront the challenges ahead.

My second book, Displacement, also centres around two main characters, this time just setting out on a new relationship with each other. There is Jack, a retired policeman, and Rachel, a children’s book author and illustrator. They meet at the beginning of the novel on the Scottish island of Skye. They are both divorced and in their fifties. Rachel has recently lost her son, a soldier, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. And Jack is recovering from the heart attack which brought about his early retirement. There is a strong political element to the story too, because as part of Rachel’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of her son, and to move on from it, she travels to the Middle East to visit her brother in Israel-Palestine. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage, but she also finds herself facing up to some very difficult questions about conflict, nationhood and humanity’s difficulties in finding ways to peacefully co-exist.

And the new book, Settlement, is a sequel to Displacement. Jack and Rachel’s romantic relationship has deepened, but is under threat. Rachel is returning to Israel to begin work on a book about how ordinary people can be instrumental in working for peace, and Jack is returning to work as a police consultant in the Historic Crimes unit in Edinburgh. This time as well as the social/cultural/ political strands, there is Jack’s experience of being the victim of violence and of suffering from PTSD.

All three books have the romantic love and relationship between two people at their heart, but this ripples out and links into wider families, communities and issues. All three books are romance+ –  i.e. plus other issues. None are conventional romance/love stories. They are not centred around 20 or 30-somethings. The conclusions aren’t happy-ever-after – but are, rather, there-is-hope-for-the-future- as-long-as-they-work-at-it-and-accept-the-rough-with-the-smooth-and-give-each-other-space.

So wish me luck as I try to narrow down my latest novel’s genre and keywords from – Contemporary Romantic Literary (not sure about the literary) Fiction also featuring politics, crime and mental health in several very different settings – to something altogether more snappy. And don’t get me started on whether it should also be labelled Women’s Fiction. Short answer – I don’t know, probably…

As for where it should be shelved…

 

In Part 2 of this three part series of posts on classifying books, I will be looking at the romantic genre and asking what readers want and expect when reading romances.

In Part 3 I will be looking at the issue of age – the age of the main characters and of the target readership – in romantic fiction and in several other genres as well.

 

Please do add your comments below. For example: What genre(s) do you prefer? And what are your expectations when reading books in that/those genre(s)? Or for you, is it story first, genre second?

8 thoughts on “The Genre Conundrum in Fiction: Categories and Keywords

  1. It is a challenge. my memoir, MYSTERIOUS BUILDER OF SEATTLE LANDMARKS, Searching for My Father, I now call a family mystery about immigrants. I live on the east coast, mostly Maine, my publisher is on the west coast, Seattle, my father died when I was one month old, my mother only told me about him at 91, when I was 70. I’ve spoken about China, New York, immigrants, World War II, class conflict, romance, Seattle, North American homesteaders, Ukraine and Denmark.
    The response I’m getting is: “This is a good read.” “I couldn’t put it down.” So I just adapt.
    You have a fine track record. I certainly enjoyed “Change of Llife.”

    • Thanks, Paula – for visiting and for commenting and for your kind words. Yes, I can see that in non-fiction too there’s a lot to think about when working out the classification.

  2. Interesting, I have the same problems. I would say romance and use the settings as keywords? I am certainly no expert. As a reader, I pick my next read on ‘word of mouth’ rather than genre. Someone once advised me to look at my favourite books and above the bar-code I should find the genre. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for example, just has the word ‘fiction’ written… good luck!

    • Yes, Samantha, me too as regards going by word-of-mouth recommendations when it comes to picking out books to read. And yes, ‘fiction’ covers all possibilities 🙂 Thanks for visiting and for commenting.

  3. I understand your conundrum – the picture book world is just as muddled. I found different libraries within the same system will shelve books differently. A bedtime story where the characters are dogs, for example, might be shelved in “Bedtime” “Stories” AND “Animals”. It’s impossible!
    My suggestion is to do the best you can – comp titles help – and think, “Where would I want to see my book shelved?”

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