NOTE: An update on this piece can be found at its conclusion.
I’m hardly the first to go on this rant, but there appears to be no rhyme nor reason to fiction genre classifications. Things were so much more straightforward when I was writing my travel memoir. It fell under “biographies and memoirs,” and the subgenre “travel memoir.” Done! Now I’m writing a novel that, as best as I can deduce, is a work of “urban fantasy.” But please take a moment to see how confused genre labels are just in the realm of science fiction and fantasy (certainly other “commercial” genres suffer equal confusion).
First of all, the division between science fiction and fantasy isn’t as clear-cut as some claim. Many experts argue science fiction is when the author applies scientific explanations to the unusual, while fantasy authors allow the magic to go unexplained. Um, so how come Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are both classified as “Sci-Fi” in library codes and “Science Fiction & Fantasy/Science Fiction” on Amazon? Both are classics, and both involve the phenomenon of humans living on Mars with no explanation as to how they can breathe. Heinlein even throws angels into the mix. Shouldn’t these science-fiction classics be redefined as fantasy?
That begs the question of what qualifies as fantasy. Well, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is classified as “Science Fiction & Fantasy/Fantasy,” according to Amazon (although one listing for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone insisted it falls under “Children’s Books/Growing Up & Facts of Life,” as if a magical stone that allows you to live forever is a fact of life). Yet the library listing of that same book is “Fic,” as in straight fiction with no genre.
It’s worth noting that Amazon gives another subgenre for Harry Potter after the fantasy subhead, namely “Paranormal and Urban.” I’ve learned in my research that a fantasy novel set in the present day and involving a connection to our world is “urban” fantasy. A great urban fantasy author is Neil Gaiman; it’s safe to say that his books are influencing my current work-in-progress more than any other. His classic Neverwhere also falls under the same “Science Fiction & Fantasy/Fantasy/Paranormal and Urban” Amazon categorization, but it is also under the “Literature and Fiction” category and, like Rowling’s works, is simply “Fic” at the public library.
On some level I shouldn’t care. If I write a novel worth reading, it will find an audience, right? Well, in our commercial publishing world, I’ll need to tell an agent the correct genre, and he or she will need to tell the publisher, and the publisher will need to tell the book distributors, and the book distributors will need to tell the bookstores. Wow, I’m exhausted just writing that sentence.
My WIP is set in the present, but much of the action takes place in another world subject to its own laws. I do my best to explain the science behind the phenomenon, but I can’t claim it to be true science fiction. And like in the Harry Potter books or many of Gaiman’s novels, very few people in the “real world” know anything about this magical other place and its connection to our own world. So by that definition I know I’m writing an “urban fantasy” novel. But I tend to resist categorization, and it seems other authors do as well.
A blogger I admire, Annie Neugebauer, has tackled the thorny topic of genre numerous times, including examining “speculative fiction” (of which my WIP is one) and “commercial fiction” (a category I will also fall under, unlike my previous work, which was literary). There are many other experts out there, including authors of countless Writer’s Digest how-to books. That said, however, given the lack of a governing authority over all published works (as we see in “dystopian fiction,”), no one can convince me that any of these genre distinctions are cut and dried.
What is your take? Do genre definitions matter? Do you see a blurring of lines in your own fiction tastes?
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 7, 2018: I’ve just learned the indefatigable novelist and writing coach Roz Morris wrote a great piece on genre confusion for Anne R. Allen’s Blog… With Ruth Morris (a great blog, by the way) titled “What Genre is Your Novel? And is it YA, MG, New Adult or Adult?” In this insightful post, I learned that a more accurate description of my WIP might be “transrealism,” which is being posited by another accomplished writer and analyst of the science fiction and fantasy genres, Damien Walter. As Damien writes in a recent blog post:
Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.
That’s my novel to a T. It is set in our real world, with real people. Yet there’s a twist. I’d love to see this label take off. It provides clarity for an interesting subsection of fiction. Of course, it also adds to the long list of genres, but life is never perfect.