Why do people write books? My aim was to entertain while leaving a snapshot of unrecorded contemporary history i.e. female medical students’ struggles in the sixties. As a member of several writing groups of talented people, I know writing is hard, editing harder. But the angst comes to naught if books remain unread. To be found they must be categorised. But who decides on genres? Literary critics? Publishers? Amazon? Authors may have no say. It’s a tough SEO, web-straddling world out there for book marketing, never mind deciding where it should sit in the book shop. With some now filing alphabetically by authors surname, it’s tricky for time-stretched customers seeking a new read.
Another problem is that many worthwhile books are hybrids. Authors, agents, and publishers may argue about categorisation. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pictured) is so right when she says, ‘Why did people ask what it is about? as if a novel has to be about only one thing.’ Ultimately, sticking to favourite authors or genres can pall. So how to find new reads?
‘Genre’ comes from Latin ‘genus’ tr. ‘birth, family or nation.’ Every book is uniquely generated; no two authors share the same experience or world view. On publication, it is tossed into the maelstrom of other new titles. UK publishers produced more than 20 new titles per hour in 2014 alone (The Guardian) never mind those self-published. Daunting. A novel requires categorising if it’s not to sink without trace. Oxford English Dictionary defines genre as ‘style or category.’ I prefer Wikipedia’s- ‘a form of communication... with socially-agreed-upon conventions agreed over time.’ With globalisation spawning new genres like Anime and media-inspired ‘Fan Fiction,’ it is ever evolving. Collins Dictionary suggests ‘what people consider a class.’ Which people?
A novel’s genre depends on content, form or style. I like the description of ‘Literary fiction’ as that which uses ‘words as art,’ telling stories in carefully chosen words depicting emotion and atmosphere. Yet sadly, I’ve had literary novels I couldn’t finish for excess introspection, clever-wordiness or mind-numbing inaction. However, hugely populist books have also been discarded. My particular bête noir is misplaced modifiers. (Though I loved recent Telegraph headline ’Richard Branson watched the moon landing in his pyjamas.’ Painful). Ah, grammar.
Without grammar, Graphic novels are easily classified, as are Horror or Westerns, but who decides what is Literary? University tutors deemed my first novel Not The Life Imagined as Literary. My publisher agreed. But with 6,000,000 Literary books on Amazon, in searches newbies come well down the table. NTLI has wry humour, thus Dark Humor (US spelling) was apt. Ditto Medical Fiction. But my book themes also include coming-of-age, mental health survival, medical ethics, rape and #MeToo. ‘Coming-of-age’ exists, but not mental health, despite increased societal narrative. As many of my protagonists are female- should it be in Women’s Fiction? Here Amazon offers discrete subgenres e.g. African-American (no Asian or Scottish!), Divorce, Friendship Mothers and Children, Single Mothers and Sisters. Will defining it as Women’s Fiction suggest It’s only for women? I’ve had lovely reviews from men: glad I didn’t confine it there. Unsurprisingly (feminist hat on), there isn’t a Men’s Fiction genre with ‘browse nodes’ of Fathers and Sons.
My second book is on a serial GP killer. It’s obviously Crime. But there’s also some psychological thrilling, young love and mystery- as in all books: you need mystery to turn the page! Life is a rich tapestry of humour/sorrow, love/divorce and family/friend relationships. No one lives a single-genre life. Books reflect life. If authors write solely to genre for sales and survival, we may lose the richness literature has afforded us over the last 500 years since Cervantes Don Quixote rolled in ink.
Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Bookshop etc list different categories. Confusingly, Amazon Literary Fiction has Genre Fiction under Literary: oh, for simpler days. Sir Walter Scott divided books into fiction and romance- the latter being anything with ‘marvellous and uncommon incidents.’ The Greeks used epic, comedy or tragedy. (I have all three!) Chris Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004) confirms my book’s mongrel status: overcoming the monster (sexism!), quest, voyage/return (medicine), comedy, tragedy and rebirth- have them all! My only hope is to research #SEO Optimization. Now to grasp the concept of keywords…
Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.