One of the biggest issues we watch authors obsess and fuss over these days is genre. What genre is this? Should I call it that? How many genres can a thing be?
So why do we have genres in the first place? Who did this horrible thing to us?
The short answer is the Ancient Greeks. Isn’t it always? Seriously, this is where it all started when the Greeks started to divide things into poetry and drama, into tragedy and comedy, epic poetry, lyric poetry and love poetry. (Seriously, there are three separate muses to handle poetry.)
Modern genres start showing up with modern novels, so while the Greek classifications are still with us up to a point, we’ve sliced and diced things into finer and finer pieces of pie ever since the 18th century. Slowly, at first, and now with almost manic glee.
Genre fiction really came into its own in bookstores where they were a convenient way to help customers find what they were looking for. This actually was a good thing for most genre readers since the ability to find the books helped more of them sell and therefore helped those sections expand.
In my memory, most of the bookstores when I was a kid (except for the specialty ones) had science fiction and fantasy toward the back and often toward the left. The more popular a genre, the more likely it would be toward the front and the right – since this is the path most customers take going into a store. SFF was something of a stepchild genre, but that was fine with me. Tucked in the back, away from prying eyes, I could peruse with shining eyes all of the wonderful worlds waiting for me.
That was the whole point, of course. Genre readers knew where their books were. That’s the beeline we made, to those books, and the sellers made it as easy as possible for us. Some books were harder to classify than others and canny booksellers would place copies in more than one section sometimes.
We still have the basic genre sections in physical bookstores, sometimes with sub-genres, sometimes not, but with online shopping, things have gotten mighty strange. There are genres we never had back then–New Adult, anyone?–and enough sub-genres to make an author crazy. I think I counted something on the order of fifty-seven fantasy sub-genres alone on one listing.
Should it be something we lose our heads over? Probably not. Genre is, when it’s all said and done, a classification of convenience and a marketing tool, a way for your audience to find your stuff.