Monday, February 28, 2011

A Genre Primer

I hear a lot of discussion about book genres and debate on what they mean or where a certain book belongs. With the Whitneys around the corner, I've heard even more discussion on it (why is this book in this category instead of that one?).

So here it is: a primer on some basic literary genres.

This is by far one of the most misunderstood genres. If a story is romantic, it may or may not be a romance. A true romance must fit a specific formula (but, we hope, will find fresh, new ways of doing so): the bulk of the story revolves around the relationship, and by the end of the story, the hero and heroine are together in a committed relationship.

Sometimes it's boiled down to: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl for good.

But can't you write a story where they don't get together? Sure you can. But then you need a different label. Romeo and Juliet is romantic, but ultimately, it's a tragedy, not a romance.

Another example of a genre that requires a formula is a mystery. If you were to pick up an Agatha Christie book and Miss Marple didn't figure out who done it, you'd feel cheated. And rightly so. A mystery, by definition, requires the murder to be solved.

Many genres add romance to them, so the trick with those is determining whether a story is primarily a romance or a "romantic [fill in the blank]," such as romantic suspense. Or, the flip side: a suspenseful romance.

Young Adult & Middle Grade
These are books targeted at younger people. YA tends to be targeted at older teens, and MG at tweens and early teens.

Note that I said targeted. That means the book is written and marketed with a young age group in mind as the audience. That doesn't necessarily mean that a book with a 16-year-old hero is going to be YA. By character age standards, To Kill a Mockingbird would belong in Middle Grade or younger (Scout's what, 10 or so?), but it's clearly not targeted at fourth graders. Not that there's inappropriate content for young kids, but they're aren't the target audience. Grown-ups are.

Modern examples of books with younger characters that are not YA books include Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and his new (Whitney finalist) Pathfinder. All of those have some young lead characters, but the books aren't written to please young readers, and Pathfinder in particular (which I loved) would likely confuse the bejeebers out of them. And Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer is most definitely not targeted at youth, even though the main character is 16.

Another factor: kids tend to enjoy reading about other kids slightly older than they are. So a true YA book won't have a 13-year-old protagonist. More like 15+. Sometimes the difference between YA and Middle Grade is content. Older characters plus "darker" or "heavier" content makes a book lean toward YA (quote marks because those terms are hard to define . . . and they don't necessarily mean "bad stuff") .

Examples: The Fablehaven series is Middle Grade. The Maze Runner series is Young Adult. Dragon Slippers is Middle Grade. My Double Life is Young Adult.

Speculative Fiction
This is a catch-all term that lumps science fiction, fantasy, and others together (paranormal, horror, etc.). If it's not real-world stuff, it's speculative. This year, the Youth Fiction category of the Whitneys was split into General and Speculative. With so many youth books being published, I think that was a great move. (Also because comparing general fiction with speculative is very much like apples and oranges.)

That's the Whitney category, and I could also add thriller. They're all slightly different, but similar enough that they compete together in many awards programs. In mysteries, the question is "who did it?" In a thriller or suspense novel, the reader often knows who did it (or who is going to set off the bomb/kill the victim/whatever) and the story is about the protagonist trying to catch or stop them (and maybe not get killed in the process).

This year, Gregg Luke's Blink of an Eye is a finalist in the General category. His previous books have been in Mystery/Suspense category. Why General this time? I agree with where it's placed (even though it means I'm up against him . . .), because while Blink does have many suspenseful and mysterious elements, at its core, the book is about one man's journey toward healing and the family dynamics he faces along the way rather than the mystery.

This is sort of the Whitney catch-all for books aimed at adults that don't fit another category. It includes Women's Fiction (like Band of Sisters), literary fiction (like Bound on Earth), and more.

Plenty of other genres exist, but these are the ones that seem to get confused the most often. Have more questions? Fire away in the comments.


Kristina P. said...

This all makes perfect sense.

Unknown said...

Great post. I have a hard time placing my book. Now I'm pretty sure it is YA. Thanks!

Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Annette! Great summation.

Stephanie Black said...

Er . . . I think I meant great summary. Word problems. At any rate, great post!

Jenny P. said...

So, what if a book is largely about a romance, but there is a lot of other stuff going on in the story at the same time? My book is contemporary, has a romance that ultimately fits the romance formula, but there is also quite a bit of self discovery and family relationship drama too. Still a romance? Or general fiction that includes a romance? I don't know...

Lisa Loo said...

Oooo, now I'll sound so much smarter at my book clubs.......thanx!!

Susan Anderson said...

Nice explanation of the various categories. Thanks.


Christy said...

Well said!
So... I'm still trying to figure out my own WIP. It's fantasy for YA but in a contemporary setting with romance thrown in like Hush Hush or Wings. What is that exactly? Is it Youth Fantasy? Or YA fantasy romance? And do banished princes from another plane of existence count as paranormal? Its quite confusing.

Shelley Fosse said...

I've always been okay announcing to people that I love what I called "juvenile fiction." Last week though, I was perusing the shelves at Barns and Noble and looked up at the sign announcing I was in the "Teen Paranormal Romance" section. Why did they have to call it that?!! I slunk away to the grown up books.


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