TT: It’s All Categorical

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one for a look at why getting through writing the middle of a book – even if you outlined – isn’t as easy as you’d imagine.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we delve more deeply into the question of genre categories.

A Delightfully Different Novel

A Delightfully Different Novel

JANE: Last time, Alan, we were talking about how many of the sub-genres for SF and Fantasy seem to exist mostly to make marketing easier for bookstores.

First, I’d like to make clear that I really dislike when someone (and usually this is a reviewer) faults a book for not falling neatly into a category.  I mean, since when is the purpose of a novel to fit into a neat slot?

ALAN: I quite agree. As a reviewer, I would never do that. But I tend not to think in categories anyway.

JANE: I don’t think in categories either, especially when creating.   However, I do think that it’s useful to know the basic differences in terms.

ALAN: Why? Damon Knight said that speculative fiction is what we are pointing at when we say “that’s speculative fiction.” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s my favourite phrasing. When I was a young child, just in the process of getting addicted, I made no conscious genre distinctions. But I always knew it when I saw it. These days, as both a reader and a reviewer, I try to approach a book on its own merits rather than try to shoe-horn it into a category

JANE: As an author and as a reader, I agree with that approach.  However, as someone who works in the business, I’ve also found that knowing what the terms mean can be pretty useful, especially when trying to describe what it is I’ve written to a potential publisher or reader.

ALAN: Why?  Isn’t it enough to talk about the book itself?

JANE: Not always.  Here’s an example.  My friend Sally Gwylan has self-published her novel, A Wind Out of Canann (the first novel in a series), as both an e-book and a print-on-demand.  A section from the book was originally published in Asimov’s Magazine as “In the Icehouse.”

Because Sally is self-publishing, she needs to do all her own marketing.  That means sending the book out to potential reviewers.  To do that effectively, she needs to know what a site means when it says something like “We review Science Fiction, but not Fantasy.”  Or, “We review only Fantasy, not any form of SF.”

ALAN: That’s silly! As both a reader and a reviewer, I’m happy to look at anything. Why restrict yourself? You might miss out on something marvellous (though I always point out that “review” is not necessarily synonymous with “praise”). But I would have thought that everyone who reads the stuff already knows what these terms mean, even if they can’t provide rigid definitions, and could therefore slot any given book somewhere into the spectrum and make sense of it in its own terms.

JANE: I wish…   I’ve been on hour-long panels that do nothing but argue the point.   And when you get to the sub-sets, like “sword and sorcery” as opposed to “high fantasy” or “hard science fiction” vs. “space opera,” then it really gets hard.

Remember how back in October I wrote my Wandering about Jim and me doing some organizing of our garage and attic?

ALAN: Ah, yes! October 10th – 10/10/12, one of only twelve dates that you and I would write the same way. You saved a threadbare shirt and Jim saved Smokey the bear, as I recall.

JANE: That’s the one!  Well, one of the things I found was a big box full of my old short story manuscripts.  As I went through these, I found myself remembering how I had sent them out (and gotten a ton of rejections).  I now realize that having a better idea of what the sub-genre terms meant would have helped me a lot.

In today’s business climate, the author is often forced to do a lot of the marketing, even if she is working with a major publisher.  I’m still trying to figure out how to categorize my next novel for Tor.  It’s more SF than Fantasy, but it’s SF with a lot of things that would appeal to a fantasy reader, like intelligent animals, psionic powers, and…

But I get distracted.  Anyhow, the next point I’d like to explore with you is going to be complicated, so how about I hold it for next time?


7 Responses to “TT: It’s All Categorical”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Then there’s this:

    The humorous thing here is that one of the six books here will never be on the SFF shelf: It’s Darren Naish et al.’s All Yesterdays, which is (basically) a bunch of paleontologists trying to break down stereotypes about how dinosaurs are thought of by showing what’s possible, given the evidence we have. It’s speculative science, but there’s more science in there than most of the “Mayan Apocalypse” BS that shows up on the science shelves. Incidentally, the cover illustration shows a bunch of Protoceratops browsing in a tree, as if they were Mediterranean goats.

    I know Darren somewhat, since I’m a regular on his very popular blog, Tetrapod Zoology. He labels himself as a science writer and working paleontologist, not a science fiction author.

    Personally, I hope this causes mass confusion for the big-box stores, and lots of sales for Darren and company.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    As usual with the incomprehensible, yer both right: It’s totally silly, and quite necessary, at least in the US [and, unfortunately, as the US goes, so goes Canada – more often than not just as the Yanks are figuring out that it really doesn’t work very well]. There’s a strong strain in US culture, which is what Jane is encountering, that insists on having every i crossed and t dotted, a place for everything, and everything in its place. The illustration I like to use is medical device rules: the EU’s Medical Device Directive is 37 pages, and only that long because of all the whereases at the beginning. It took me an afternoon to read, & I did all our approvals myself. The equivalent part of the Code of Federal Regulations is somewhere around 700 pages, and I count myself lucky not to ever have read all of it – we paid good money to a consultant to do it for us. Net benefit to the American people: zilch. We designed and built to international standards for the European market because those are the tougher ones. Come to think of it, the benefit was negative, since we had to charge enough for the product to pay for the reams of extra paperwork imposed by the US rules. The same over-definition turns up everywhere; if you haven’t run into it, it really is hard to understand that people think it matters as much as many do.

  3. Sally Says:

    I think the list of preferred categories serves a practical function for review bloggers, by cutting down the number of requests they get. Even a true book addict (among which I number myself) can’t read everything!

    Categories are useful, as long as they aren’t (as your title puts it) categorical. Though I have to say I’ve yet to figure out a useful definition for paranormal…

    (And thanks for the mention!)

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It’s hard for a novice to understand all that and figure out just what it is we’ve written. As if trying to get published wasn’t bad enough. Now I have to dissect EXACTLY what sub-sub-sub-genre my little tale about wolves fits into.

    Even then, will the editor agree that it fits that? Where’s the aspirin?

  5. Paul Says:

    I may be the oldest among those reading this, because as a kid I could literally buy *every* f&sf paperback published (most for 25 cents, at the beginning). There were so few that I didn’t care about categories, and many of the same authors who wrote SF wrote fantasy and occasionally the unclassifiable as well, and I gobbled them all up eagerly — maybe as many as two per month! Now there are categories and sub-categories and writers like Harlan and Vonnegut tried denying that any of their stuff was SF so they could get over onto the mainstream shelves where they thought sales would be better. I still like a good read under whatever classification, and sometimes the classifications seem wrong, anyway. (Heteromeles, thanks for the tip on KSR’s book, it sounds like one I’d like a lot. Sally, you’re dead right about “paranormal”; we have a paranormal book club at our local library and have read stuff from every imaginable genre or sub- for it.)

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