WTF is my genre, anyway?

Warning: Rant ahead, with swear-words.

So I was having this nice twitter-chat yesterday with a literary agent, which was really decent of her – I know agents are busy people and she didn’t have to answer me. She’d said she was looking for adult fantasy, and I had asked her “Do ghost stories count as fantasy?” Her reply was, oh, no, that’d be horror, and I don’t handle horror.

What the fuck. I mean what the actual fuck, people? Ghosts don’t mean horror any more than having a cat in a story means it’s a cute children’s tale about a lost pet.

Mind you, I actually felt a sense of relief, because her reply validated something I had only been wondering about in a vacuum, up until that moment. All the queries I’ve been sending out over the past six weeks – all 76 of them (so far) – have tried to be honest about what the story is about, and have mentioned that there is mystery, magic, and a touch of romance, and I have feared all along that people who handle mysteries would stop reading at the word “magic,” because they don’t handle fantasy, while people who handle fantasy would stop at the word “mystery” because they don’t handle mysteries, etc. And since my abstract mentions that at least one of the characters is a ghost, well, I was afraid agents would automatically assume the story is a horror story. So hey, at least I was right about that. That’s good, right?

But…what the hell am I supposed to do? Lie about what my story contains, just to get a foot in the door? I wouldn’t feel right about that even if it would work, and I don’t think it would work.

I was advised by a writer of Regency Romances, once, at a writer’s retreat, that I just have to give up and toe the line. The Industry wants specific things right now in specific genres and, she cheerfully informed me, if I don’t follow their formulae, I’m not going to be accepted. Well fuck that. Just fuck that hard over a barrel. Literature is not supposed to be a fucking Industry. It’s supposed to be an Art! When this delightful young woman informed me that They are going to make me follow Their rules, or else, I looked off across the lake and said “I am going to defeat them” in a tone that made everyone back slowly away from the Crazy Lady and return to their keyboards.

I still stand by what I said then, but I am frustrated, and I am discouraged, and I am feeling more than a little murderous. Don’t get me wrong: genres are nice – they give readers more of something they had previously enjoyed. But if authors had always stuck strictly to genre rules, none of these genres that people are currently enjoying would ever have reached the market in the first place. The only novels we’d have would be Cervantes knockoffs. Of course, Cervantes would never have seen print, either, because the Novel was not even a thing before that.

What if Charles de Lint had listened when people told him “But, no, you can’t set a fantasy story in a modern urban setting. It has to be an imaginary, pre-gunpowder world, or at least some distant, rural part of England.”

(I’m not saying anyone actually told him this. I don’t know. Maybe nobody said stupid shit like that back in the ’80s. I wrote to @cdelint and asked about this once, but he never replied. He probably thought it best not to encourage dialogue with a Crazy Lady.)

What if J. R. R. Tolkien had listened when people told him “Grownups don’t read fairy-stories. Your sequel to The Hobbit has also to be written with the intent of it being a children’s story.”

I really love the work of Marly Youmans, and not just because it enchants me and makes me unable to put the book down. I love it because it Breaks All The Rules and still succeeds. I mean, Glimmerglass utterly defies genre. It was sent to me by the SIBA free book program because I had asked for “Gothic Romance” (a wonderful old genre that is increasingly rare these days) but it breaks all the rules of that genre, too. The romantic interest, for one thing, is not a maddeningly handsome asshole who suddenly becomes the hero by the end of the book due to the female lead’s sheer gorgeousness. But it breaks all the other rules, too. The entire first half of the novel is setup for the action that happens in the second half. And yet, though “nothing is happening yet,” you simply can’t put the book down because it’s that enchanting. (Psst: If you’re interested in reading this book, the rest of this paragraph is a spoiler, so you might want to just skip to the next…) Hell, the wedding happens right smack in the middle of the book, and that just plain ain’t legal in any genre!

Well, nowadays the word “gothic” requires darkness and gore, in addition to the dysfunctional relationship business. The magic and the ghosts are real, alright, in nowadays’ gothic fiction, but they have to be evil. I’m not a darkness and gore kind of person, and I’ve lived too long, also, to be able to suspend disbelief anymore about men’s ability to change if they just meet the right girl. Maybe I should write to @marlyyoumans ‏and ask her how she pitched Glimmerglass.

Anyway, getting back to my point, Seven Turns doesn’t qualify as Gothic Romance, not really, not to the people in The Industry nowadays.

Other genres that have been suggested to me, for which this story also does not qualify, include:

  • Fantasy, because of lack of pre-gunpowder weapons (unless you count a large flashlight,) wizards, dragons, or an acceptably anglophile setting.
  • Urban Fantasy, because of my small southern town setting but also, and mainly, because the once beautiful Urban Fantasy genre has, these days, been co-opted by a form of chick-lit that requires snarky werewolves, metrosexual vampires, and badass babes covered in gore and on whose cluelessness and inefficacy the entire plot depends. Charles de Lint would be turning in his grave, if he weren’t still alive.
  • Horror (as mentioned above) because my ghost is not evil and is not hell-bent on splattering as many humans as possible in as horrifying and gory a manner as possible. The evil in my story is, as in the real world, the product of human aspirations.
  • Cozy Mystery, because the body does not hit the floor by page fifty, and even when it does hit the floor it doesn’t die.
  • Paranormal, because, as in Urban Fantasy above, this genre now requires werewolves and vampires who are for some reason sexually attractive to the badass babe lead even though they are incurable asshats, and because this genre, also, calls for buckets of gore and mayhem.
  • Romance (or Paranormal Romance) because the romance is not the main reason for the story, and the story could stand perfectly well without it if it came right down to it. It just kind of happened. I didn’t intend it to be there at all when I started out. But hey, all the best love stories happen that way, don’t they?
  • Women’s Fiction, because apparently no form of paranormal or magic or anything not strictly scientifically real is permitted in Women’s Fiction.

Okay it bugs me to talk about what is not in Seven Turns. Let me conclude with what is in it:

There is a strong female lead. She is over forty and she has grown children. She is imperfect, but she is likable anyway.

There are lots of quirky, fully three-dimensional characters who are also likable (well, most of them are, anyway!)

There is romantic chemistry. It occurs between two grown adults who have left their codependency issues far behind.

There are ghosts. They are real and they act just like normal human beings because, as Nell says on the T-shirt she creates for Cally, “Ghosts are people too!”

There is a mystery to solve. I think it’s a tad too easy to solve, personally, but none of my beta readers were able to solve it before the Big Moment (I don’t think they were lying to me about this just to protect my “feelings.”)

There is a Villain who is willing to kill whomever s/he has to, if s/he has to, to achieve certain aspirations.

There are People living at the edge of the meadow who do not qualify as human, but you had better not dare call them Fairies.

There is a strong sense of community (though some residents tend to view it more as outdated isolationist secretiveness.)

There is moonlight and moss in the trees.

So, OK, people: What is my genre? How do I pitch this thing? Because this is the thing I am going to pitch, and nobody is going to talk me out of it, and I will not give up.

About Kim Beall

I started sneaking into the basement to read my parents' massive collection of science fiction, fantasy, and gothic romance when I was nine years old, and I spent my teenage years writing reams of Awesome Novels. This might have worked out better for me if I had not written them during math class.
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2 Responses to WTF is my genre, anyway?

  1. Gari Strawn says:

    I feel your pain. DH Bob’s work would immediately be called YA Fantasy. We’ve even joked about all the changes a traditional publisher would tell him he had to make to fit his dodecahedron into a square hole. “Seven Turns” is a joy to read, I liked everything about it. I was going to suggest that maybe it’s Mature Adult fantasy, but that brings to mind perhaps a different kind of fantasy! I also feel that ANYONE of ANY AGE would enjoy “Seven Turns” It is a wonderful story and I can’t wait for your next work. Maybe self publishing is your best bet, but even then you will be asked to pigeonhole or tag your work into set categories. Sigh.

    • Kim Beall says:

      Oh, believe me, I have entertained a “different kind of fantasy” sometimes, myself, about certain characters CoughBenCough. Maybe I could do a sideline erotica spinoff sometime, under a pseudonym so my husband won’t get jealous. 😉

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