imageHaving last week broken down the difference between literary and commercial fiction, this week, as promised, we will turn our attention solely to commercial fiction and attempt to demystify the many genres into which it is broken, including the ridiculously inordinate number of sub-genre splinters.

Probably the hardest to get a handle on would be the many different types, or slight variants, of what one could call contemporary or mainstream fiction, especially when it comes to women, to whom much of it seems to be marketed.

For example, there exists women’s fiction, which is pretty much synonymous with book club fiction.  Slightly lighter, perhaps, in content or tone would be: chick lit, summer reads, beach fiction, and airport fiction.  Add to this the relatively new genre, aptly called new adult fiction, which is for the 20-something crowd and is basically a step up from YA but with more sex and violence.  But how is that different than beach fiction, for example, or even airport fiction?

Even more confusing are such categories as urban fiction:  a novel set in a city that explores socio-economic realties; realistic fiction:  stories that could have actually happened (What?  Doesn’t this describe most fiction?); or how about roman à clef :  a novel in which real people appear but with invented names.  Surely these are meant to be some type of joke, aren’t they?  (See last week’s entry “Spin the Genre.”)  Or is this genre menagerie merely the result of our need to categorize and endlessly compartmentalize things for easier understanding, and ultimately—dare I say—marketing?

So what to do if you’ve happened to write a novel about a 20-something, impoverished female secretary who works in the heart of the city for a young Barack Obama (but in the story he’s called Bart Obin) who is fighting for women’s rights, but meanwhile she’s madly in love with an older man, a handsome doctor, whom she eventually has an affair with.  After he dumps her, she grows internally and becomes a stronger person and realizes that she actually loves her shy, bookish neighbor and they run off and get married?  On a beach.  And there are discussion questions at the end.  What genre would this gem fall into?

Safest, I think, would be to just list it under the big umbrella, which would be contemporary fiction, unless you and/or your publicist (see how they’re involved in every part of this?) decide you really want to angle it towards women, at which point you should then call it chick lit or book club fiction.  You’re sure to sell more copies that way.

You would think, wouldn’t you, dear readers, that it would be easier if you just picked one of the easier genres, like, let’s say, mystery?  But not really.  You should know by now, darlings, that nothing in this process is easy.  Even with a seemingly innocuous genre, there are loads of quirky sub-genres to fit it into.

For example, when my own book, A Girl Like You, was born into the world, I naively assumed that its given name would be “mystery,” as that is actually what it is, but I did not understand that it required a first name as well, and possibly several middle names.  When I accordingly googled mystery, I was naturally shocked to find the following listed as types, or sub-genres, of “mystery”:

Amateur Detective
Child in Peril
Comic/Bumbling Detective
Courtroom Drama
Dark Thriller
Heists and Capers
Locked Room
Police Procedural
Private Detective
Psychological Suspense
Romantic Suspense
Woman in Jeopardy
Young Adult
As my eyes quickly scanned the list, I’m not ashamed to say that I felt a slight wave of panic.  How could I ever settle on just one?

Carefully I tried to reason it out.  My book was set in the ‘30’s, so obviously historical, and it involves an amateur detective of sorts, but also a real detective.  And there is a flavor of a woman-in-jeopardy to it and some comedy, but romance is a huge part of it, too.  Historical mystery?  Romantic thriller?  Romantic suspense?  Historical romantic mystery?  Whodunit?   I even toyed with cozy for a while, but it seemed edgier than a cozy.  How about cozy-with-an-edge?

Irritated, I flung myself back in my chair and decided to put a call in to my publisher.  Though this was never stated outright, I instinctively felt one only got so many calls, so many lifelines as it were, but this, I thought, warranted one.

    “There is no such genre as historical mystery,” the publisher stated simply.  “There’s really only historical fiction or mystery. We follow Ingram’s categories.”
    Blasted Ingram–again!
    “But . . . but . . . what about all of those other ones out there?  What about, you know, police procedural, and all of that?” I whined.
    “Oh, that’s good for marketing, but it’s not what really matters.”
    Not what really matters?  What does then? I wondered, but stopped myself there and hung up, guessing the answer and not really wanting to dwell on it.

With a sigh, I chalked this whole discussion up to one more thing I don’t understand about this business.  To this day I don’t really know if my book is more historical fiction, more a mystery, or more romantic suspense, so I routinely call it something different each time, hoping that it will appeal to a wider base this way, though I’m sure this is the very wrong way to go about things, as I vaguely recall some old saying about what happens when you try to please everyone . . .

Ultimately, then, darlings, my advice is, when all else fails—in this department or in any other— to make something up.  Remember, you’re a writer!  You should be good at this sort of thing!