The (murkier than you might think) question of genre

Whenever I’ve approached anyone and tried to get them interested in my novel, they’ve almost always asked about genre.  Literary agents want to see it in query letters, writing competitions demand that you specify it on your entry form, and readers use it as a tool to help them choose amongst the millions of books on offer.

That makes a certain amount of sense, of course.  Whenever you’re trying to get someone to spend time with a book (or a movie, or a TV show, or anything else, really), it’s only fair to give them some idea of what they’re getting into.  A reader that demands vampires or werewolves should know up front that Peripheral Involvement might not fulfill their requirements.

For some books,  genre classification seems pretty straightforward.  If characters zip around the galaxy at something close to the speed of light, I’m guessing that you’re writing science fiction.  The presence of wizards and witches betokens fantasy.  The man with the Stetson on his head and the Colt on his hip is always a relaible indicator of a Western.

I never felt like Peripheral Involvement had an obvious genre.  It’s pretty easy to list the things that it’s not.  It’s decidely not fantasy, romance, horror or science fiction.  It’s not at all for teens or young adults.   It gets a bit trickier, though, when I try to define exactly what it is.  A mystery?  Well, there is certainly a big element of that in the story, but I’ve always hesitated to bill it as such, or at least primarily as such.  Annointing a novel as a “mystery” creates the expectation that everything will be solved in the end, but one of the things that I was trying to explore in this book was the reality that we often have to live without satisfactory explanations, or affirmations that we made the right choices.  There is a resolution in the end, but there is no Sherlock Holmes-like character that puts all of the pieces together.

How about suspense/thriller?  Again, there’s a lot of that here as well:  the possibility of a high-reaching conspiracy, life and death consequences… but there’s also a strong focus on the main character’s perception of himself, and the world around him, that I wouldn’t want to minimize by appealing solely to readers’ thirst for adrenaline.

That kind of stuff suggests literary fiction, but that label always makes me squirm a bit.  When I hear it, I always picture myself in a high-school English class trying to unpack the symbolism in Moby Dick, or something along those lines.  That’s definitely not the kind of thing I was going for here.  Besides, it seems redundant to call a novel “literary,” doesn’t it?  Aren’t they all?

In the end, when pressed, I tell people that Peripheral Involvement is a realistic-literary-mystery-suspense-conspiracy-thriller.  But all I really hope is that they find it to be an engagaing story about an interesting character.

One response to “The (murkier than you might think) question of genre”

  1. What you wrote in the last paragraph definitely sums up the short or long of Peripheral Involvement. I’m engaged. As far as “literary,” for me, that’s something written beautifully. It’s art in the form of writing.