Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of my co-workers (an English teacher) has a serious addiction to books. I know a lot of us think we do, but I'm telling you, most of us don't have anything on this friend of mine. In the past year, I believe she's spent thousands of dollars on books ... frequently at bargain prices.

Yeah, it's a lot of books.

That's okay, though, because it means our students have more access to current MG and YA novels than they would otherwise.

She moved into a different classroom this year, so it was a great excuse for getting organized. One day last week, she asked me and another teacher who reads a lot of MG/YA (the other math teacher, ironically) to come over during lunch and help her figure out the sub-genres for the fantasy and science fiction.

It was a fascinating experience. And really hard at times.

Some books I was already familiar with and could immediately declare as steampunk, urban fantasy, or paranormal (we meant largely paranormal romance, but left "romance" off the label so as not to scare the teenage boys away). Some books I could just glance at the cover art and/or title and could guess what it was, then checked the back cover to verify.

Those back covers are where a few less-obvious books gave us trouble. Some looked like a hybrid of more than one thing. Others fell somewhere in-between two genres. For instance, some were clearly high fantasy, others clearly urban fantasy, but there were some that didn't seem "high" enough for high or "urban" enough for urban. What are they? We ended up with a "just plain fantasy" category, which didn't quite satisfy me.

I also felt like Terry Pratchett should have a section all his own. If she'd had more books of his, I might've insisted.

I've critiqued queries before where the writer needed feedback on narrowing down the genre, and it hasn't usually been that hard. Maybe it's due to a fundamental difference between queries and cover blurbs. Even though they're similar and we're advised to use the same mind-set when writing queries, they serve slightly different purposes. Some cover blurbs are much more teasing, with much less revealing detail than a query will often have.

So when someone says you need to clearly identify your genre, it's not just so the publisher knows where to shelf your book. It's so hyperorganized English teachers can categorize it, too.

Do you have any rules of thumb for identifying the many flavors of sci-fi and fantasy? Any favorite genre-breaking examples?

P.S. Our moment of shame that afternoon: We couldn't figure out where to place A Wrinkle in Time. It seems like I must have read it once, but it was when I was too young (and read too large a volume of books) to remember details. And her copy had no blurb.

*crawls under rock*


Rick said...

I read Wrinkle in Time to my stepson when he was very young (so was I, relatively speaking), but I don't remember it either.

I have that problem with my own work. I don't think it fits neatly into a genre. Not YA/MG, but the problem can exist if you write not to fit a prescribed genre. So should we write to fit a mold, or write and find a new mold?

R.C. Lewis said...

Good question, Rick. The answer may depend on what we want to accomplish. It's possible for a genre-breaking novel to break mainstream ... but how likely is it?

Then again, with e-publishing these days, maybe it's getting easier to skirt between those genre lines.

Masako Moonshade said...

I'm pretty sure that A Wrinkle In Time is either Sci-Fi, or else Philosophical Fantasy (not unlike The Phantom Tollbooth. They do the same thing, essentially, but with different topics, though I actually enjoyed Tollbooth).

I kind of like the system of "Light" (Discworld, Dave Barry, etc) and "Heavy/Dark"(Fear Street, Garth Nix, Chris Crutcher, The Chocolate War, etc), personally.

Lanette said...

A WRINKLE IN TIME is science fantasy. If you don't have just a "speculative fiction" category, I'd go with Sci-fi.

BTW, I'm still struggling with classifying my book which is a mystery involving fantasy creatures.

Richard said...

Lanette, How about "Fantastic Mystery"?

Mindy McGinnis said...

Oh boy, A WRINKLE IN TIME... Hmmm.. I guess I'd call it science fantasy as well, or speculative fiction. Actually, I'd just call it A WRINKLE IN TIME and assume my audience knew what I meant :)

And great post! Yeah, this can be a bit of an issue sometimes here in my little office. I find the cover art to be a huge help, especially when it comes down to high fantasy.

My rule? If there's a horse on it, it's high fantasy :)

catwoods said...

This is a great post, RC. It never hurts for us to keep things like genre in mind when writing. These books must somehow fit on the shelf to be seen by the right audience.