Sunday, February 1, 2009

Genre Wars

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....
Does anyone else remember life before sub-genres? Can you recall a time when the bookstore shelves were a simple, straight-forward and reliable map of potential reading, where we could travel directly and with haste to our section of choice and select from a smattering of books tailored to our specific reading pleasure?

Okay, really, I'll get to the bookstore thing, but first let's talk about "once upon a time" when genres were wide and accommodating, and authors could move about a range of creative manifestations within them.
Once upon a time, there was Science Fiction, (sci-fi) Fantasy, Romance, Westerns, Horror-Suspense, etc. To be accurate, the Science Fiction and Fantasy were lumped together on the shelf, and nobody seemed to get too lost or panicky over it. Still, cross over genres either didn't exist, or somebody miraculously found a way to shelve them. Readers managed to find them. No one was shot in the process.

Since I focus on Speculative Fiction, (and romance--don't tell anyone) those section are the fraction of any bookstore that I am most familiar with, or was--before the cross genre explosion. "Don't Cross the Streams!" Now the bookstore is in chaos. Authors are flagrantly abusing the shelving order and not apologizing about it. Readers are spinning in circles hunting for their favorite author's latest volume, is it in the romance section? fantasy? mystery? In the mind boggling maze of choices, I fear lives will be lost. . . not really.

So what's the big deal? Who really cares about genre labels anyway? We want good reads, not labels, right? Why am I obsessed with bookstore layouts? Here's the deal, everything I've read on genres, cross genres and publishing cites the importance of knowing your work's place in the market. Why? The one answer I see over and over again, is: So as to let the bookseller know exactly where to shelve the book, so the reader can find it. seriously.

Apparently the literate and sophisticated bookseller, when faced with a confusing, cross-genre, not-specifically-categorized novel, is seized with panic and unable to function. They spin in circles, their heads explode... not really. BUT, they may very well simply choose not to stock it.
There's the rub. Bookstore's have limited shelf space. Very limited. The number of books printed cannot fit on the store's shelves. Hence, your Mystery Suspense Fantasy Romance with a Sci-fi twist, will most likely never find a home on the shelf. (they won't buy it) Enter the cross-genre.

Readers have no sympathy for booksellers. In the last few years they have rudely demanded the cross-genre novel. (I'll get to that) They love them. They read dozens a week, each. (they must not have children, or jobs) It turns out, to the reader (who, lo and behold, has no trouble navigating strange and foreign sections of the bookstore) really wanted something different.

Now within the Science Fiction slash Fantasy section you will find:
hard science fiction
romantic science fiction
romantic fantasy
wait a minute, those are the same books that were always there! Aren't they? Well thankfully, now they are labeled properly, or I might have been really confused. sigh.

Right. Sci-fi aside, the romance genre really has exploded. In fact, it's gone super nova on us.
I remember the romance section from my high school days. I used to sneak over there when the science fiction police weren't looking. The section had some variety: harlequins, Gothic, regency, mainstream romances, and the big arrival at that time, the thick, bodice-ripping historicals. Within these, anything was possible, so long as it was medieval, Celtic, or native American.

Now, some insane genius has taken apart the bookstore and reassembled it using parts of everything. Romance books, are divided into the same categories the entire bookstore is, plus all new treats we'd never dreamed of.
We have:
Paranormal romance--vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, mermaids, psychics, witches, (okay, some of this was once Gothic romance, but wait! there's more)
Futuristic romance, Science fiction romance, fantasy romance, urban fantasy romance, shape shifter romance, mystery romance, suspense romance, steampunk, superhero romance, and on and on... with new categories added daily!
Within each category books are sorted by "steam level" or "just how erotic is it?"
sweet? sensual? steamy? hot? on fire? should-be-illegal? etc.
So, when the bookseller sees my Erotic, Futuristic, Vampire-meets-Cyborg, Thriller Romance (in Space) they buy it (hoorah!) confidently, thinking, "I can just shelve that in the Erotic, Futuristic, Vampire-meets-Cyborg Thriller Romance section." Let the checks roll in.
Well, if you can't beat em, join em. When in Rome, etc. Still, I see a solution to the book-shelving and nightmare of labels dilemma. It's a simple solution, and one of my favorites: E-books. E publishing, E-readers, E-bookstores, and futuristic handheld datapad all-in-on personal computers. ah-bliss.
Shelf space isn't an issue online. I can list my book under "romance" and "science fiction" and "cooking" if I feel inclined. The cross-reference takes up a fraction of bandwidth, or hd space or whatever. No more labeling problems. My readers can find me, random readers can find me. Life can be simple again. (until a virus, or glitch, or Venusian worm gets in) Problem solved.
Bring on Star Trek.

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