Ongoing genre confusion: As a rule, readers of fiction tend to latch onto a favorite sort of fiction, to the exclusion of others. They may or may not read “literary” fiction, or that large, unclassifiable body of titles called “mainstream” — but they often return to mysteries, say, or romance, or fantasy, or science fiction, especially for “escape” purposes. They also do not in general read one or more of the other categories.
Which can be a problem, for certain writers anyhow:
Agents, publishers and retailers need to know how to optimize their pitches for a book. Readers who prefer a certain kind of SF, for instance, might be put off by a book cover featuring a man and woman dressed in gauzy lavender; a horror or Western fan, visiting Amazon or the bookstore or library for the umpteenth time, will tend to return to the same genre-based sections, over and over.
So you’ve got to know how to classify your fiction (which comes down to: you’ve got to know your audience, whether they’re book professionals or not).
For the past six or eight months, I’ve been enjoying writing something SF-ish — one long story and one (yet incomplete) novel, as of today. It’s real science fiction: adventures in space, technology, and time. But it also falls squarely into the mystery genre. Furthermore, and maybe worse, it falls into a particular mystery sub-genre. If you know the old Thin Man films, from the 1930s and ’40s, you’ll have the right idea: a charming, sophisticated, and (I hope) funny husband-and-wife team solve crimes which may involve blackmail, murder, and so on… but not crimes of the grisly action-packed thriller sort.
Oh, no: I didn’t even come close to inventing the mystery/SF blended genre, as even a fairly simple Google search will tell you. But modern readers — and the people charged with getting books to them — tend to have edgier tastes. “Nick and Nora Charles in space” does not seem a tagline likely to draw many readers.
…Sigh. It’s hard enough to write without worrying about all this. It’s one of the dilemmas which drive people to self-publishing: I’ll write whatever I want, they say, and I won’t waste time trying to win over professional go-betweens like editors and booksellers. Readers like good books, regardless of genre!
But I don’t really believe genre doesn’t matter, do I? Do I?