Recently, I’ve been revising and editing my next novel (working title is Crossfade, probably going to change at some point). Since the beginning, I’ve had a hard time pinning down the genre. Science fiction, magical realism, paranormal, noir, neo-noir… what the heck is this book? Do you other writers ever have this problem?
In my book, the main character is a Private Investigator. As a result, right off the bat many readers naturally peg the novel as noir/hardboiled detective. However, although there is some “hardboiled” imagery in the story, the protagonist is far from the classic hardboiled PI. If anything, he’s soft-boiled. He shies away from violence, he spends more time daydreaming than actually detecting, and he relies on his wife’s steady job to pay the bills. Are you familiar with the mystery novel where the main character has a seemingly ordinary and un-adventuresome job, like being a wedding planner or a librarian, and they stumble into a big mystery and find their calling: that they should have been a detective? This character is the guy who became a detective and really had no calling for it, and is in fact not all that great at it. So when the big mystery comes his way, he doesn’t exactly take to it like a duck to water, but rather like a cat who wonders why the hell he moved to a pond in the first place.
What isn’t Science Fiction?
The storyline progresses into the weird, and eventually falls into what I would call “soft science fiction”. Of course, the definition of the term “soft sci-fi” varies depending on who you’re talking to. I’m using it to refer to the soft sciences – psychology, sociology, and so forth – as opposed to the hard sciences of physics and chemistry and so on. In particular, there are psychological elements in this story which lead to a “questioning of reality”. My fear is that by using “sci-fi” anywhere in my description, I might end up saying the novel is “noir/science fiction”, and you’ll probably think of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (in film form as Bladerunner) or some other cyberpunk-ish work. Not that I don’t love that stuff (because I do), but this book Crossfade is nothing like that.
And here comes another issue with genre: there are many arguments for calling a great deal of things science fiction, even if they don’t have aliens and laser guns. Many people who read and write science fiction don’t have a problem calling The Road or The Time Traveler’s Wife science fiction, but people who want to sell these books to a broader audience prefer to keep their distance from that label. Marketers like it when genre-labels refer to a static list of characteristics and they don’t want to get philosophical about the multitude of thought experimentation that permeates much of fiction (and leads some of us to make all kinds of correlations with the science fiction genre).
Genre first or genre later?
In various writing circles, I’ve heard valid arguments both for and against identifying your genre from the onset. I’m going to boil the arguments down and massively over-simplify: if you want a marketable book, know your genre. I don’t say this because I think marketing as an act or a profession is inherently shallow (as might have come off in the previous paragraph). Marketing is a matter of focusing your efforts and finding your audience. Genre labels exist so that we as consumers can relate one work to another; if you liked this, then you might like that. And when you know what genre you’re writing for, you can do your research and figure out what it is that readers are looking for when they read that particular genre, and make sure you are meeting those needs.
On the other side of the fence, there are those who would rather just focus on the story they want to tell, and to hell with whether it fits in a pre-established box or not. Some would argue that this attitude gives birth to new genres (or at the very least, sub-genres and cross-genres). However, when you don’t fit into those pre-established boxes, you’re going to have a heck of a time when it comes to marketing your work.
Lesser known genres: Surrealism, Magical Realism, Transgressive
With Crossfade, I originally intended to write a pretty straightforward detective novel with a paranormal twist. Art being what it is – a living, breathing animal – the story evolved in a way that incorporated influences from (soft) science fiction (yes, I read a lot of Philip K. Dick). Frankly, I found it difficult to write the always-on, hardboiled detective character, so my protagonist changed quite a bit from my original intention, becoming introspective and much more flawed.
It wasn’t until after I finished my first draft and began revising that I got around to reading Haruki Murakami. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is considered by many to be “surrealist” or “magical realism“. Though the style of what we now call magical realism has been around for quite some time (going back to Kafka in the 1920s), it seems to have had a resurgence lately in contemporary fiction. Works of magical realism are those that have some unreal element in them – something out of the ordinary – that is taken for as real/ordinary in the world of the story, usually without need of explanation (like you might get in sci-fi) or historical/mythical/spiritual context (like you might get in fantasy). I’ve also heard the term slipstream to refer to similar characteristics, though it seems to be rarely used.
It’s easy to confuse surrealism with magical realism, especially in works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Surrealism tends to be more psychological and imagination-based, not connected with material reality. A key characteristic of magical realism is acceptance of some unreal concept by the characters and the world of the story. I could ponder these subtle differences all day long and start to think I could tell one from the other, until I read Murakami, and then I think there is a kind of fiction that can be both surrealist and magical-realist.
In any case, there’s no doubt that the style of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had a significant influence on the hacked-and-slashed second draft of Crossfade.
I’ve often been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s work, and I think I could argue that some of his fiction falls under the “magical realism” label. However, most of his fiction is considered transgressive. I think this is less because of the foundation of his plots (which could easily fit the magical realism description) and more his subject matter involves so much of the “taboo”, including sex, drugs, and liberal amounts of violence. He also writes with a minimalist style, which is more common to that transgressive than magical realism.
Define you genre by style or subject matter?
And now I come to the final dilemma. The easiest way to identify genre is to look at the story’s subject matter and setting. If the whole thing takes place in outer space, then it’s probably science fiction. If the main character is a private investigator, then you’re looking at noir/hardboiled detective.
The problem is that when you cite a genre based on subject, you inherit an expected style of writing. Noir is typically fast-paced, minimal, and anchored in realism. Stories under the broader mystery genre are usually very heavily plot-driven, as opposed to character-driven. What I’ve got here is a slow-moving, heavily introspective novel that I fear is quite anti-noir at times.
So tell me what you think. Has anyone had success identifying their genre long after the book was finished? Have you ever tried to “fix” a story so that it more properly fits into a particular genre slot? Or do you think it doesn’t matter as much, given that the majority of the reading audience has never even heard of terms like “magical realism” or “transgressive fiction”?