What’s in a Genre?

When I first moved from seriously obsessive scribbling to trying to get someone else to appreciate what I’d written, the first question confronting me was ‘what genre do I write in?’ People want to know. At least publishers want to know, and agents and librarians and book shop owners, not to mention readers. This can be awkward if, like me, you think you’re just writing a novel, about people and the things they do, with a bit of drama thrown in. The idea of genres seemed slightly absurd.

Although I’ve got used to the notion, I am still never sure exactly what my genre is. Two of my books, The Covenant and Long Shadows, should definitely count as historical. But historical what? Historical saga? Historical mystery? Just historical fiction, maybe. Definitely not historical romance.

Shadows could be classed as Paranormal, but really not very paranormal at all.

There’s invariably a crime in my novels, because a crime provides perfect drama. So yes, I write crime fiction, but that’s very wide. It needs tighter definition. I have found myself listed on Amazon under Crime, Thriller and Mystery. Thinking about my first two books, A Time For Silence and Motherlove, I’ve accepted that Mystery is a sensible description, but Thriller seems completely wrong. On the other hand, my third book, The Unravelling, does seem to fit that bill. Why? I couldn’t put my finger on the precise difference, so I thought I would investigate.

Dictionary definition of Thriller
1. Something that thrills. Well yes, of course.
2. A suspenseful, sensational genre of story. Hm. Sensational sounds a bit cheap.
3. Pulp fiction. No, I’m not having that.

How about Mystery?
1. Something secret or unexplainable
2. Something with an obscure or puzzling nature
That just about sums up all fiction, doesn’t it?

I decided the dictionary wasn’t enough help, so I turned to the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia.

Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives.’ Okay, no one can argue with that.

Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.’ But then, I’d have thought, so do romances, or historical novels, or travel memoirs.

Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved.’ So, it’s crime fiction.

I’ve usually settled for saying that I write psychological crime mysteries, because I focus mostly on the characters and the effect a crime has on them. But, according to Wikipedia, ‘Psychological thriller is a thriller story which emphasizes the unstable mental and emotional states of its characters… with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a “dissolving sense of reality”, moral ambiguity, and complex and tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters.’ Which is a bit more than I had in mind, though it fits The Unravelling perfectly.

And, of course, there’s Noir. Another splendid term that I couldn’t quite define, but it puts me in the same bracket as everything Scandinavian, so that’s okay. According to Wikipedia, ‘Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist. A typical protagonist of noir fiction is dealing with the legal, political or other system that is no less corrupt than the perpetrator by whom the protagonist is either victimised and/or has to victimise others on a daily basis, leading to a lose-lose situation.’
Blimey. Right. Well, why not?

Of course there is always the genre label ‘Suspense.

The dictionary offers two definitions.
1. The pleasurable emotion of anticipation and excitement regarding the outcome or climax of a book.
2. The unpleasant emotion of anxiety or apprehension in an uncertain situation.
That is ridiculously wide. It’s either pleasant excitement or unpleasant anxiety.

On the other hand, it probably gets to the root of what is so alluring about crime fiction. The two definitions cross over. We actually take pleasure in being alarmed and apprehensive. We find pleasurable emotion in the horror of murder and revel in our own terror – just as long as it’s not quite real. Not something that’s going to wreck our lives, once we shut the book. We can look into a fictional mirror and see our darkest inner self let loose, knowing that, off the page, the dark side is buried so deep we will never allow it to surface.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a Genre?

  1. I tried to pin down a genre for my first novel and failed. Like you, I looked up the different categories but the definitions varied hugely dependening on whose version you read. Thanks for this – I feel less alone…


    1. Thanks, Trish. As a writer, genres infuriate me. They are so restricting. But I know that as a reader I always head straight for the genres I’ve decided I like (Apart from checking to see if my own books are in stock, of course.)


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