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What is “genre-enough”? January 28, 2009

Posted by Lee in Angry Robot, Submissions.
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spacesquids1I stated in my previous post (“So, Uhhhh…  Hi”, below) that we had recently rejected some manuscripts that were not “genre enough”, and received a question back “what does the angry robot think is ‘genre enough’?”.

A thoroughly deserving question.

There are many criteria we use when deciding whether a book is suitable for Angry Robot (a major one being, of course: did we enjoy reading it? – it’s often such a subjective game). The question of whether a book is “genre enough” is an important one.

I can’t go into details about the rejected books themselves, as the authors will still be seeking suitable publishers, so I’ll talk in general terms.

Let’s look at the Bond movies. They’re usually reviewed in SF magazines and forums as they tend to contain gadgets that don’t exist, yet – an invisible car, a jet-pack that actually works, etc. There is an argument to say that these are science fiction films. I’d argue against that, and say that while they contain future-technology, the films are straighforward spy thrillers/action movies. The SF elements don’t actually matter to the plot – they’re just there to make the viewer think they’re watching something cool. Remove the invisible car or remote-control helicopter, and the film is still intact.

If you can remove the genre element without harming the flow of the narrative, it’s probably not genre enough.

For a book to be considered suitable it must not only wear its genre credentials on its sleeve, but probably on its underwear, too. It may even be tattooed on its buttock.

If your main character happens to live in a haunted house, and enjoys regular conversations with the ghost that’s based there, that’s a supernatual element. However, if the ghostly conversations add nothing to the plot (eg. if the ghost could be switched with a mundane, human flatmate, or simply removed completely without disrupting the plot), then the story is not genre enough. The fantastical elements of the story must not simply be a painted canvas against which the rest of the story takes place, they must be integral and vital to the tale being told.

Similarly, if your book is about the break-up of a long-term relationship, and your protagonist just happens to be a werewolf, that’s probably not enough to make it “genre enough”. Why is it important that he’s a werewolf (it’s important to him, obviously)? Is is lupine nature critical to the story being told, or is it merely a detail added to make the character more interesting?

The other answer, of course, is similar to the classic response to the question “what is science fiction?”

What is genre enough? We can’t give you a 100% complete answer, but we know it when we see it.

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Comments»

1. Alasdair Stuart - January 28, 2009

I think I like this answer better than my previous favourite ‘Science fiction is whatever I point to when I say it.’ And you’re right, genre fiction has to be chocolate ice cream, instead of choc mint chip to use a slightly odd, dairy related metaphor:)

2. Steve Cooper - January 28, 2009

Seems that it would be a good idea to push these books somewhere else in Harper-Collins. “It’s not sci-fi enough for Angry Robot, but it might just suit our imprint ‘Skimpy Werewolf'”. Does any of that go on?

3. Marco - January 28, 2009

Steve, very much so. There isn’t always an appropriate destination, but it’s certainly the case that if we can pass stuff over, we will do – and have benefited from material forwarded from elsewhere in HC too.

Recently we had a book proposal that combined supernatural elements with crime. It was, and is, very entertaining, but in the end we determined it was a crime book with a bit of supernatural trimming, and thus would be best served by sitting on those shelves. Off it went to one of the crime editors forthwith.

BTW, Skimpy Werewolf eh? I like the sound of that…

4. Matt Keefe - January 29, 2009

Marco, how much of this is down to your own preference for titles that are definitively science fiction, and how much down to concerns over being able to properly market a book that’s more on the fringes of the genre? Are there books you’d like to put out, that possibly fit within your own definition of SF & Fantasy, but which you just feel you couldn’t because ‘Science Fiction & Fantasy’ is the wrong corner of the bookshop for it in market terms?

5. Marco - January 29, 2009

Yes, is the short answer. The longer answer involves a lengthy moan about the way that bookstores, perhaps understandably but still annoyingly, separate out SF/F from Horror, and increasingly give Paranormal Romance its own section if the store is large enough.

Ever more frequently publishers are called upon to decide which shelf books featuring, say, a vampire cop, sit on. If it’s full of gore, Horror and you package in one direction. If there’s a happy ending and lots of relationship stuff, Paranormal Romance, and it gets a softer cover. If you want more people to see it and buy it, though, you try to get it into SF/F as a “Dark Fantasy” or “Urban Fantasy” title – little to do with the book itself, more due to how many people visit which section. It’s the same reason why the Crime section increasingly features very splattery Horror novels and even some out-and-out supernatural themes – greater numbers of more mainstream readers visit the Crime section.

Meanwhile, on the Science Fiction & Fantasy shelves, a far future space opera can sit quite happily next to a fantasy set in Neolithic or Victorian times. In my head, of course, it’s all “genre” and all that really means is “those far more interesting shelves at the back of the shop where the imaginative stuff is”.

The world still waits for the killer term under which we can gather it all… Until then, picking our way through this is an irritating distraction from our real work, but so it goes.

6. James Swallow - January 29, 2009

Are those ‘talking’ squids? And are they in ‘outer’ space? Otherwise, it’s not genre enough.

7. Marco - January 29, 2009

Last time I was out there to check, it was the case that sound didn’t travel in a vacuum.

Inside Margaret Atwood’s head, I mean.

8. Steve Cooper - January 29, 2009

The squids don’t use air vibration. They have laserbeams in their frikking _eyes_. They beam info to each other. With quantums.

9. Matt Keefe - January 29, 2009

It seems to be the mainstream imprints, and some of the more middle of the road genres (such as crime, as you say) which are picking up the fringe titles, though – the mainstream is expanding its edges to pick up those books which fall out the edges of genre, but the genre’s own limits don’t seem to be expanding. Is that an indicator that publishers see genre readers as more conservative, and less likely to pick up one of those fringe titles? Or do they just not really know who is reading the imaginative, but not out-and-out genre, titles?


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