Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Continuing Evolution of Genre

by Janis Patterson

If you talk to the oldtimers, life used to be simpler, and in publishing I guess it was. Publishers published books. Some non-fiction, of course, but fiction… ah, to hear some people talk it was a halcyon time. There were the standards, of course – romance (which was waaaay different from what we call romance today), mysteries and westerns, horror and science fiction, even tales that were unclassifiable – but the publishers were open to different kinds of fiction. They even took chances on the kind of things they’d never published before.

Then came the feeding frenzy of publishers acquiring publishers. The small, family owned publishing house almost vanished from the earth and though we have all kinds of imprint names they are all controlled by the Big Five publishing houses. Or maybe the Big Four. Or whatever it is this week. And suddenly publishing was being run not by people who loved books but by bean counters who viewed books with the same attitude as widgets. They said, “If number 36 is selling well, let’s do it in pink and purple and green…” That is, offering exactly the same thing with only slightly different variances. And so hardcase genre publishing was born and the requirements of publishers narrowed down to tight, pure little pigeonholes. 

To tighten the noose even more, publishers began to send out ‘Tip Sheets’ – little roadmaps telling exactly what a particular line wanted, especially in romance. And they continued to tighten. Some even gave what should have happened by what page. While it didn’t quite die, creativity was most definitely stifled. What was worse, readers had to choose from what the publishers offered. Choices – other than the basics – dried up.

Then the upheaval of self-publishing happened and real choice became available again. Want a western with a female heroine instead of a taciturn drifter? You got it. Want a squeaky clean – or definitely erotic – romance? You have choices. Mystery fan? There’s hard boiled, cozy, cats-and-shoe-fetish cutesy, female sleuth, male sleuth… whatever you want.

And more. As the respectability of e-publishing expands, it is becoming more complex as readers and writers conspire to push the envelopes. Genre-bending has become a fine art, some as intricate as any Cordon Bleu recipe. There are mysteries with long-dead sleuths solving current crimes, romances between Earthers and alien species, talking animal sleuths, just about any permutation you can think of – including nymphomaniac vampire nuns from the planet Zeon.

All of which is great for the reader and the writer. Genre shouldn’t be a pigeonhole – it should be a doorway… or maybe a hall with lots of doorways leading off it. The only thing that should control what content is available is what the reader wants to read and the writer wants to write.