Genre: The Label on the Bin

“In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.”

Mark Z. Danielewski

I think Mark was understating the case. The book industry uses genre in much the same way that your local record store—remember those?—used signs to tell you that over here was “pop” and over there was “heavy metal.” It was how you found the music you wanted to hear.

Or as author and editor Cathy Yardley put it in her post on Writer Unboxed, “You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to narrow down her choices. Genre is the first broad stroke in that attempt.”

Broad stroke, indeed, although the number of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres can be eye-opening when you are asked to pick from a list. At least that’s how I found it when I was first asked to classify my novel The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer (the link goes to Amazon).

The story has strong elements of magical realism, but at least at the time that was not an official marketing option. It is also an ontological mystery. Good luck finding that on a commercial genre list! What I eventually settled on was “contemporary fantasy.” Does that tell you anything about my novel? Kind of. It says it is a fantasy set in the modern day. Does it tell enough to inform a potential reader? That is a whole other question.

The problem, and the point of this article, is that there are cracks large enough in the commercial genre classification system to walk your dog through. Yet publishing companies, book sellers, and even libraries insist on fitting your story into a particular hole. This means that even if you self-publish, if you want to sell through a major book distributor like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you must choose a genre. It is simply part of the process.

Should you write and sell for a mainstream readership, this will be a painless and valuable procedure. An author chooses a genre for their readers, not for themselves. Be sure to check out Yardley’s post, “Why Genre Matters,” to get some good commentary on that subject. But for those who write “across” genres, marketing your crypto-thriller-cooking-romance will be a struggle no matter how good your writing.

Some interesting compromises have arisen here and there: “Slipstream fiction,” first coined by author Bruce Sterling, is an attempt to place a tale that is just weird enough to make a reader question the story’s sense of reality. Steampunk is another example of cutting a genre as fine as a publishing house will tolerate. But if Netflix can categorize films as narrowly as “cerebral foreign crime dramas” or “crime late night comedies,” why can’t book publishers do the same?

—Michael Fink

Dancing with Cancer

dancing-with-cancerI’m proud to have been the copyeditor for Dancing with Cancer: Maladies and Miracles in Stem Transplantland, written by Barry S. and Bonnie Willdorf. The story of both their experiences with complicated stem transplants for Barry’s chronic lymphocytic leukemia is told in the first-person, with unusual candor, and even humor. You won’t get the watered-down version, here. While cancer, by its very nature, intrudes to take center stage in the many lives it affects, in this book the main characters are truly Barry and Bonnie, and they are inspirational.  –Jean



Should You Ask Permission to Publish Personal Correspondence?

A client who is publishing a memoir recently asked if one should ask for permission to publish personal correspondence that one has received. I’m not a lawyer, but my gut feeling is that it’s better to ask for permission. I found a couple of articles that seem to support my view, even if the law regarding copyright isn’t clear in every aspect.

Mark Fowler is an intellectual property lawyer who wrote about this in “Sixteen Things Writers Should Know about Quoting from Letters.” Taking on the role of the letter writer, he explains that the recipient of the letter cannot “publish the entirety of the letter without my consent . . .” As the author of the letter, he retains the right of reproduction. The recipient owns the letter (the object) itself. That’s not the same as owning copyright.

Things get a little hazy in terms of quoting excerpts. Quoting a few lines from a letter is permitted under “fair use” law. But does that mean it’s OK to quote two lines or two paragraphs? Fowler says these distinctions are not clear. Still, he notes, “the number of words that you can safely quote is far smaller than the number you could safely quote from a longer work.”

In “When Do You Need to Secure Permissions?” Jane Friedman confirms that what constitutes “fair use” is a gray area. This seems to be because the relative importance of the excerpt—short or long—and the context in which it appears can make all the difference in a court of law. Friedman also provides brief guidelines for when you should seek permission, when you do not need to seek permission, and a very useful explanation of fair use.

You can find good information on the internet about permissions; but, inevitably, the writer will come across areas that seem vague. Again, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry: ask for permission.