Genre – shorthand or straitjacket?

Changes are afoot at Write Anything. The blog is being repurposed, the writing team is slightly reshuffled, and new ideas are about to be sprung. Part of this movement is a bid to present a more professional face to the world, and that includes new “about me” blurbs for all the writers. And headshots too. My current blurb is about 18 months out of date, and overly long. So I’m in the process of coming up with a new bio. As ever, the idea of genre has reared its head again.

I vacillate between opinions on genre. On the one hand, I view it as a limitation. Pigeonhole yourself into one type of writing, and you never get the chance to move beyond that. On the other hand, it is quite liberating when you are asked “what do you write?” – imagine if you have to explain your job without using your title. For a writer, being able to say your genre explains the awkward descriptions, at least for me.

Of course, there is also the issue of identifying my genre. I like to write different things, and all sorts of elements have collided together to form what I write. However, I am tiptoeing towards an idea of genre. Firstly, there is fantasy. Fantasy is defined in Wikipedia as

“a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting.”

Well, that sounds like me. Interestingly, it goes on to state that fantasy

“is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes”

Crap. I don’t steer clear of them – however, all is not lost. There is much overlap, especially in the subgenres of fantasy.

Contemporary fantasy is

“set in the putative real world (often referred to as consensus reality) in contemporary times, in which, it is revealed, magic and magical creatures secretly exist, either living in the interstices of our world or leaking over from alternate worlds.”

Now we’re talking. That sounds more like it. Hell, that sounds almost totally spot on. So I’m a contemporary fantasy writer. Hell, I may even be described as urban fantasy:

Urban fantasy … consist[s] of magical novels and stories set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings. … The modern urban fantasy protagonist faces extraordinary circumstances as plots unfold in either open (where magic or paranormal events are commonly accepted to exist) or closed (where magical powers or creatures are concealed) worlds.

The two can be simultaneously used to describe a work, so a contemporary and/or urban fantasy writer.

But wait, there’s more!

Gothic fiction (sometimes referred to as Gothic horror) is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance”

Am I Gothic? I’ve said in previous posts that I think I am. Let’s take a snapshot of Gothic literature, and compare it with what I write…

Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.

I’m comparing this to The Long Watch stories, so here be teasers… Everything except doubles and haunted houses feature in the trilogy. Moving on to Gothic characters.

The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself.

Some characters are multiples of these. But, without giving too much away, I think I’m using all of these character types except for bandits (I make lovely use of revenants in the early stages of the second story…)

So, I’m Gothic too. Is this any use to me?

On the one hand yes. It gives me a short answer to a question that could take some time to answer – what do you write? It gives potential readers a quick idea of the type of things I write about, and it lets them decide if that’s what interests them.

On the other hand, people who “don’t read Gothic” or “don’t read fantasy” may pass me over without giving it a shot – and die hard Gothic and fantasy readers might decide I’m not Gothic/fantasy enough for them – so I risk turning off potential readers, and disappointing others. It’s a tough call, but I have to be realistic about things.

Agents, publishers and bookshops want to know where to put your stories and how to pitch them. If you can’t tell them what you do, they can’t sell it on. I don’t want to be the literary equivalent of the Fortean Times magazine in the local magazine store (notoriously it bounces between “current events”, “men’s magazines”, “computer games” and “adult”…).

So, I’m a contemporary and urban fantasy writer with a Gothic streak.

But don’t label me!

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