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The written and unwritten rules of fiction, which readers and authors acknowledge, group stories into recognisable genres which usefully serve as a form of jargon or shorthand to guide readers to find the type of novels they enjoy by knowing which genre they are choosing. On the other hand, genre also helps the authors to deliver fulfilling writing to their readers and to meet reasonable expectations based on the chosen genre.
Publishers also use genre to inform their purchasing decisions and to direct their marketing. Genre is of great importance in fiction writing and there are many tropes and standards which apply within particular genre and do not apply in others, for example a story from the romance genre and a story from the horror genre will attract different readers. For an author to include extremes of the horror genre within a romance is very likely put off a swathe of readers, who will then avoid selecting titles by an author who does not write in a manner which conforms to their expectations.
The term genre comes from the French word for kind and is helpful for everyone in choosing the right content or type of story. Knowing the genre of a book helps to recognise what can be expected from it without having to read it first.
Text in context
Whatever story an author writes a genre will be fitted to it by the world at large and that labelling will, to some extent, select who chooses to engage with the story. Readers come to a title with certain assumptions depending on its genre. Knowing this, authors wisely craft their stories to fulfil those expectations in the reader. If it is a humorous work the reader will have different expectations to those they would have for a thriller where they are looking for suspense and intrigue. Umberto Eco states that no text is ever read independently. Authors and editors do well to steep themselves in their preferred genres to help create the emotional effect of stories on the readers while at the same time avoiding the presentation of cliché.
The reader should be offered an entertaining experience where they can be drawn into a story and feel that the author has crafted a believable world, without the distraction of unpleasant surprises. These pull the reader out of the story, leading to dissatisfaction and disengagement. This is especially a problem with long form due to the greater investment of time for both the reader and the writer. Whatever an editor can do to steer a work to better fit a genre will serve both the author and the reader.
Dynamic nature of genre
McCaw notes that genre is not static. So, whereas there is a temptation to view what works of a genre have in common, as though there were a fixed set of criteria to be met, genres change over time. The differences within a genre can be studied and change is ongoing which points to the importance for both authors and editors to be aware of recent works written in the genre they are writing for, or editing within.
At the online Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020, The Midnight Library author Matt Haig, points out how he has witnessed massive change over the past ten years. He says ‘genre snobberies have evaporated remarkably’ and the barriers which used to exist between literary and commercial works have moved, making it much more possible for authors to take creative influence from everywhere. Which he sees as a more natural way of doing things.
Experience shows that editors may come across a manuscript which pushes the boundaries of genre and they must be ready to embrace this in their work otherwise the dynamic nature of genre could be restricted and the new could be stifled. As with much about fiction editing sensitivity and tuning into the author’s voice is paramount. I would argue that this craft element will always present a problem to techniques of artificial intelligence and will ensure human editing retains its elusive, unique quality and value.
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Eco, U. (1981). The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader. The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 14(1), 35-45. doi:10.2307/1314865
Edinburgh International Book Festival http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/media-gallery/item/matt-haig-the-library-of-second-chances.
Iglesias. K, (2005) Writing for emotional impact, WingSpan Press.
McCaw, N. How to Read texts, continuum.