Thursday, April 30, 2015

The vexed question of genre

Genre. Heated arguments about genre come up pretty much every year – at least. Everybody has an opinion, everybody has a definition. So let's discuss what it really means.

Essentially, genre is the label a book is given to place it on a shelf in a bookshop. The purpose is to direct readers to the place they are most likely to find the books they want.

In a large bookshop with lots of floor space there'll be a whole wall of 'general fiction'. And then there'll be genres. Crime, thrillers, kids books, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror and a huge space labeled 'romance' - just to name a few. If you go into a smaller bookshop science fiction and fantasy will almost certainly be lumped together. George RR Martin, Ursula Le Guin, Jack McDevitt and Terry Pratchett will be cheek by jowl with Tolkien, McCaffrey and Terry Brooks in an uneasy mix of spaceships, dragons, werewolves, aliens, swords, blasters, FTL drives and magic rings. And other stuff.

It makes sense, of course. When I enter a bookshop (real or online) I'll end up at the science fiction section. Because that is what I read. If nothing there floats my boat, it'll be crime – murder mysteries, police procedurals and the like. For that reason it's a very good idea to put a label on your books, having made certain that the label matches the book's content. There's nothing more likely to put off a potential buyer than for that person not to get what was promised.

This blog, and most of what I write, is science fiction romance, so let's look at how SFR fits into bookshops and reader expectations.

Several years ago, someone suggested I'd like Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command. So I went looking for the book in a real-world bookshop. I found it, not in the SF section, but in romance. Since I don't read non-SF romance, I would not have found it if I wasn't looking for that book. That was a few years ago, and one hopes we've managed to persuade some of the die-hard SF fans that the girl-cooties won't hurt their SF, so that Games of Command can stand proudly beside Elizabeth Moon's Vatta series on the SF shelves. But I suspect we still have a loooong way to go.

Each 'genre' is supposed to have rules. But really, they're not 'rules', they're reader expectations. So choosing a genre for your book is important. With ebooks and Amazon, we can narrow our work down to a niche – at least, to some extent. In the case of SFR, Amazon has such a niche – it's Romance → Science Fiction. Not Science Fiction → Romance. That distinction is important. It kind of underlines the need for SFR books to have at the very least a very strong romance arc, with a HEA (happy ever after) or HFN (happy for now) ending, because that is what romance readers expect. If that's not what your book offers then you'll have to make do with Science Fiction, with romance tags and a carefully worded blurb, and perhaps the cover, indicating the romance arc. Thereby warning the SF die-hards that your book might include emotional squishy bits and the risk of girl-cootie contamination. Indeed, you might end up labelling your book as paranormal rather than SF, because it includes shape shifters or aliens or alien vampires.

Although I certainly place my books into science fiction → romance, I also place them in science fiction → space opera. To be honest, I think they sit more comfortably in the latter and I make no secret of that. After all, my tag line is “fast-paced action adventure with a dollop of romance”. I wish there was a science fiction → romance category. But there's not. So I work with what's available.

If we're talking online communities of writers, the definition of SFR is broader than the limitations imposed by Amazon's book categories. SFR is a very broad genre, with room for many, many derivations. Although science fiction, by definition, eschews magic, fantasy elements can be included in an SF story. The best example I can think of is Star Wars. Time travel, steampunk, cyberpunk, dystopian, space opera, alien encounters etc etc can all be part of SFR – provided that strong romance arc is there.

I'd love to know how you categorise your SFR. And what categories you would suggest if you could influence Amazon.


  1. >If we're talking online communities of writers, the definition of SFR is broader than the limitations imposed by Amazon's book categories.

    Right--and I'd also add to that the online community of readers. :)

    I always like to make a distinction between marketing labels (created and used by publishers/authors) and reader-driven labels, which can be more detailed than marketing labels. Sometimes they overlap.

    SFR has been known as futuristic romance, romance, SF, and paranormal romance. Only in recent years have we seen "science fiction romance" show up in metadata, and to my knowledge it hasn't shown up on the spine of a print book. If the market for it suddenly exploded, that could change. But with most SFRs being digital-first releases, that might be a moot point!

    For the purposes of my blog, I cover romantic SF as long as the romance has an upbeat ending (an acknowledgment of romance genre conventions). But I consider romantic SF to technically fall under the SF umbrella since the amount of romance is often far less than what one would find in an SFR released from romance publishers (in general. There are exceptions since some SF publishers release stories that are at least a 50-50 mix). If someone else blogging about SFR prefers to exclude romantic SF, it's an absolutely valid decision.

    I also evaluate SFR in these terms: if you remove either the romance *or* the SF elements, the story falls apart. But that's more of a reflection of how much I like the two to be integrated. In the end, anyone can write anything, so in actuality this is a continuum, with romantic SF on one end and romance with SF elements on the other.

    Labels and especially tags are helpful because they help readers find what they want and also adjust their expectations when starting a story. Since taste is subjective, authors will not always win the label game. It's a risk they just have to take. And they misrepresent or under-represent their books at their peril (when they have the control to do so).

    Labels have limits. Sometimes a book labeled SF is actually romantic SF and sometimes it's a story with so much romance it's indistinguishable from one released by a romance publisher. And the only way to know for sure is to read the story.

    Take a romantic SF book, for example. An SF reader might welcome the romance elements and love the book, while a romance reader might become frustrated and stop reading when the romance doesn't happen in enough quantity. Who's right? They both are.

    A romance reader might cross the aisle to read a book labeled "SF" that actually has a huge romance in it, while the SF reader might stop reading once they realize how much romance is in it. Who's right? They both are!

    Publishers and authors can market books any way they please, but once the books are published, readers are free to categorize/tag them any way they please. That's the nature of art.

    1. You're right, Heather. And I think that's why we have these constant discussions about "what is SFR". The answer is something like "it depends" or maybe even "what do you think it is". If the writer's opinion coincides with a reader's, then bingo. If not... well, we both have to wear it as no match.

  2. I'm one of the writer/readers who's constantly beating the drum to have SFR authors label appropriately. I'm a romance reader, and I want the romance in an SFR taking center stage. I've been lied to about it and promised something I didn't get. It pissed me off. When that happens, I become the Goodreads reviewer no author wants to meet.

    DO NOT LIE TO ME to sell your book. Unless you like getting angry reviews.

    1. You're very consistent in your opinion, and of course, that's your right. But personally, I'm not a romance reader, I'm an SF reader, so although I enjoy the romance component, and expect it to be there, I suppose I have a looser definition. And that's fine. As Heather pointed out in her comment, it really depends on point of view.

  3. I like to think (though reader opinions vary) that my work falls right in the middle of the road with SFR--equal parts Sci-Fi and Romance. As to how I'd tag them, the first three would be:

    Science Fiction Romance Space Opera Adventure
    Science Fiction Romance Near Future Space Exploration Suspense
    Science Fiction Romance Near Future Alternative History

    As a reader, I don't pay as much attention to tag as I do blurb. Who's the H&H, what's the conflict and what's at stake? That's what will hook me moreso than the mix of SF/Romance/what-have-you elements. It's the story idea that appeals.

    I think electronic bookstores can do a lot more justice to a title than the old brick-and-mortar shelving system. Your experience with Linnea's work is a prime example, Greta.

  4. > I think electronic bookstores can do a lot more justice to a title than the old brick-and-mortar shelving system.

    You're absolutely right. Tags can really help.

  5. It's a sub-genre of both romance and sci fi. I'd like it labeled appropriately- as Science Fiction Romance. The local bookstore was willing to sell a single copy of my SFR, Captured. They decided to stick in in the Sci Fi section. Nobody is going to buy that book out of the Sci Fi section. The market for sci fi is nerds like myself and Big Bang Theory type dudes.
    SFR needs it's own shelf.

    1. I don't think you'll get an argument from any of us :)


Comments set on moderation - all spammers will be exterminated!

About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 5 RWA Golden Heart finals between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of Science Fiction Romance, our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.