On Finding Your Genre, and Why That Might Be Difficult
When I was still a teenager, I wrote a 450 page novel about an alternate world intended to be read by adults. Ostensibly a fantasy about an Earth-like world on the other end of the universe, its true intent was social satire of this world, and, never realizing then how being a teenager/young adult appeared to anyone who had lived just a few years past that, I wrote confidently and humorously about many topics on which I had no direct experience from the perspective of a working man in his mid twenties. If you'd asked me what my age was, I would've replied with the true number and a blank stare.
A year later, when I was finished editing and was taking the first glimpses from out the womb of obssessive creation at the wider and much more densely populated world of publishing, self-publishing, agents, marketing, book festivals, book tours, and interpersonal dynamics dwarfing by several orders of magnitude and centuries of history all those words just listed, I - now 21 or 22 - took several dozen freshly printed copies of the fruits of five years' labor and a $125 fee and, feeling a little nervous but not at all out of my depth, signed up for a table at the Authors' Tent at the Baltimore Book Festival in Mt. Vernon. I did it because I thought it was a good marketing (ugh) move, because I had read that that's what you're supposed to do as an undiscovered author.
The venture was worthwhile, experientially. I ran into an old high school teacher. A man I didn't know bought a copy of my book for his teenage daughter. Some friends visited and gave their support, which did not include intervening when a stranger who turned out to run a porn blog took my photo with his phone (everyone was taking photos, and I didn't want to be rude).
Most of those eight hours were spent meeting some of the other local authors and overloading my brain with impressions about the book festival, taking mental notes on what worked and what didn't that, while true in and of themselves, hopelessly missed the point. It doesn't matter how good your powers of observation are if the back of your mind is missing the few little keys that tie the whole scene together. Those few little rules or truths upon which the whole enterprise is based. Its unspoken charter.
I didn't see that, while called a festival, it was set up by the hand of an industry. I didn't see the years of work behind authors ten feet down still trying to "make it", nor the disparities between them and those who, for one reason or another, did and now sat in the "invited persons" tent or stood upon the stage. I didn't ask why some people were here and some people were there and what the chain of steps dragging behind anyone looked like up close - who might have had to quit their job, who had the support of family members working full time, who was lucky to know someone, who wrote with some naivete and who wrote to the standards using everything they had learned at pricey workshops or conferences. At least, I didn't ask this on a conscious enough level.
But most importantly, I didn't give the proper weight to or shine the right light on my blissfully short-chained 21-year-old self sitting in the middle of this vast.. thing.. everyone else had been swimming in for years and years. Maybe that was for the better, if only because, had I tried to play this, it could have been much worse. No matter now. Probably that same week, I carried on trying to market my book in more traditional ways, i.e. searching for an agent or publishing house. It was a very uphill task that I quickly grew to dread. Marketing yourself is so fake. Labels are stupid. My book doesn't have a genre.
This, I ate up. It defies genre. It's a little fantasy, a lot of humor, stylistically picaresque. Not like most things out there. In the few query letters I wrote, I called it general fiction or commercial fiction. Who is the intended audience? Goat farmers in Sweden? Independent small business owners? Minority college applicants? Bakers? Everyone. I said in all sincerity that this book was for the general adult audience.
The next year, I participated in the book festival again and watched a similar stream of people go by through the authors' tent. Talked to some different self-published authors. Explained, always with difficulty around that label question, my book to new passerby. As an aside, held downtown now, the book festival had completely lost its charm to become bigger and more commercialized. Where you could the year before, here you wouldn't find as many works of originality because the vibe wasn't open to it. The overall appearance was more watered down and made sure to check the boxes of what should be present at a national book festival. You would now find true commercial fiction. Cookbooks written for minority bakers. Relationship advice broken down into lists with 50 blank pages for you to fill in yourself.
While I stewed in my hatred and disappointment, three young girls approached my table, all of them just about to go into college I think, and at least one of them with aspirations to become a writer. I told them about my book and didn't think much of the fact that they were the only ones in the audience who seemed truly interested in it. Another visitor was the man from the previous year who came by and said he'd bought it for his daughter last year and she'd liked it.
Five years later (that is, last week), I had an epiphany. What my ego couldn't let me see and what my lack of perspective couldn't understand before was that I had written a book of young adult fiction. A book covering a pretty sizeable chunk of the political gamut that would have be meaningless or silly at worst, lightly entertaining at best, to anyone over the age of 21, but which might be impactful for someone at the age of 14-16, forming their perceptions and seeking validation from a relatable mind. In short, for someone who was "going through it". And so if you're struggling with the question of genre, it most likely isn't because your work doesn't have a genre. It has one, even if that genre itself hasn't been named yet.
Though, I'm starting to think that no matter how old I get, I'll never actually write something for a general adult audience that isn't purely technical writing.
Cookbooks for minority bakers could actually be great, and the genre question comes with a clear answer.... Unless we recall that a book festival isn't really a festival, and we infer that "cookbook for minority bakers" isn't really a cookbook. It's "whimsical shelf decoration for hipsters".