Friday, April 25, 2014

Special Guest Skylar Hamilton Burris: The Challenge of Genre Labels

Skylar Hamilton Burris is the author of two novel-length sequels to Pride and Prejudice, a collection of poetry, and a collection of literary criticism. Her latest novel, When the Heart Is Laid Bare, is a contemporary story of healing and friendship. She earned a dual degree in English literature and economics from the University of Virginia and holds a Master's in English from the University of Texas. Skylar is the editor of Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, which has published quality short fiction and poetry for over fourteen years. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Big Pulp, The First Line, Spring Hill Review, The Lyric, Voicings from the High Country, The Penwood Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, Small Press Review, and Montgommery's Journey.
           Publishers like to fit novels into the tidy boxes of genre. This makes them easier to market and sell to readers who know the general type of books they seek.  From romance and young adult to science-fiction and horror, genre labels give readers an idea of what to expect. Publishers are reluctant to bring to market books that break the conventions of the given genre to which they are assigned. Your Christian fiction can’t feature characters who swear or have sex outside of marriage. In contrast, your new adult romance ought not to have characters who are too chaste.  Your genre thriller probably shouldn’t be written with a great deal of literary flourish. These sorts of rules are unwritten, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. An author’s genre label will determine where his or her books are shelved and how they are ranked within categories, and it will help to direct readers. Labels are necessary, but they can also be limiting.
These labels pose a special challenge to authors who blur genre lines or whose books don’t fit neatly within the conventions of a single category. Last year, I read Stephen King’s Joyland. The book is labeled Hard Case Crime on the back, but fans of the hardboiled detective genre may find it a little too whimsical and insufficiently focused on the mystery. It has some chilling moments and hints of the supernatural, but the book isn’t quite a horror novel either. Joyland might best be classified as a coming-of-age story, but that label probably wouldn’t appeal to King’s usual audience. So the publisher chose a genre and ran with it. Stephen King is a big enough name that a slightly inaccurate label won’t prevent millions of people from buying his latest book, but labeling poses a greater challenge to debut and midlist authors whose works don’t quite fit within the confines of one particular genre.
At places such as Amazon and Goodreads, I have found my novel Conviction stocked on a variety of virtual shelves, including Christian fiction, literary fiction, historical romance, Regency romance, inspirational romance, and Jane Austen sequels. While it has some Christian characters (a vicar is one of the major players) and a few Christian themes, it doesn’t closely follow all of the big publishing house rules of what is and is not allowed in Christian fiction, and the religion of the characters is not the focus of the story. Although the book clearly provides a romantic plot with the typical “happily ever after” ending, it is written in a literary style that is not commonly found in the romance genre. My third novel, which will be released May 1st, is also difficult to classify. The book is a story of grief and healing and male friendship, which might qualify it as literary fiction, except that the two romantic subplots consume a fair portion of the focus. On the other hand, one of the expectations of the romance genre is that the hero and heroine will be in face to face scenes for fifty percent of the novel with romantic tension throughout, but When the Heart Is Laid Bare begins with the death of the hero’s wife, and he’s understandably in no mood for romance.   While the book has Christian themes, it involves a character who is shaky and growing in his faith and breaks some of the unspoken “thou shalt not’s” of the Christian fiction genre.
What’s a genre-blurring author to do? I found a small press Christian publisher who was willing to be a little more flexible in her boundaries than most of the big houses, and I accepted the “Christian fiction” label even though I don’t like the idea that it might limit my readership by turning off a non-Christian reader to a book he or she might actually enjoy. Other authors, after much reading and research, modify their books to fit more neatly within a specific genre. Some choose to self-publish their genre-bending books. For writers and readers alike, genre can be both a challenge and a tool. 

P.S. I’ll be happy to send a free copy of "An Unlikely Missionary" to one person randomly picked from those who comment below.

Books by Skylar Hamilton Burris: 



G. B. Miller said...

I have not been able to figure the genre I write in. Although my soon-to-be former publisher (rights reversion so no hard feelings here) labeled my novel as erotica, I don't really think it was. So I figure with that novel, coupled with the 3 novellas I have in the can, the best description that I came up with is "quirky".

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Skylar!

I too bend and blend genres. My first romance novel was an easy sell although I can't write without a few literary flourishes as you call them. The second was more problematic: a romance with quite a bit of suspense but apparently not enough to earn the label romantic suspense. It also contains a bit of Caribbean diasporic angst that one would not expect in straight romance, and strong subplots that aren't directly related to the romance between the couple... Problematic for a marketing department, no? I eventually published that one myself.

I happen to enjoy books that don't fit into neat genre templates, and I quite look forward to reading yours. The "Christian" label would normally put me off, but not in this case.

Skylar said...

G.B., publishers should create a genre called "quirky."

Liane, I've found the romance genre especially confining in its conventions, but most of what I write seems closest to that genre. I hope you enjoy "When the Heart is Laid Bare" when it comes out in July.

- Skylar

Kathryn Orzech said...

Thanks for the thoughtful insights. As someone who has read and enjoyed Christian literature, but at the same time been wary of it, I appreciate your well-stated ambivalence!