Pigeonholing the Reader with Genre

I’m only an aspiring writer, so that makes me prima facie ignorant of the writing biz. And that’s why one might think me unqualified to disagree with Kiki.

Kiki of course is Kiki Opdenberg, the host of the cool new podcast The Kissy Bits—Romance Writing Without Cooties, straight from Melbourne, Australia. I got really excited when in her premier episode, “Why Romance,” she responded to criticisms of romance stories. This was right after I had written about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I was tired of reading reviews by reviewers who just didn’t get it.

“Romance is too predictable,” say the critics. “Boy meets girl. They fall in love and live happily ever after. Yawn.” But maybe they just don’t get it. When you read a detective story, you expect the detective to catch the bad guy, you just don’t know how and perhaps even who’s the bad guy. “Romance,” Kiki says, “celebrates people.” Maybe we do know the plot, but the story is new every time.

In that first show she goes even further. She says, “Romance is one of the great myths. And every good book will deal with the myth, whether as its main theme or as a side-strand.” And she’s right.

That brings us to this week’s episode. Tee Morris of The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy asked in his episode #004: What’s the difference between a romance story with a genre elements and a genre story with romantic elements? What’s the difference between a romance western, for example, and a western with romance? Kiki’s answer is—

Well, first things first. What is a genre? It’s a way to brand a story so that the reader can know what to expect from it. This agrees with Kiki’s description, again from her first episode:

These formulae exist for a reason. They let us categorize books into genres. So, if you feel like gun-totin’, horse-ridin’ heroes, you know you’ll get them in a western. You want two people in love? Hello, romance novel!

So what about a novel about a wolf-woman searching for love across 1830’s America? It’s a science-fiction novel, by the way. But I didn’t like it because it was a science-fiction novel. I liked it because it was written by Pat Murphy, and Pat Murphy is expert at making you identify with her protagonists, no matter how extraordinary they are. And I liked this book because it made me cry.

Some readers no doubt do gravitate toward one genre or another for superficial reasons. They only like strongly-plotted stories, for example, or they only like touchy-feely stories, or they only like character stories, or whatever. But some of us—and I’d like to think we weren’t as rare as all that—enjoy all aspects of a story. We appreciate each story for what it offers, no matter what its genre. Please don’t confuse the genre of a book with the genre of its readers.

That brings us to Kiki’s latest episode. She believes there are three ways to determine whether a book is a romance sub-genre or genre fiction with romantic elements. She uses these to springboard into a long list of romance categories and sub-genres, noting the similarities and differences, combinations and mutual exclusions, clarities and ambiguities. It’s like an SNL skit.

I have a much simpler answer. You see, genres are there so that readers will know what to expect. Genres don’t limit the tastes of the readers, but rather serve as a window into those tastes. Genres are a means of marketing to readers. So, what is the difference between a romance sub-genre story and a genre story with romance? Answer: Marketing.

This particularly implies that there’s not necessarily anything different in the story itself. Rather, the difference is in how it’s marketed to readers. Granted, some stories only fit into one genre or another. A space opera, for instance, is clearly science-fiction; it cannot be marketed as a western. But just because some stories fit cleanly into one category or another doesn’t mean all stories do. At the edges, there are stories that should be able to go either way.

At least this cross-genre reader doesn’t care which way they go.


About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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You raise some excellent points here. I agree with you that often, it comes down to marketing as to which side of the cross-genre will be the main focus/audience. But you can still decide how you want to sell your books to the publishers (by choosing who to send your story to, for example, or how to word your proposal). So the choice is not just up to the marketing department at the major houses.

There are some authors that can successfully transcend genres and defy easy classification. but those are few and far between.
Seeing genre classifications as a springboard into whatever strikes your fancy is a brilliant start. i’ve given up on asking for my personal perfect combos, so instead, I look for books I know will have at least one aspect I enjoy. If they do more than one, and do it well, all the better.

In summary, i don’t think we’re at too opposing ends of opinion.

A final note: space opera is a genre in its own right nowadays, as a sub-genre of sci-fi.
Sub-genres are insanely confusing (and shifting)… But at least you know what you’re getting. ^_-

Thanks for plugging my show!


J. Timothy King

Hi, Kiki. Thanks for writing. I do agree that we’re not at opposing ends of opinion. Rather, we’re expressing the same opinion, but from different perspectives. It also makes sense to me that if you want to write a story in a given genre, and appeal to readers who enjoy that genre, that as a writer one should understand and obey the rules of that genre. But here the meanings we convey become very sensitive to the words we choose.

A similar thing happens in linguistics, speaking of words and their meanings. Linguistics is the study of language. When a linguist talks about the meanings of words, he’d say, for example, “In this sentence, the word board refers to a wooden plank, a two-by-four.” He doesn’t talk about what a word “means,” as a layman might, because each word has ranges of meaning, and when these ranges of meaning come together in a complete sentence, only then can they refer to specific objects or concepts. But laymen commonly confuse meaning and referent, as though the two-by-four were the “meaning” of the word board. It isn’t. If you have doubt, look up board in the dictionary. That particular sequence of letters has dozens of meanings, each of which can refer to a whole host of things.

The same thing can happen when we talk about genres, or any marketing category, if we’re not careful. A genre, like a word, has a range of meaning, in which a range of stories (referents) can fit. And as we can confuse the word’s meaning and its referent, thinking they’re the same thing, we can confuse a genre and the stories that fall in it. In reality, a word only takes on a concrete referent within the context of a sentence, and a genre only includes a story within the context of a sale.

This may seem like a picky distinction for me to make. But failing to make this distinction is one of the things that holds back industries, or at least the establishment players in an industry. Take podcasting. The newcomers don’t know much about broadcasting, but we have plenty of time to learn, because the establishment isn’t going to move on us for some time. They’re too caught in the old way of marketing the goods.

One short story to demonstrate what I’m getting at, courtesy of Peter Drucker, from his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In the ’50’s, Macy’s, the number-one New York department store, faced a problem. They were selling too many appliances. So what’s wrong with that? Appliances had a larger profit margin, fewer returns, and less pilferage, compared to clothing sales. But you see, in that kind of store, it was considered normal to have appliance sales account for only about 30%. Macy’s saw double that, Customers used to come in to buy clothes, buying applicances only as an afterthought; now the opposite was occuring. And the only thing Macy’s could think to do was to sabotage appliance sales, to push them back down to the normal levels.

Bloomingdale’s, on the other hand, at that time number four, saw that the market had changed. They took advantage of this change and skyrocketed to the number-two spot, unseating all the contenders inbetween.

Peter Drucker writes, “The Macy’s story will be called extreme. But the only uncommon aspect about it is that the chairman was aware of what he was doing. Though not conscious of their folly, far too many managements act the way Macy’s did. It is never easy for a management to accept the unexpected success.”


Interesting discussion– good points by both! I’m bookmarking this site in case I ever get brave enough to try writing a novel again (I’m a nonfiction gal). Thanks for successfully distracting me from work for a while. 🙂

Thanks, Jenna. Good luck on your novel and other writing.


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