Today let’s have a little talk about genres. There are two kinds— content genres and identity genres. Each has slightly different rules, and the wise writer— or reader— will know about both kinds.
When you go to a bookstore, if they still have bookstores where you live, you see the genre signs— mystery, science fiction and fantasy, romance. These are all examples of content genres. Let’s take mystery as an example. When you pick up a book marked ‘mystery’, you expect certain things. There will be a crime— nearly always a murder— and there will be some unknown factors about this murder that need to be discovered. These unknown factors could be the identity of the murderer, the method used, or the motives behind the murder.
Another thing we expect from a book marked ‘mystery’ is that the mystery parts of the plot will be central to the story. If most of the book is taken up with the main character finding her One True Love, and the murder mystery comes in a distant second, we would call that a romance novel with mystery elements, not a mystery. If the focus of the book is on the main character’s adventures to other planets in a starship, and the murder mystery is secondary, we’d call that book science fiction with mystery elements, not a mystery.
With a content genre, the content is all we expect. We don’t demand that a science fiction author be a scientist or an astronaut. We don’t expect that all mystery writers are cops or forensic pathologists or serial killers. And we don’t think that romance writers need to have been married at least 10 times.
The identity genre is a different kettle of lentils (I’m not in the mood for fish today). Think of going to a university (make it a good one, not one that’s gone all Marxist and weird), and taking literature classes. You might find a class studying fiction by women writers, or by black writers. Women’s fiction and black fiction are identity genres, though they are not standard publishing genres that have their own section in all bookstores.
One identity genre that has its own publishing houses is Gay and Lesbian fiction. There is no requirement in this genre for a specific degree of gay content. What is required is that the author identifies as Gay and/or Lesbian. Of course many of the publishing houses in this category also expect that the main characters in novels they publish be Gay/Lesbian. But fans of this type of fiction would accept it if their favorite Gay/Lesbian author wrote a book— or a series— centered on one or more straight characters.
Christian fiction is another identity genre. There is no required amount of Christian content— J. R. R. Tolkien is widely accepted as a Christian fantasy writer (except by those who deny that Catholics are Christians) even though there is no overt Christian content in Lord of the Rings. But what is required is that the author be a practicing Christian.
There are unsung identity genres. Back when I was a Neopagan, I sought out authors that were rumored to be Neopagan or Wiccan, or authors who included Pagan themes in an approving way that made me suspect they had Pagan connections. Even though there was no official Neopagan/Wiccan fiction genre, enough people were reading it and writing it that it constituted a small identity genre.
Likewise, these days there is an emerging category of Conservative/Libertarian fiction for those with these political views. Although it’s not a bookstore category, people with conservative and/or libertarian values are sharing the names of sympathetic authors, for when they need a break from the standard Progressive values of mainstream fiction today.
Identity genres can be misunderstood. People might think of the identity genres they don’t approve of as an attempt to ‘discriminate’ against male authors or straight authors or atheist authors, since their works are not included in women’s, Gay/Lesbian, or Christian fiction.
But what the identity genre reader is really looking for is the comfort of reading something by a member of their own group, that understands aspects of their life that mainstream authors might know nothing about. In the more counter-cultural type of identity genres, it also gives the reader a rare rest from fiction that insults or misrepresents their group— such as the vast number of mainstream novels where Christians are only present as evil, hateful villains.
Content and Identity Genres and the Writer
Most how-to-write books mention the importance of a new writer knowing which (content) genre(s) they will be writing in, and understanding those genres. Lawrence Block even gives a program for researching a (content) genre.
But I’ve never heard any advice for writers on the importance of making the most of your identity genre(s). So I will give some myself. Right here. Right now.
The thing about an identity genre is that readers of such genres are extremely loyal to their favorite authors. They also give authors in their identity genre an extra chance that authors wouldn’t normally get. For example, a Christian reader who wouldn’t finish a mainstream book that starts off with a boring first chapter will likely slog through the boring first two chapters of a book by a Christian author, out of solidarity. The same applies to an atheist reader and author or a Lesbian reader and author.
Think for a moment about your different identities— your ethnicity and nationality, your gender, your political affiliation, your religious affiliation. These identities are your way of connecting with potential readers with the same identity. So don’t hide these things.
Sometimes, of course, your collection of identities can be weird. Here are some of my identities: Christian (Catholic) and faithful to the Bible & Church teachings, person with Asperger Syndrome, rural person, woman, and Lesbian (of the chaste variety due to identity #1). Certainly most readers of Lesbian fiction will spew verbal poison at me over the Christian thing (it happens a lot on my Traditional Marriage Facebook page). And a few Christian readers will be deeply suspicious of me. Then again, some people would actually be attracted to that combination.