Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Beyond genre: categories that actually matter

Okay, so, this is largely an older post. When looking up something or other, I happened to came across this post from 2015, where I proposed three categories for fiction that have nothing to do with genre, but are actually much more important to (at least my) reader experience. You can pick any genre, and I will probably like the book if it’s well written AND belongs to the first category below. Given that, I would really appreciate it if novels were accurately labeled according the following categories:

1. Books with an underlying thread of kindness. There is a warmth to the story, let us say; a generally positive feel to the book because characters — both primary and secondary, maybe antagonists as well as protagonists — show traits such as, in no particular order, honor, courage, kindness, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and so forth. And, of course, because the good guys win. Take The Death of the Necromancer. I think of it because Nicholas is a ruthless bad guy, except not really; Ronsarde is his antagonist, except not really; Reynard is acting the part of a wastrel but is . . . how did Ronsarde put it . . . “sound as a young horse.” Etc etc. Other than the necromancer and his people, only Rive Montesq is a real bad guy. And the bad guys lose, lose, lose.

Mind you, endings don’t have to be saccharine. Even ambiguous could work, but probably only ambiguous-in-a-good-way, so to speak.

All of the books I really connect with emotionally fall into this category.

2. Books where at least some of the characters are sympathetically drawn and at least reasonably likeable, but their efforts to save the world and/or become better people go nowhere. They flounder around — or maybe act decisively — but they don’t get an actual happy ending. If there is a really evil character, that person may wind up winning at the end of the book. If not, then the most important likable character may wind up committing suicide. Grimdark fantasy is like this, but so is plenty of literary fiction — it’s not a genre-specific phenomenon.

Regardless of genre, the underlying message of the book seems to be that you just can’t win against the force of human greed, stupidity, selfishness, etc. I’m thinking of Joe Abercrombe’s First Law trilogy . Also of mysteries like Tana French’s In The Woods. Also of literary works like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Oh, another example: Jack Chalker’s Flux and Anchor series, where the ultimate conclusion is that the best decent people can do is create a bubble universe and shut themselves away from the rest of humanity, which can then go to hell without them having to watch. I read Chalker when I was a kid, and I still remember first realizing what it looks like when the universe is set up so the good guys can’t win. You may recall that Chalker wound up on quick list of authors who don’t appeal to me anymore. This can’t-win theme is partly why. (He has other deep themes running through his fiction that I also don’t like.)

Books like these can be brilliantly written, but quality of writing doesn’t matter: I loathe them. I finished all of the above books, but these days I definitely, definitely take a more emotionally distant stance toward a book like this as it begins to show signs of going in that kind of negative direction. Then, when it concludes in some awful way, I write off all other books by those authors forever. Them and me: not sympatico. At least, not in an author/reader way, I expect they’re all great people if you know them personally.

3. Books where all the characters are horrible people. I doubt I have ever finished a book like this. I guess the underlying message of such a book could be perceived as People Are Ugly and Life Is Ugly. An example I know of is Gone Girl. Both Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers found Gone Girl “compulsively readable,” but in such terms that I’m quite certain I would find it eminently resistible.

There’s probably something in there between 1 and 2. I mean obviously there’s a whole infinite string of gradations between 1 and 2, and probably between 2 and 3 for that matter. I guess I’d say that my favorite novels, regardless of where they’re shelved in a bookstore or library, probably range from 1.0 to 1.3 or so. It would be quite helpful for some objective reviewer to stamp a number code between 1.0 and 3.0 on every novel in existence; that’d sure help me sort through my TBR pile faster.

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7 Comments Beyond genre: categories that actually matter

  1. Elaine T

    Link that supposed to go the Book Smugglers, about Gone Girl, actually goes to an Amazon entry on Chalker.

    I must say I did see what they said about GG and was not inclined to read it. I dropped their site as a regular visit because so much of that was happening.

    It would be nice if who ever is making classification entries would include that sort of information. I do try to get such info across when I write reviews.

  2. Kootch

    Agree with Hanneke, I feel cheated when a book falls under No.2 because it wasted my time. Also guaranteed to make me NOT READ ANYTHING BY THAT AUTHOR AGAIN. Example – Bryce Courtenay’s “Jessica” where I waited and waited and WAITED for the good girl to finally win and the horrible characters to get their comeuppance. Never happened and then, poof! she’s dead and I’m like: I really, really hate this. Goodbye, Bryce.

  3. Irina

    I’m currently reading a series of locally (to me) set thrillers, frankly very badly written but the protagonist and some of the secondary characters are SUCH GOOD PEOPLE, and TRYING SO HARD. Even some of the antagonists are basically good people, including the proverbial whore with a heart of gold (who we sadly don’t see much of before she becomes Casualty #1). I’d call it 1.1 on your scale. I don’t read it for the writing but for the people. (Also for the plot; this writer may not read enough to be able to write, but he does know how to plot and pace.)

  4. Rachel

    Thank you, Hanneke! If someone ever sensibly makes me God-Emperor, I’ll get on that.

  5. Rachel

    Kootch, you know that feeling as you get closer and closer to the end and nothing is falling into place? And you start thinking, Oh, um, hey, is this … one of those books?

    Yeah. And yet you feel compelled to finish the book just in case the good girl DOES win in some clever way. And then she dies and … yeah.

  6. Rachel

    Irina, I understand completely. There are definitely books I like quite a bit that are not, objectively, very good. Plus, if the author gets the pacing right, the book can be quite a page-turner even if it’s not that good in other ways.

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