So, obviously I’m still thinking a bit about genre and about essential subgenres. This is actually a slightly different take on the issue: I feel it would be quite defensible to create what we might call super-genres (or infragenres, or something like that).
Categories that pull books out of multiple classic genres to form a chunk of fiction that is cohesive, yet straddles ordinary genre boundaries.
One obvious choice for this kind of inclusive super-genre would be historicals. Here are the types of stories that ought to be included in this particular super-genre:
- Everything currently assigned to the historical genre.
- A lot of alternate history, but not the ones that most closely resemble modern life. Things like The Guns of the South by Turtledove.
- The most historical of historical romances. That is, novels in which the romance itself, while important, does not entirely overwhelm the historical elements. A fantastic example here would be Softly Falling by Carla Kelly.
- Alternate historical romances, such as Courtney Milan’s Countess Conspiracy. (This is probably a small group, but there it is.)
- Historical fantasy, such as Judith Merkle Riley’s wonderful Margaret of Ashbury novels, for example.
- Historical magical realism, like A Winter’s Tale by Helprin.
- Secondary world fantasy that feels historical, like Death of The Necromancer or One Night in Boukos.
- Certain kinds of time travel novels, like Island in the Sea of Time by Stirling, where modern people wind up way back in time somewhere. Or Black Out / All Clear by Connie Willis.
- Literary novels that involve time travel, like Kindred by Octavia Butler.
- Historical mysteries, like the Brother Cadfael mysteries.
- Historical narrative nonfiction, like The Boys in the Boat.
That’s ten categories that would belong to four different fiction genres — historical, romance, fantasy, and science fiction — plus one nonfiction category for good measure. They belong together in one super-genre because readers that like one of these categories are so likely to like every other type of story on this list. Not every individual book (obviously). That would be a little much to ask. But all the categories.
If a reader enjoys historical novels but doesn’t like romances, well, that reader is likely to enjoy the right romances. Doesn’t like fantasy? Rather than recommending one of the standard secondary world titles, however popular or classic, recommend a secondary world that feels like a historical and see how that works. Someone who says they’re bored by nonfiction might love a compelling narrative nonfiction work.
Imagine shelving books according to this supergenre — BOOM, readers would suddenly be invited to browse much, much broader categories of books they might well truly love. This would be especially great as a way of encouraging readers who may think they dislike whole genres to consider trying the kinds of books in those genres they are most likely to enjoy.
It would be super easy to do the same kind of list for romances. Does the story have romance beats, in addition to belonging to whatever genre? Throw it in the same super-genre.
- Historical-romances, as distinct from historical romances. I’m thinking of Gillian Bradshaw here, rather than Regencies. The story has clear romance beats, but spread out and embedded in tons of historical storytelling.
- Paranormal romance.
- Fantasy-romances, such as almost anything by Sharon Shinn.
- Magical realism romances, such as Sarah Addison Allen’s lovely stories.
- Science-fiction-romances, such as Komarr / A Civil Campaign by LMB or anything by Leanna Sinclair.
- Cozy mysteries, which are almost defined by including a strong romance plot as well as the mystery plot.
If someone mostly browses the “Romance” shelves at a bookstore, well, wouldn’t they be really very likely to like all of the above categories? I think they would.
You know, you could also break out a grim, depressing worldview super-genre that could include:
- Most or at least a whopping proportion of literary novels.
- Grimdark fantasy.
- Whatever the grimmest category of SF is called … is there one? Come up with a term for this category and include that in this super-genre.
- Lovecraftian horror where the basic idea is that everyone is dead or crazy at the end. Any other horror like that, whether or not it has specifically Lovecraftian elements.
- Mysteries or suspense novels where the bad guy gets away with everything and justice fails, like In the Woods by Tana Frence. Goes double if the good guys ruin their own lives through their own failures, which also happens in In the Woods.
Put all those together in one place and think how efficiently I could avoid the whole lot of them. That would be quite helpful. You could set up an Amazon search: Everything in this supergenre. Nothing in this supergenre. I’m liking this idea more and more. This kind of thing would be so much more useful than marketing categories such as “young adult” or “new adult” or even “chick lit.”
What other supergenres might be delineated that would help you efficiently find books you’d probably like and avoid books you’d probably loathe?
7 thoughts on “BIG genre: historicals”
I really like this idea. Though despite my love of Sharon Shinn, I’m not sure I’d appreciate romances without some element of the fantastic.
As for SF grimdark, I think the canonical example is Warhammer 40,000. I’ve never read any of the novels (and don’t plan to), but from what I’ve googled, it may well be the progenitor of the term “grimdark”.
Your comment about “a whopping proportion of literary novels” made me chuckle, because that’s definitely why I steer clear of literary as a general rule. Just too miserable a lot of the time.
I actually do think of YA as being a super-genre, since it has some defining characteristics in terms of the type of protagonist and some of the the character arc beats, but can include literary, sff, mystery, etc.
I’d say that maybe mystery/criminal investigation stories could be a category – there’s a mystery section, but then lots of books that get billed as sff or other genres also have an investigation plot at their core.
I don’t know, Robert, when you have nothing else to do, maybe you should try Softly Falling and see what you think. Or … do you like Gillian Bradshaw? Because those are very very history-heavy but also romances.
I’ve never looked at Warhammer and after this comment, I definitely don’t plan to.
Sarah, exactly. Every now and then I try something literary and it falls once again into the high-misery-quotient category and I wonder why I even thought of trying it in the first place (usually it was a book at a sale that had a nice first paragraph).
YA is a different kind of super-genre; it includes allll the other genres, but it’s absolutely all over the place in tone, style, grimness quotient, everything except the age of protagonist and usually a coming of age theme. I’d rather have my kind of super-genre, where the type of novel is more predictable and the age of the protagonist is not relevant.
What about Dorothy Dunnett? Heroic historical romantic fiction plus minus a small amount of the supernatural?
Ha, yes, this is exactly how I decide what I want to read. Also, this is why I am so drawn to YA as a super-genre. True, YA is incredibly diverse, but has the POV of a not-quite-finished person, which, among other things, means things will be experienced for the first time, from a perspective of naiveté that allows for unexpected responses; and there is a future to hope for, and strong motivation to change the world so it’s a hopeful future.
Academic types have insisted in my hearing that the REAL genres are novel, epic, etc.
There’s an important difference between the first two supergenre suggestions and the last, between recommendation and aversion. Is it likely that people who really like _In the Woods_ will also like “The Colour Out of Space”? I’m looking in from outside, but I kind of doubt it.
That said, both of them sound useful to actual readers who are trying to broaden out.