When I set out to write a novel, the last concern I had was selecting a genre. I simply wanted to tell a story I’d thought up. Having been an English major in college, an MFA student after that, and a general reader of what I deemed “quality” fiction for so long, the only descriptor I might have used (if asked or required to list) was that the tale was literary in nature.
Did that inform my work as I was writing? Well, sure. I aimed high when it came to the craft side of things, trying to compose prose of a certain quality, and including various conventions and best practices when it came to phrasings, tone, word choice, structure, etc.
So, yeah, it was a literary novel, I told myself.
Then I began building out a list of agents to query. Hmm … so many specialties exist — many I’d never heard of. You may well be an avid reader and never cross paths with some of their terms and categorizations.
Upmarket was the first I encountered (prior to looking at AgentQuery.com, btw, which doesn’t list upmarket as an agent specialty). It seemed to me to mean “literary, yet with a strong plot,” more or less — a way of stating, “the work is elevated in quality over mainstream fiction — mainstream being yet another classification, which I take it means generic fiction or commercial fiction, although I’m unsure if any active authors are out there trying to specialize in such a thing.
Hmmm, I thought. My book really *is* highly plot-driven. I think I should call it upmarket instead when querying agents. So, I tweaked my query letter a bit to include this.
But soon I found many other agents who seemed to shy away from calling anything upmarket. Instead, their wish lists included things like “plot-driven literary fiction.” Only, I couldn’t exactly pin down what the difference might be, and it kind of freaked me out! Was it that (1) these agents are less experienced and didn’t know the lingo?, or (2) these agents are more experienced and, unbenownst to me, claiming a manuscript is upmarket might be a bad thing for authors to do?
Now, my protagonist is a 27-year-old female. This threw a wrench in things because, right off the bat, in that list above, is chick lit. And, sure some of that is applicable. Wikipedia says:
At its onset, chick lit’s protagonists tended to be “single, white, heterosexual, British and American women in their late twenties and early thirties, living in metropolitan areas”.
Although, as I suspected, much within that category focuses on relationships, and this book barely touches that topic. Hmm, what about women’s fiction, though? The book does actually kinda-sorta qualify for that, in many ways.
I mention this because I was running into agents who didn’t want to see any literary or upmarket fiction, but who would love to see any women’s fiction out there. So, I looked it up, and found my book could almost be shoe-horned into such a category (esp. w/ the female protag). But, ultimately, I decided this wasn’t such a book — partly because, as a guy, I’m not sure I’d qualify as a women’s fiction author and, more importantly, the issues the book covers aren’t especially gender-specific. I think you need more than a female protag to qualify, to be frank.
Once I started browsing AgentQuery.com (pic shown above), I decided that the book could probably be described fairly well under 6 different categories, if one wanted to focus on singular aspects of the work only. For example, the book really is quite an adventure. But, I wouldn’t categorize its genre that way.
Not to worry; I had other problems still coming. You see, my novel has talking animals in it, too. And they’re pretty important to the plot. I hadn’t thought of the this fact plunging the work into any particular genre, though, when writing. If pressed, I may have thought of magical realism, for example.
Only, I didn’t see my own work that way. The fact that animals conversed didn’t strike me as magical, for some reason. Perhaps because I’d existed in that world so long, I began to take it for granted. Or, perhaps for other reasons. The general tone of my novel doesn’t come off as especially magical to me, even though, I’ll grant anyone, having talking animals is pretty bizarre. In my mind, it’s just part of the book’s world that a reader must accept. So, I was sticking with upmarket / literary, thus far.
Another thing about talking animals is that it kind of smacks of the young adult genre, or even children’s books — neither of which apply here, although I’m sure many sections would probably entertain a younger audience. But, overall, my book is for adults. It’s written with the adult world in mind, and contains lewd references from time to time — not for the kiddos.
Of course, one might ask: What constitutes an adult? Well, young adult reportedly targets readers 12–18 years old, even as the genre itself is said to be popular among much older readers (owing largely to the escapism aspect). So, young adult does reach older people. Still, my book simply isn’t for kids.
Although … there’s also a newer genre out there — new adult — that targets readers up to age 30. In this genre, you’ll find more mature circumstances, language, and sexuality. I’m mentally filing that one away, for now, as I’m not 100% certain this would be the correct genre. But, my 27-year-old main character and screwy plot may well land this book here in time. I’ve also read that this genre emerged from the self-published space, and is still considered emergent in the traditional publishing world. So, I suspect an agent could be tough to find in this niche! (Update: I’m not 100% sure this genre wasn’t a temporary fad that’s past its prime. Also, as I’ve read many times, the genre tends to imply romance, whereas I was thinking like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians — not so much for its fantasy content, but for its millennial interaction.)
Then I got to thinking about tone. Much of my book relies on humor, I realized. It’s a funny read — at least to me. And, even though many of the references are literary, they’re usually humorous as well. For example, in one scene that could be described as magical realism, a cat recounts the previous evening. On the literary side, she does so using actual metrical conventions from formal epic poetry, spouting off four pages in dactyllic hexameter. But, on the humorous side, it’s a highly outrageous scene. So, what he hell genre is that?!
So, I thought… hmm, maybe I need a humor agent. So, I went back in and looked for those. Only, many of those aren’t also fiction agents. They seem to represent witty nonfictional essay collections and books like Bossypants by Tina Fey (who is a professional comedian, mind you, which makes perfect sense for the humor genre). And, humor simply seemed the wrong main category. To me, the work might be better categorized as satire, although that’s a literary genre specialty that seems to me to be bundled into humor these days and, again, most of those agents seemed more nonfictional-oriented. So, I didn’t think I’d call it satire, even if aspects of it are indeed satirical.
I then got to thinking: Well, what are some funny novels I’ve read in the past X years? One that came to mind was You Suck by Christopher Moore. Highly funny stuff, although not especially literary. Nevertheless, I looked up that book’s classifications, and found comic fantasy, which the Wiki describes as a subgenre of fantasy, only it’s usually humorous in tone.
The problem with that, though, was that much in the fantasy world (and sub-worlds) seems to center around ogres and elves (or vampires, in Moore’s case) and magical worlds like Tolkien — maybe not 100%, but it sure seemed wrong to me call the tale fantasy. Mine’s more somehow realistic, I thought.
Which lead me to realistic fantasy. Only, again, that wasn’t it. Realistic fantasy, apparently, is Game of Thrones-type material. Another dead-end.
But, moving out more broadly on this branch of the genre spectrum, I kept running into speculative fiction, which this article does a pretty good job of explaining. The author, Annie Neugebauer, sums it up with:
Speculative fiction takes our existing world and changes it by asking “What if…?”
She then outlines 13 different sub-genres of speculative fiction, the final one being a catch-all of:
… all of those speculative stories that don’t fit neatly into fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or historical. These might include dystopian, weird tales, or surrealism.
Well, hmm. Technically, I think that’s the genre! And here I wrote an entire novel in an genre I didn’t know existed. Strange. But, I suppose everything and anything that exists has been classified by now, eh? We just don’t always know what we’re doing while we’re doing it!
That said: I still didn’t change my queries.
I guess, in the end, I thought: Is my book a literary novel with speculative qualities, or a speculative novel employing literary techniques? I went with the former, for querying purposes, as I guess I felt that I’d feel more comfortable finding a normally literary agent who’d appreciate speculative aspects than a normally speculative agent who may or may not appreciate the literary aspects (modernist conventions, literary references, the oblique meta-fictional qualities, etc.).
So, I sent out 50 agent queries last week, all geared toward upmarket / literary, but clearly showing the speculative aspect. The pitch (at least on about ~70% of them) even included the main “What if” scenarios that should be a clear tip-off that the work is speculative. We’ll see what happens, as it takes 6–8 weeks, reportedly, to hear back from many of them.
In the end, although I’ve probably created a work that’s in the offbeat / quirky category as far as AgentQuery.com is concerned, maybe that’s okay. Or, maybe this article demonstrates my tendency to absolutely over-think every damn thing, and the book is simply commercial fiction.
I began this article thinking that, if only I’d paid more attention to genre as I was writing, the next step of finding an agent and publishing might’ve been easier. That’s arguably true, at least in terms of genre / categorization. But, now that I’m thinking about it, I think it’s probably best to completely disregard genre considerations while writing — to write whatever you think is good, and to deal from there with any publishing difficulties. In the end, maybe you’ll wind up with a better work, even if you can’t sell it.
In case anyone out there actually reads this far, and feels like weighing in, I’ll share my recent Twitter pitches that sum up the work. Maybe what’s so completely elusive to me might be easily identifiable to anyone else.
If you’d like to share any thoughts on this (which I’d highly appreciate), you can hit me up here, or on Twitter. :-)
✒️ ✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!