Some MFA programs divide their students into Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry and label those as the genres they teach in. To most of us genre is more granular and usually in the fiction domain.
Genres can be useful, but in postmodern literature (a label, perhaps a genre) they can simultaneously be misleading. Yet, many publishers and agents demand a genre label and even consider a good query letter one where the author understands their genre.
This really points more to the desperation of both agents and publishers to make marketing easy. OK, not so much easy, but easier and streamlined, and to some extent self-fulfilling.
As I go through the submissions each week, I try and avoid putting any manuscript into a firm genre category. Yet, even as I avoid the traditional genre labels, I consciously have started to sort manuscripts by internal labels. Maybe they are “New Libri Genres.” This internal sorting matches up new manuscripts with our existing set of books. I am looking for patterns. Why? Because we have limited bandwidth, limited resources, and accepting manuscripts that have something in common with the READER of our existing manuscripts helps. Readers include reviewers. If I send a book to a reviewer who reviewed five our books, she will probably review the sixth one expecting it to have some commonality.
Yet, one of my favorite diatribes is the label science fiction, or fantasy. Why isn’t Never Let Me Go labeled a “science fiction?” Because Kazuo Ishiguro hates that label. He and his publisher know that the label will turn off prior readers of Remains of the Day. Despite staying away from the label the book was short listed for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Simultaneously, would Time Magazine have picked it as the best book of 2005 if it had been marketed at Science Fiction? Probably not.
Sure, the label “Science Fiction” has gained considerable credibility over the years, but it is still generally considered a literary smear.
In the Fantasy realm, the literary cop out is to label it Magical Realism. Gene Wolfe--considered by many to be one of America’s best writers (though far from the most popular even within Fantasy/Science Fiction)—famously said Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish.
Yet, the label is useful. If you hear magical realism, you probably won’t be picking up Twilight! The label is a short cut. It is useful if it is understood. The problem is with those books that you miss out on because you rely on the shortcut. “You” includes the agent, the publisher and the reader. Or, if you pick something up just because of the label. For instance the excellent book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has some interesting reviews on Amazon. A significant number of people gave it one star. If you dig into those reviews, they hated the ending. If you dig into this some more you wonder if they read the descriptions and the labels. It is a retelling of Hamlet and a good number of the critical reviewers hated that everyone died at the end (time to read Hamlet people). But, I think additionally, the label Magical Realism should have been applied. The other readers who hated it seemed to gravitate to the technique that David Wroblewski uses of magic, visions, ghosts, and potions. These were in Hamlet and fit in the Magical Realism sub-genre. The magic is just there. It is not brooded over. Readers might then have accepted it. Of course the issue was that the book also had one additional label: Oprah. Oprah highlighted this book.
She also highlighted The Road. A post apocalypse novel, McCarthy certainly did not embrace the term “science fiction.” I would venture that many Oprah fans were also surprised at how dark the book was and the label as an Oprah book mislead them.
So, don’t ignore labels, but supplement them. The best way to supplement labels for books is to read a lot of them. Then you can use the comparison label: This book is a magical realist permutation on Hamlet, with the feel of of Gene Wolf and Cormac McCarthy. A tragedy with characters that will haunt you for days. Now that will get me to read a few pages at least!