Into which pigeonhole does this book fit?

picture of bookshelf filled with booksThe recent brouhaha over science fiction and science fiction romance has got me thinking about genre. It’s a necessary concept. When I walk into a bookstore (or look up an online bookstore) I don’t what to have to trawl through the eleventy-billion books I really won’t be interested in reading, so I’m glad the shelves are marked. Personally, I’ll head for the SFF section first (Science Fiction and Fantasy – they always seem to be lumped together). There, you’ll find books by Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, Elspeth Cooper, George R. R. Martin, Jack Mc Devitt, C.J. Cherryh, Star Wars, Star Trek and also vampires, werewolves and the like. But not science fiction romance – not on physical shelves, anyway. I found Linnea Sinclair’s books in the romance section. The only reason I found them was because I was looking – I do not normally read romance.

Genre, you see. It’s all about marketing. Into which pigeonhole does this book fit? I had some fun drawing a diagram to illustrate some of the complexities of genre.

diagram of ranges in genreSome genres are pretty easy. In romance, the romance must be the focus of the plot, and it must have a happy ever after (HEA) ending or a happy for now (HFN) ending. I talked about the rules of romance here. But every genre has ‘shades of grey’ (yeah, yeah). Science fiction ranges between hard SF and soft SF. I discussed that here. On the hard SF – soft SF line, I’d put most space opera sort of in the middle. Star Wars and Star Trek would definitely be down the soft SF end, McDevitt’s books would be down the hard SF end. Romance has its continuum, too, often expressed in degrees of ‘heat’ (ie explicit sex scenes). In ‘sweet’ romance, the scene stops at the bedroom door. In erotic romance, the sex is explicit.

Now we get to science fiction romance, which is a combination of two genres. The SCIENCE romance – ROMANCE science line indicates what is the most important focus of the work. Would we have a story without the romance? Would we have a story without the science? I would suggest that real SFR should be down the science ROMANCE end – I think Avatar is a good example. Without the romance, there is no story. The science is of less importance. And in Avatar the explicitness of the sex component is most definitely ‘sweet’. Interestingly enough, one of McCaffrey’s early works, Restoree, is listed in science fiction. Yet Restoree is without a doubt science fiction romance, with a ‘sweet’ tag on the sex register.

It’s a pretty complex combination of components.

So what is this analysis all about? I’m reviewing where I want my own work to fit.

When I started writing, I knew I’d write SF because that’s what I like. But I wanted to add a bit of emotion to my writing. Most SF either seemed to leave out love and sex (Asimov), or it was so understated that it almost disappeared. An example of the latter is Moon’s Serrano series. SF was pulp fiction, with an expectation that it was fast-paced action-adventure. A response to a query I sent to a publisher around 2008 reinforced that belief. “Well written, but needs more action.” So I added more action. Still no cigar.

Okay, what about science fiction romance? Ah, but the SFR books are in the romance section. This has an advantage in one way, because romance sales are way, way more than SF. But it seems only a small subset of romance readers will read SF. Moreover, the expectation for the romance genre is that the romance is the core of the book. No romance, no story. I can honestly say that not one of my books fits that definition. Of them all, the Iron Admiral duo come closest and even with those two I had to do some serious tweaking for my editor to agree it had earned a romance tag.

We are told that sticking to one genre when writing is a good idea. And it makes sense. Let’s go back to that bookshop and see where we go shopping, how we go shopping. I can give an example from my own experience. I read Elizabeth Moon’s SF books. So I bought Speed of Dark. But that book, award winner though it is, is about her son’s autism. I wasn’t in the least bit interested. I had a similar experience with a Ruth Rendell novel that wasn’t what I had expected,

With that in mind, I resolved to write SFR, albeit with less emphasis on the romance. However, it meant I had to come up with convincing HEA or HFN outcomes for my protagonists. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it hasn’t always been a satisfying outcome for me – or my readers. I’m now going back and making some changes to Starheart, removing the HEA ending and downplaying the romance element. I’ll do some tweaking to Morgan’s Choice, too. Some of the rules of romance just don’t sit comfortably with me.

What’s the outcome? Well, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed read with a complex plot – come on in, sit right down. Would you like to call that pulp fiction? Sure. Will there be some emotional elements, some sex? Sure. Love is a powerful emotion, sex is a fundamental driving force. You’ll find those things in everything I write. Do I do my research? You bet I do. I try to make my science sound, my history correct, my settings convincing. I suppose, when it comes right down to it, I’d prefer to see my books in the science fiction section. Both they, and I, feel more comfortable there.

11 thoughts on “Into which pigeonhole does this book fit?

  1. Errol Patton

    Momentarily setting aside the rather inaccurate suggestion that romance is only just now working its way into SFnal contexts, when anyone who grew up reading Anne McCaffrey or Lois McMaster Bujold could tell you it had been there for decades – and rather successfully, I might add, given the number of major awards collected between just those two women – there’s a serious issue with Sharp’s approach. While there’s certainly some utility in distinguishing the differing roles that romance can play in various stories, it’s grossly inaccurate to say that, if the romance has primary status, then nothing else really matters to the narrative — and especially not when you’ve already made the distinction between “real” sci-fi and the romantic kind. This sort of sloppy generalisation helps nobody. Then there’s a question of understanding the field. Sci fi is reasonable well defined by this point. Most people who write in the genre know what it is about. They have their favourite authors, but they’ve probably all read at least some of the same stuff… it’s a big soup of shared cultural references that we all get, right?

  2. nancyrae4

    Love your blog. It’s great reading intelligent opinions on what seems to me a tiny but wonderful genre, SFR. Since I’m a firm believer in the semi-happy or not so happy ending, I’m not sure my novels will fit the romance template. In any case, I’ve decided to write my second novel with more of everything. More romance, sex, and science. It always comes down to, when in doubt, just write!

  3. Laurel C Kriegler

    I’m SO glad I’m not the only person to note that quite a lot of what Anne McCaffrey wrote (ok, I’m extrapolating from your reference to Restoree here 🙂 ) is SFR. That said, I’ve been having this exact discussion with several writers over the last few days. It’s so difficult to ignore genres even as it is difficult to embrace them and define just *where* one’s book(s) fit(s). One friend has even mentioned logging their book as “Fiction” and leaving it at that. 🙂

  4. rinellegrey

    Finding a genre that fits can be hard! My books are more romance than sci-fi, but I’m not sure I could take either of them out and still have a complete book. Mostly, they are on a continuum. I like the fact that on virtual bookshelves, you can be on more than one shelf at once. (Though I don’t really feel comfortable putting my book on the Sci-Fi shelves.)

  5. Marj

    I’m afraid my books just refuse to be pigeon-holed. And I wouldn’t call them ‘literary fiction’ either. But as they’re not in any physical bookstore, maybe it doesn’t matter.
    An interesting article.

  6. juliabarrett

    Huh. Interesting. I love your diagram, by the way. Hard to find the midpoint. I sort of write according to the maxim– You can’t please all of the people all of the time and just tell the story.

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