Don’t Write Alone | Interviews

What is Genre, Anyway?

In this conversation, author Isaac Fellman and literary agent Kate McKean discuss how writers and the publishing industry define genre . . . and realize the more you talk about it, the less clear the concept becomes.

Kate McKean: Hey, Isaac, what genre is your book?

New York Times


KM: This is a very good answer! But it is also many answers at the same time, which doesn’t always help—depending on who’s doing the asking about genre. (This is not a fault. This is just the nature of this question.) When I ask about genre as a literary agent, which is my job, I am really asking, “What shelf in the bookstore does your book go on?” There is no “trans subtext with a hint of gothic” shelf, but I would read them all if there were. Your book will go on the fiction shelf in most bookstores, though it can vary from store to store, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some put it on the fantasy shelf.

When readers ask about genre, I think they’re asking,“Is this going to be the kind of book I like?” Which is why I think authors can say whatever genre they want depending on the context. In the case of some genres (i.e. Regency romance, space opera), you have to have a certain set of characteristics to call your book that. But otherwise, few books are any one thing, even though that complicates my job.

How do you approach genre as a reader?

Pale Fire Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

KM: Unfortunately, Kate the reader has approached genre in terms of what she read, instead of what she to read. That is, until a few years ago, after my kid was born, and I gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted and not what everyone I followed on Twitter was reading. I read something like forty graphic novels that year. And more adult fiction than I’d read in many years. I have recently read a lot of a very specific type of historical novels—ones set in America, usually in the 1930s to ’50s, and usually centering a woman trying to have a career. One of my favorite books of all time is Rona Jaffe’s , and I am always trying to replicate that.

My instinct here is to say, “I don’t read these things to validate my worldview,” which of course is false. I am a white cis woman whose career is practically the center of my life, and the freedom of that choice has not always been available to women, and far less so for women of color or trans women. But even still, it is a hard choice. I want to watch how it has been hard for other women, to commiserate, or compare notes, or share in their triumph (because these books most often have a happy ending). If that’s not worldview validation, I don’t know what is.

KM: Kate the agent approaches genre more precisely, or maybe more clinically. As an agent I don’t have to know how to write all genres, but I do need to know how people buy the genres in which I focus in my work. You do not want Kate the agent to represent your political thriller about rogue CIA agents. I don’t read them. I don’t know them. I don’t know the editors who buy them. I haven’t picked up that as a genre in my professional life because it is not a genre I enjoy in my personal life—so it’s not like those are two completely separate worlds. Kate the agent approaches genre as a tool. How does categorizing this story help me get this amazing book published? How might it help connect it to the readers who will love it the most?

In turn, this has also spilled over into how I approach genre as Kate the writer. I don’t specifically set out to write A Genre when I start a project or book—I just have an idea. I assign the genre later, or my agent does—LOL—and go from there. Because I am not writing highly specific genres like Regency romance, I don’t have to worry if my book is doing the right things to fit in its genre.

The more I think about this, the less sure I am about the genre of anything! Why do you think writers and readers have a lot of feelings about genre when publishing treats it like a marketing tool and not an assessment of value (. . . mostly)?


KM: I have never contemplated a utopian view of genre, but I am absolutely giddy with the prospect. And I would have approached it solely from a publishing point of view if we were not having this conversation. From a publishing point of view, this would mean a solution to the nagging problem of book discoverability, one all of publishing has hoped <waves hand vaguely in the direction of> technology would solve. Many have tried. None have succeeded. If it were easier to find the books you really wanted to read, and have them find you, then we would (probably) be less reliant on genre foremost to organize books. I don’t think they would go away, but they would, hopefully, recede a little more in the background. Unfortunately, it seems like algorithms would be the way to address book discoverability, at least so far, and we already know how that turns out. (So far, technology has not solved this problem in any meaningful way, imho.)

From a reader’s point of view, and a writer’s, I think a utopian view of genre might eliminate some hand-wringing. Outside of bookselling, it doesn’t matter what genre your book is unless you want it to. In the process of writing this article, your book has been on a list of most anticipated queer, romance, and science fiction/fantasy books, basically all at the same time. I’m sure I’ve never had another clients’ book do that. I’m impressed. And I hope it leads to many, many different readers finding your book. It might be I am leaning toward a no-labels, everyone-wears-the-same-color-tunic utopian future, which I don’t exactly think is the best iteration, but it might be an all-or-nothing view. I don’t think our current genres necessarily need improvement. I think we just need, collectively, to understand that they are just labels and that’s it. They do not assign value.

school of thoughteverything

KM: Absolutely. Let’s consider the book on genre closed.

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