We’ve all seen the covers. They beckon, they tease, and excite. And they are easily recognizable, prompting recollection and motivating interest. By repeatedly displaying subtle variations of highly evocative imagery–knives dripping blood or lawyers in court, lovers in passionate embrace or men with glistening muscular physiques gripping machine guns, quaint cottages and country scenes or couples walking hand-in-hand, as well as specific author’s branding through repetitive formatting and fonts–the covers of “genre” novels signal familiarity and broadcast that readers’ expectations will be satisfied. Their titles, too, speak boldy and unambiguously of the novels’ plots and characters, leaving little doubt in potential readers’ minds about what the books are about.
Genre fiction, also labeled “popular” or “commercial,” has strong mass-market appeal that is centered in a variety of common themes that match readership followings. These are the books up front and face-forward on big, commercial bookstores’ shelves, the “pocket” paperbacks in airport book racks, the books featured for casual and genre browsers on amazon.com and powells.com, wherever the high demand for them is met. They are easy reads and the best are always entertaining page-turners.
If you are a writer, you probably know these novels are easier to write than “literary” fiction, and in many instances are turned out in multiples per year. Popular genre fiction tends to be formulaic: the length not too long and the prose not too wordy or poetic; the plot primary, straightforward, action-driven and fast-paced; and the characterization subordinate to the plot, which unfolds through what the characters do and say. The writing is clear and accessible and the story conventions followed tend to be specific to each genre category or sub-genre. In commercial fiction, these categories most commonly include romance, mystery, thriller, action-adventure, horror, gothic, historical, western, and writing for juveniles or young adults, but there are many more sub-categories–more than one hundred in all! (My next post includes a long list of genres and sub-genres.) If this degree of categorization isn’t confusing enough, many of these genres play mix-and-match, sometimes crossing the once inviolable boundaries between popular genre, “mainstream” and “literary” fiction (described in depth in an upcoming post), and there is often disagreement about the assignment of the representative labels or whether or not some sub-genres should exist at all.