The future is genre-blending, and it’s in full bloom. Here’s why your next novel shouldn’t fit neatly into any one pot.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re standing on top of a grassy hill. Spread out before you is a vast meadow of wildflowers. It’s an ocean of undulating color—slow, kaleidoscopic waves as far as the eye can see. It’s the peak of summer and the fragrant breeze smells of fertility—rich soil and uninhibited growth.
That sprawling meadow is the current landscape of popular fiction.
The golden yellows of mainstream fiction are everywhere—patches of daisies and towering sunflowers—but so, too, are the various shades of genre fiction. The scarlet sage, red poppies and crimson clover scattered about constitute romance. Fantasy is blue sage and chicory. The whites of wild carrot and wood anemone are science fiction. Purple flowers like cow vetch and violets are mystery and thrillers. The orange of the tiger lilies is horror.
It’s a spectacular sight, and if you look closer, you’ll notice vast stretches where the flowers have cross-pollinated to create new blooms with multi-colored petals of varying sizes and shapes. The beauty of this new, hybrid flora is breathtaking—reds blending with oranges and yellows; mélanges of purples, blues and white. The combinations of color are seemingly endless and appear to be changing right before your eyes.
Now, if I were to ask you to visualize this scene roughly three decades ago—the metaphorical meadow would’ve looked radically different. Walls built of fieldstone would snake throughout the landscape, separating the wildflowers by color.
There’s no doubt about it: Today’s climate is one in which genre-blended novels are a fixture on bookshelves and bestseller lists. And understanding this ever-changing landscape of popular fiction will help you learn how to take advantage of the opportunities arising from those ecological shifts.
The Old-World Model
Back in the late ’80s and ’90s—before becoming a book critic—I managed multiple Coles and Waldenbooks stores in New York and witnessed this strict demarcation firsthand. The rift between fiction and the various genre categories was much deeper than simple shelving designations. The vast majority of book buyers—at least the ones in my stores—had relatively fixed reading habits. There were a handful of romance readers, for example, who came in on the same day every week to purchase all of the various Harlequin offerings. They would head straight to the romance section, gather up the new releases, then head to the cash wrap. Science fiction and fantasy readers rarely scoured the mystery shelves. Literary readers seldom explored the genre fiction aisles. The boundaries between categories were clearly defined. If you ever examine a novel released back then—and in the decades before—chances are good that you’ll find a label of some kind on the cover classifying the novel’s category. I’ve got hundreds of old paperbacks on my shelves with their category right on the spine: “Science Fiction,” “Fantasy,” “Mystery.”
While these labels were arguably just another way to market the respective titles in an overly straightforward way, they were also useful in accurately describing the narrative content. Romance novels, for example, featured classic romance elements—readers knew a novel labeled Romance wouldn’t contain sentient robots or insectoid gods from another dimension bent on wiping out humankind. The marketing of novels back then was all about familiarity: familiar cover art philosophies, familiar storylines, returning readers to that safe, comfortable headspace again and again.
Three decades ago you’d struggle to find any commercially successful genre-hybridizing novels—and that’s in large part because there simply weren’t that many being published. Those fieldstone walls separating mainstream fiction from genre fiction were thick and impermeable, making it virtually impossible for a cross-pollinated novel to make it to the shelves. The concerns from agents and publishers were myriad: Who was the audience? Where would it be shelved? How could it be marketed? Where was that comfortable familiarity?
I know what you’re thinking: Genre-blending narratives are certainly nothing new. Algernon Blackwood, for example, published stories featuring psychic doctor John Silence back in the early 1900s. These tales were essentially hybridized supernatural fiction and mystery. But such releases were never truly embraced by mainstream readers—the audience was niche.
That paradigm began to change during my time as a bookstore manager. In the late ’80s, Plume released Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: the first installment of his Dark Tower sequence, a series of novels that audaciously blends together elements of dark fantasy, Western, science fiction and horror. The sales of this uncategorizable novel and its follow-ups like The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands were phenomenal—I remember every title in this series being at the top of regional and national bestseller lists for months. Unsurprisingly, other commercially successful genre-blending series soon followed. In 1991, Diana Gabaldon published Outlander, a 850-page debut novel that fused together historical fiction and romance with time travel. This shelf-bender of a hardcover sold so well I had trouble keeping it in stock for an entire holiday season.
Slowly but surely, those fieldstone walls were crumbling piece by piece. One of the biggest selling—and certainly most divisive—series in the ’90s was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake saga, about a polyamorous female necromancer who hunts down and executes rogue supernatural creatures. Although Hamilton had finished the first novel (Guilty Pleasures) in the early ’80s, the novel was rejected more than 200 times before Ace Books finally published it in 1993. Guilty Pleasures was indeed a book ahead of its time.
Like The Dark Tower series, Hamilton’s Anita Blake saga was uncategorizable—utilizing elements from horror, romance, hard-boiled mystery, fantasy and erotic fiction. This was the series that finally obliterated the fieldstone walls. During my time as a bookstore manager—and later as an editor for Barnes & Noble—I saw the Anita Blake novels shelved in horror, fantasy, romance, mystery and, finally, fiction. Think about that for a moment: A series that was legitimately shelved in five different categories. The question was no longer where to shelve the books or how to market them, but where to find more comparable series for an audience that was frothing at the mouth for more genre-blending literary escapism.
It’s fitting that on Jan. 1, 2000, Hamilton released her first hardcover Anita Blake novel, entitled Obsidian Butterfly. It marked the beginning of a new year, as well as a new era in popular fiction. The novel was commercially successful and critically acclaimed (Publishers Weekly called it a “monstrously entertaining read”), and shortly after the success of this release, the shelves were inundated with paranormal fantasy series like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, Kim Harrison’s Hollows and Kat Richardson’s Greywalker. Each one of these series is unique in their own cross-pollinated way. Richardson’s Greywalker, for example, is an addictively readable fusion of classic Raymond Chandler-esque mystery and dark fantasy, while Harris’ Southern Vampire novels are a light-hearted mix of romance, fantasy and mystery.
While reader demand (and publishers finally understanding the windfalls of releasing cross-pollinated novels and series) is an obvious reason why this evolution gained momentum after 2000, the cultural impact of technological advances cannot be understated. The rise of internet commerce and e-readers—coupled with the astronomical increase of digital and indie publishing releases—gave readers virtually unlimited (and cheap) alternatives to traditional published, printed fare. Readers could now find their literary escapism online—and the anarchic nature of self-published novels meant buying books was like a box of chocolates: You never knew what you were going to get! It was here in the largely unexplored wilderness of self-published releases where I found—and continue to find—some of the most bizarre (and, in some cases, wildly entertaining) cross-pollinated storylines I’ve ever read.
The New Normal
Years passed and naysayers said time and again that the rise of genre-hybridization was just a trend—it would eventually burst. Well, let me tell you, the bubble hasn’t popped. In fact, it has evolved slowly and subtly to the point that now—in 2018—it’s become the New Normal.
As a book critic who has reviewed thousands of novels over the last two decades, I’ve seen some remarkable changes in popular fiction, not only in the increasing hybridized nature of the narrative content but in the way in which novels are marketed and reviewed.
As I stated earlier, fitting comfortably into one category used to be a good thing for a new release. Readers knew exactly what they were getting. But today’s Age of Amazon is a different world. Readers are far more adventurous, seeking out and popularizing genre-blending releases that would once have been considered niche (think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith or Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs). Books are now often marketed in multiple categories in an effort to appeal to as many audiences as possible. Take The Passage, the first book in Justin Cronin’s brilliant Passage trilogy. If you visit any brick-and-mortar bookstore, you’ll probably find the series shelved under general fiction. But on Amazon, it’s listed under Mystery, Thriller and Suspense; Supernatural: Vampires; Conspiracies; and Epic Fantasy.
Every week I receive dozens of press releases, and find the same kind of marketing philosophy implemented there. In February 2018, Tom Sweterlitsch released his stellar novel The Gone World. If a comparable novel was published three decades ago, it would’ve been sold as conventional science fiction. But in 2018, the press release for The Gone World touted it as a “must-read genre bender” and a “science-fiction thriller [that] truly transcends genres.”
A similar shift becomes evident when looking back at my early reviews. Those I wrote for Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and The Chicago Tribune all have the category right in the opening sentence: “The latest installment in the fantasy saga,” “a page-turning thriller,” and so on. But perusing the reviews I’ve written within the last few years, many of the storylines are so cross-pollinated that I have to start reviews with descriptions like “a dark and disturbing fusion of suspense, horror, and thriller elements ...” Or “a smooth blend of science fiction and police procedural …” My Kirkus review for The Gone World is a perfect example. It starts: “Sweterlitsch’s latest is a mind-blowing fusion of science fiction, thriller, existential horror and apocalyptic fiction.”
The Opportunity for Authors
Let’s revisit the metaphorical field of wildflowers. That smell of fertile soil and uninhibited growth means narrative opportunity for writers adventurous enough to pen a novel that might have been considered uncategorizable in past decades. Category isn’t all that important anymore—it’s all about the quality of the story itself.
Perhaps the most important takeaway: Anything is possible in this New Normal—and that’s a thrilling prospect for writers, readers and publishers alike. Readers get intriguing new plots. Publishers get novels that are innovative and fresh. Writers are able to play in an exponentially larger sandbox where the potential for exciting new storylines are virtually limitless.
While there will always be an audience for distinct conventional fiction and genre fiction, this fusion will continue to fuel the future, only becoming more omnipresent. In an interview I did with Laurell K. Hamilton for BarnesandNoble.com back in 2014, we discussed the appeal of genre-blending novels and the future of popular fiction. What she said struck me then, and still holds power more than four years later: “The landscape of genre and fiction in general has changed forever. There is no going back.”
Hamilton is right. The cross-pollination of popular fiction isn’t just an evolution, it’s a revolution—where everybody wins.
This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Writer's Digest magazine.