In a reprise of recent lectures he has given on the subject of Theme and Genre, Irish hybrid author Laurence O'Bryan welcomes the new freedom offered by the indie publishing movement for authors to write what they want to write and what readers truly want to read.
Why do some books sell, and others don't? This is a serious question, especially if you hope to make a living as a writer.
Some of us are compelled to tell a story. If that is the case, we can do nothing else but give in to the urge. After the novel or memoir has wound its way out of us, we often get an urge to write something else. I know I do. I see stories of injustice or mysterious secrets, and I want to place them in a novel. But which of these stories should I choose for my next series?
I recently presented on the subject of Theme & Genre at a university, a writers' centre and a writers' conference. This subject interests me, because, about ten years ago I made a conscious decision to use genre as a route to achieve an audience for my writing. Previously, I spent five years writing a literary novel which went nowhere.
How Do We Choose Genres?
When each of us thinks about our journey as a writer, we must also think about our journey to find readers and what we have to change to do that.
The first question I asked in the sessions earlier this year was what genre the writers in the group liked to read. Skipping from one genre to another is possible, but for many of us our journeys are to the genre that we like most.
William Faulkner used the occasion of his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1950 – linked here on YouTube – to tell aspiring writers:
“The pre-eminent theme of great literature is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
The themes we think we choose are often chosen for us, by our childhood, the traumas we went through or by our character.
If I think back to traumatic moments, I find it easy to understand my allegiance to themes of injustice and secrets, which inspire my work.
Which Themes Appeal to Readers?
Themes are the little things that compel readers to buy a book, not knowing the writer or the writing. I know this is true, because I will buy a book and wade through mountains of prose, if it’s about a theme that I’m interested in.
I wonder if I reordered my bookshelf or Kindle by theme, would I find it mirroring my interests?
Popular vs Literary Fiction
Hugh Howey, the grand master of hybrid publishing, is right to point out that the majority of books sold in English speaking countries are either:
- romance (including erotica, representing over 50% of book sales) or
- mystery (we call it crime in the UK & Ireland), thrillers, YA & Sci-Fi (perhaps another 35% for these 4 genres)
This leaves about 15% for literary fiction, which is probably a little generous.
Yet still most prizes, newspaper reviews and academic writing programs focus on that 15%. Elitism, group thinking and snobbery inspire this wilful ignoring of the themes that most of want to read about and write about.
Novels about romance, sex, violence, crime, adventure, mystery and the future probably pay for the traditional publication of most literary novels too.
The Rules of Genre
Anyone who thinks genre is a straightjacket is wrong too. The rules of each genre provide a positive energy as well as a negative one. Formula works, because it is proven to attract and satisfy. If we wish to do both as storytellers, we must use the rules of genre and stretch them.
In The Writer’s Journey, Christoper Vogler states that theme must inspire every word of a novel. I found this idea daft on first reading it, but later came to the conclusion that Vogler was right.
This also made me wonder why theme and genre are not considered more widely when we take up our keyboards. If we are about to set off on a long journey, aiming for a place we do not know much about, at least if we understand our themes, we have a chance to navigate and keep our work true to the direction we aim for.
If we deal in universal themes, our writing is likely to appeal more widely than we think.
But what are the universal themes? I believe the term genre is another way of saying universal theme. I believe that romance, sex, violence, crime, adventure, mystery and wonder at the future are the themes of our age.
Theme also provides a spine for our stories. Themes give purpose to our characters and provide the twists we need for our stories to end with a satisfying climax.
New Opportunities within Indie Publishing
I hope that as independent authors we do not take on the snobbery of the industry we are leaving behind. I hope that we are open to all genres, without prejudice, because they reflect the universal themes of our age.
It appears likely that a great exodus will occur from publishing companies at some point as the process of self publishing and marketing becomes ever more simplified. For the vast majority of traditionally-published authors, the income they generate from publishing is so small, and the potential upside so great, that most will, I believe, forsake the ever more limited benefits of being with a traditional publisher.
I hope this new independent publishing world will provide a non-discriminatory environment, open to the telling of every type of story. I hope also that as you look around for what to write about next, that you will consider what drove you to write, what stories line your bookcase, and what appeals most to readers: universal themes.
Suggested tweet to share this post:
“How #selfpublishing offers indie authors greater choice of theme and genre by @LPOBryan https://selfpublishingadvice.org/theme-and-genre-choices/ via @IndieAuthorALLi”