More than definition, genre is a matter of emphasis. No novel is exclusively one genre. Nearly every novel ever written draws from multiple genres in terms of plot devices, themes, and stylistic presentation.
I’ve heard a lot of writers (myself included) worry about how to put their genre-blending novel into a demographic category without pigeonholing their writing. But defining genre depends on what you want to emphasize.
Is it the unique relationship between one character and another? An overarching theme of social change? A mass conflict of some kind? Think what you could dispense of without losing the heart of the story. Or, conversely, what you can’t dispense of. Under what circumstances would the plot of your novel be simply not possible? Once you have the answer, then you have an idea of which parts you should highlight the next time someone asks what your novel is about.
What I mean is this: while genre-marketing may be useful for communicating the archetypal categories a book falls into, the list of genre elements incorporated into a single work are usually unintentionally extensive. The Night Circus, for instance, is a novel of magical realism that is also historical fiction, mystery, and romance.
As a fantasy writer, I speak from what I know: the things many fantasy fans love about fantasy (the magic, the races, the extensive lore, the aesthetic) are what many non-fantasy fans tend to dislike most about it. One cannot expect a fan of contemporary thrillers to get butterflies looking at a David Eddings cover.
“I can’t relate to this character, their life is nothing like mine. And can’t xe just solve all xir problems with magic? It’s magic. These things aren’t real.”
These are all complaints I’ve received from people not well-exposed to fantasy works beyond Harry Potter. (Of course, not all fantasy strictly needs magic to be fantasy, but that’s a point all of its own.) For fans of contemporary, fantasy elements can be very hard to swallow, if readers aren’t used to interpreting worldbuilding cues.
Perhaps this is why epic and dark fantasy can be trends within the fantasy niche while a subgenre like urban fantasy (The Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson, Twilight) can become a fad of the widespread reading community. More familiar settings, modern-day problems, and easy-to-understand limits for why the supernatural is or isn’t present (a “no mortal shall see” mentality) make it more accessible.
For instance, when readers think of The Mortal Instruments, a lot of readers remember the sex, the troubled souls, and the LGBTQ themes before they remember the background of mythical races or oppressive supernatural politics. Though the series received a general popular acclaim, critics highlight the characters as too shallow, the tropes as over-the-top, and the storytelling as indulgent. This is because the character conflicts are mostly relational, and could be adapted into completely different settings or genre bases without much consequence. For the popular audience, it was a teen drama with supernatural elements. For a supernatural/fantasy audience, it was a dissatisfying delivery of the genre.
Though The Mortal Instruments is fantasy, it was not marketed to fantasy fans because it would not have been successful. For many contemporary readers, meanwhile, it was entertaining and relatable.
The Shattered Seas trilogy, on the other hand, is technically not fantasy. It’s a sort of apocalyptic sci-fi, or maybe what I would call a post-dystopia. And yet, it is marketed alongside fantasy novels, because it knows very well that fantasy fans like me make up the primary audience. Sword battles, sea voyages, kings, “Elf-Ruins,” and medieval aesthetics-what’s not to appeal to a typical fantasy reader? If marketed to traditional sci-fi or dystopia fans, you understand why these books may not quite tickle the palate.
Is it important to define books by genre? Without much reservation, I think I can say yes. All you need to do is scroll through the reviews for these books on GoodReads. Watch out for which story aspects are complimented or rejected, and in what context, and you’ll see how the disparity of expected content can affect a readership.
However, this should never encourage writers to censor written content to fit into a genre box-what’s important is knowing what audience will be most receptive to the most intrinsically necessary parts of your novel, and making a good show of them when you’re prepared to promote it. Happy writing!