Guest Post: Genre Confusion (Michael Landweber)

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Last week I reviewed Thursday 1:17 PM. Today I’m happy to be part of the book’s blog tour with a special guest post on by its author, Michael Landweber. Click any of the blog names above to visit other stops on the tour.

Michael Landweber lives and writes in Washington, DC. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, Barrelhouse and American Literary Review. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review and a contributor to Washington Independent Review of Books. Michael has a soft spot for movies about talking animals and does not believe he would survive the zombie apocalypse. His first novel We was published in 2013.

Genre Confusion

People want to categorize fiction, as they do with most things in life. It is a natural instinct to put things into boxes and label them. It helps us understand the world around us. We are more comfortable if we know where things belong. However, it is not always that easy to find the right box. My work has the distinction of being, well, a little confusing to folks who are trying to do just that.

My two novels straddle the line between the realistic and the fantastic. My first book, We, sent the main character, a 40-year- old man, traveling back in time where he was stuck inside the brain of his 7-year- old self. My latest novel is called Thursday 1:17 p.m. That title refers to the moment when time stops, leaving one 17-year- old teenage boy as the only person who is still moving in the frozen world. Yeah, I have a thing about time.

I didn’t think much, if at all, about how other people would categorize my writing until after releasing my novels. My process is simple – I have weird ideas that I try to pair with interesting characters that I let guide me though a hopefully compelling story. But when the books get set free in the world, other folks, like publishers and reviewers and booksellers, start to weigh in on what my books are and what shelf they should live on. Amazon categories for sales rankings are particularly interesting. Honestly, I don’t know how they get decided. It could be something my publisher puts in the system. Or it could be the company’s algorithm doing its mad scientist computational work. However it happens, as a writer, it is fascinating and a bit disconcerting to see your work get sliced and diced and given a label.

My first novel got placed into three major categories – Literature & Fiction>Contemporary, Literature & Fiction>Literary, and Science Fiction & Fantasy>Science Fiction (with the addition of >Time Travel on the Kindle version). The first two were pretty straightforward, and matched up pretty closely with what I thought I was writing. I’m sure that someone could argue the difference between “Contemporary” and “Literary,” but it’s not going to be me. It was the Science Fiction label that had me conflicted, just a little.

It is not that I don’t like science fiction. I like it a lot and greatly admire those who write it. I was just worried that readers seeking out books under that label would be disappointed by a time travel novel that doesn’t make any effort to explain the mechanics of time travel. Would it matter to them that this is a “science fiction” novel without the science? My publisher and I had previously had a conversation about whether to put Science Fiction on the book’s spine, and I had talked them out of it because I didn’t think I had earned it.

So when my second book, Thursday 1:17 p.m., came out a few weeks ago, I was not surprised to again see it in the Science Fiction & Fantasy>Science Fiction category. And this time I was less concerned about getting pilloried by SF fans. With this book, however, I also got an even more specific label – Science Fiction & Fantasy>Fantasy>Magic Realism.

Hmmm, interesting.

Putting aside the contradiction of a book being labeled both Science Fiction and Fantasy, it was the Magic Realism that I really liked. That seemed to fit nicely with my first two novels, both of which take real world settings and twist them sideways with the introduction of what could be seen as magical events. One reviewer put it a slightly different way, which I also liked, calling Thursday 1:17 p.m. a “thought-provoking psychological fantasy.”

Magic realism, psychological fantasy – had I finally found the appropriate labels for my writing? Did it really matter? After all, I continue to write what I want to write, which happens to be whatever bizarre idea pops into my head. I still don’t think about the label during the creative process (although writing this post has made me realize that the novel I am currently writing might appropriately earn me a Science Fiction categorization).

I guess that the bottom line is that I’ve become more comfortable with the reader putting my work in whatever box she or he thinks is right for it. But when I’m asked about how I categorize my writing, I usually answer the question with a simple one word answer: Fiction.

  • I’m so guilty of trying to categorize everything I read…my linear brain just works that way! But, I’ve definitely come across some books that could belong in a number of genres.