Even more than the lives of the feline Clans in Warriors, the YA fantasy line that I edit for Working Partners LTD, adult genre fiction can seem to be all about boundaries, fierce demarcations outlined in the marketing department’s blood. And when genres are mixed, readers know all about it before they even prise open the front cover – it’s romance-meets-thriller, vampire-meets-detective, historical-Western, historical-European, historical-fantasy, sci-fi-vampires, fantasy-werewolves…
Even the shelves in bookstores are assigned to different genres – booksellers must hate when publishers mix it up. Do they do a word count? Right, there are more words about vampires than detectives in this book so that means it goes on this shelf…And when an adult fiction author decides to swap genres, trumpets blare and a crack team of marketing experts is brought out of training in the Florida Everglades to tackle the re-presentation to existing fans. Not so long ago, writers were even encouraged to use pseudonyms when they dipped a toe into (gasp!) a different genre (I’m thinking Joanna Trollope/Caroline Harvey as a case in point).
I’m not going to debate the rightness or wrongness of this – I understand about author branding, reader loyalty, broadening appeal; indeed, in the spirit of this website, breaking out of the box – but my point is that children’s fiction is rarely constrained in the same way. Children’s fiction is a genre (which I don’t think is strictly accurate either, but that’s a blog for another day), and within it writers can swim with relative freedom between fantasy, history, thriller, gritty social realism…
I certainly wouldn’t say I wear one hat (or, knowing me, winter coat – watch out for future appearances of highlights from my collection) more than any other; as “Erin Hunter”, it would be easy to push me into the pigeonhole marked “animal fantasy” but I’ve never liked reading books about animals and would rather poke out my eyes with a blunt stick than embark on a fantasy doorstop. The projects currently languishing (sorry, waiting pertly for my immediate attention) in my in-tray range from Dark Ages-set high-concept fantasy, all swords, sorcery and fire-breathing dragons, to lost-pet-themed detective adventures, to a series set in a very modern Virginia boarding school where all the protagonists are pony-mad, to a pets-in-peril story where the daughter of two veterinarians unfailingly saves the day. Oh, and did I mention I work on a feral cat fantasy series?
Naturally I think my genre is the best of all, because it’s the genre of everything, and I swoop and soar like a dolphin (okay, a short, squat dolphin, but I can dream) in a limitless sea of stories. I never think of dumbing down for my audience – themes I have explored so far in Warriors include racial intolerance, comparative religion, nature vs. nurture, childless mothers – and I’d like to think there still isn’t an object in the world that I couldn’t come up with some sort of story for.
I think that’s what every writer should aim for, an inner sense of freedom that allows them to say, okay, I like this bit of history but I quite like vampires too, and what would a story be without a heartdroppingly gorgeous lead-man..?
Let the ad men have their genres, but please, write wherever there are stories to be found. Dive on in, the water’s lovely.