Bill Petrocelli

The Curse of the Cross-Genre

The first question any publisher asks is, “What type of book is it?” The answer they usually want to hear is that it’s a mystery, or a sci-fi, or mainstream fiction, or some other familiar category. They don’t usually want to hear that it crosses boundaries, because no one will know how to categorize it or shelve it. Whoops! The Circle of Thirteen overlaps a few boundaries, but that’s the way I wanted to write it. I explored this issue on the pages of Suspense Magazine.

As an author, I spent five years thinking about writing The Circle of Thirteen.

As a bookseller, I spent about thirty years learning why such a book could be a problem.

Why? It’s because it’s is a cross-genre book, and books like that don’t fit easily into any of the traditional categories that publishers, booksellers, and others in the business use to classify books. To put it simply, they don’t know where to shelve it. My publisher has classified The Circle of Thirteen as a “fiction-thriller,” and that’s as good as anything I could come up with.

Every writer faces this problem to some extent. You write something that fits in one category, but you wish that reviewers and readers would also consider it from another angle. The publisher picks a category, but the “whole” of that choice frequently doesn’t express the sum of its parts. For example, Jonathan Kellerman’s 1985 novel When the Bough Breaks was one of the first U. S. crime novels to tackle the issue of child abuse. Yet in any bookselling database, you’ll find it under “mystery” rather than “sociological breakthrough.”

And there are genres within genres. Each sub-genre is supposed to simplify the classification process, but some of them become ends in themselves. If one writer sells a lot of vampire books, you can bet that every major publisher in the country will be looking for a vampire book to fill out that subgenre – that is, until the vampires are killed off by zombies.

But ask authors about their own books, and what you will get is a much more nuanced description. No one tries to write a book just fit in a particular genre. An author always feels like there is something unique about his or her book – some way of approaching it that is outside bounds of conventional genres.

So when a book like The Circle of Thirteen is deliberately cross-genre, the author – that’s me – tries to cut through all the labels and suggest different ways to approach the story.

Here goes:

Look at it as a thriller. In the early pages of the book a major terrorist plot hits the United Nations and the assembled world leaders. For the rest of the book, the reader follows Julia Moro, the U.N. Security Director, as she tries to foil the plot.

Look at it as future fiction. Most of the story is set in the middle decades of the 21st century. The texture of the story is familiar but also a bit surprising. The story is close enough to the present day to seem like a plausible extension of our own world.

Look at is as a drama of human emotions. There is a love story in the novel – two of them, in fact. Beyond that, there is a family story that is at the emotional center of the book: the relationship between Julia and her grandmother, Maya.

Look at it as a novel of ideas. A novel set in the near future has to touch on the most important issues of today, because they are also likely to be the issues of tomorrow. A story like this has to say something about climate change, the degradation of the environmental, the concentration of wealth into a few unscrupulous hands, and the changing role of women in society.

Can we make a new genre out of all these things?