Last updated on July 4th, 2023 at 07:02 am
I think about genre in relation to The Last Summer (of You and Me) a lot. It’s a contemporary novel by Ann Brashares, who is one of my favorite authors, and The Last Summer is one of my favorite books. If the author’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because she wrote The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And I think about The Last Summer a lot because I think it really struggled to find an appropriate audience because it exists between genre lines. Genre can be a really useful tool for understanding your novel and finding an audience, but existing between genre lines can create a more interesting story. So, let’s talk about genre and what it means to blur the lines between genres.
What is genre?
Genre is basically just a way of categorizing something, whether that’s a book or a song or a film. Each genre typically has its own conventions and ways of doing things. Genres follow a typical formula, style, and/or subject. They use the same tropes as other stories within the same genre. Works within the same genre are often concerned with the same things.
For example, if you read a romance, odds are you’re getting a happy ever after or at least a happy for now. If you watch a Western, you’re probably getting a shootout at some point. Sci-fi is going to be concerned with the development of science and how it impacts society, while fantasy is going to contain more magic and mystical elements that are disconnected from traditional science.
Why does genre matter?
Understanding what genre you’re writing in is important because it almost gives you a sense of structure. If you want to write a romance, then you have to write a happy ever after. That’s an expectation that romance readers have when they read, and you’ll disappoint or anger a lot of readers if you don’t. Most importantly to this discussion, without a happy ever after, it is categorically not a romance.
Beyond that, it’s easier to find an audience when you understand and fit within a genre. You know that you have a general audience that your story will appeal to. It’s easier to promote.
Combing genre and blurring genre lines
Now, it’s easy to combine genres as long as you’re still working within the conventions of those genres. Romantic comedies are a good example of this. They’re easy to combine because the road to love can be funny or embarrassing, and you can enhance the story by using tropes from both genres.
Personally, I think there’s a difference between combining genres (romantic-comedy, romantic-drama, action-thriller, noir-western, etc.) and existing between genre lines. Combining a genre involves carefully utilizing the conventions of both genres wholeheartedly. It’s easier to find an audience because you’re adhering to what each audience expects. Meanwhile, existing between genre lines means that you’re adhering to SOME of those conventions from each genre. You’re picking and choosing which conventions work for the story you’re telling, and you’re not overly concerned with sticking within the genre. Let me show you what I mean using The Last Summer.
The Last Summer and genre
The Last Summer is about two sisters and the boy they grew up with on the small island they would visit during the summer. There’s a romance between the younger sister and the boy, but it’s ultimately a story about growing up and loss and how you navigate the world as it changes around you.
The “problem” with The Last Summer is that it has too much romance for literary fiction readers and too many literary themes for romance readers. The romance readers read it and think she’s trying to make too much of it, trying to sound too smart, and the literary fiction readers are like, “Why are we reading about people who are obsessed with if the other person likes them?” More than that, the book straddles the lines between YA and adult because it’s fundamentally a story about growing up. You have sections from all parts of their lives. If you read reviews on Goodreads, you can see these ideas come up quite a bit. There are many, many people who don’t get what she was trying to do, and that’s because they’re thinking in terms of genre.
Now, I absolutely adore The Last Summer. I think that Ann Brashares meshes all of these different conventions beautifully. I think she properly combines things in a way that allows you to see the benefits of both genres, and the result is a story that is truer to life. But I can see where audiences looking for a genre read would have struggled. You’d have to go in understanding that this is not a romance, and this is not literary fiction. It exists between those genre lines.
What we can learn from The Last Summer
I think the fundamental thing we can learn from The Last Summer is twofold. I think there’s the more internal lesson, which is that existing between genre lines can create a beautiful story that feels like it shows the tragedy and beauty of life.
Then, there’s the most external lesson, which is that if you exist between genre lines, it will be more difficult to find an audience. The people that get it will get it. And the people who come in looking for a genre story will be disappointed. Nowadays, we’re far more involved in marketing our own stories, so it’s important to promote your book appropriately if you exist between genre lines. This way, you can find your people better.
But I wouldn’t immediately discourage you from a story that straddles the line between two genres because doing so might help you create a stronger, more interesting story. Remember, there are no real writing rules. There are only best practices and doing what serves your specific story.
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