DEFINING GENRE: or when is a Western not a Western?

One of the most difficult things about writing fiction is deciding on a genre, particularly when your work hits several of them tangentially.

For instance, my style is more literary than contemporary.  But the Literary genre requires more than a literary style.  It identifies character-driven stories that explore the reactions of characters to universal situations, situations often fraught with emotion.

In the broad sense, my novel WHISPERS IN THE CANYON does those things, but some would not label it as Literary Fiction because there is too much resolution.

What do I mean by “too much resolution”?  Literary Fiction is focused on making the reader do some deep thinking, and usually leaves at least one open question in the reader’s mind.  My novels are character-driven and, at the end of the books, the major conflict is resolved. However, there are questions left open pertaining to the future of the characters and how deeply the issues will affect them going forward.

On the other hand, most genre fiction has a definite set of rules to follow.  A Western, for instance, is plot-driven, and will usually flow this way: hero cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town.  A twist on that involves a woman, sometimes posing or dressed as a man, fighting obstacles to win the guy/ranch/revenge.

Now I realize this is very simplistic view of a plot and many variations are possible, but most Westerns will follow this formula.  And just as Romance readers expect a happy ending, most Westerns readers will expect the formula to be followed, at least to some degree.

So how is my novel, set in the 1880s Arizona Territory, not a Western?  To start with, the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement.  The cowboy wins the girl (and the ranch) very early on.  However, the repercussions of the dead outlaw’s deeds figure prominently in the story until the very end.  And to top it all off, the hero manages to create a situation that threatens both his happiness and that of his woman.

So to sum up, a novel that’s set in the Old West but that deviates from the expected norm is, by definition, not a Western.  WHISPERS IN THE CANYON is a Literary novel set in a Historical time period and most definitely not a Western.


2 thoughts on “DEFINING GENRE: or when is a Western not a Western?

  1. Zane Grey was an historical romance writer but is considered one of the founders of the Western Genre. When writing reviews, this is one of the things I struggle with – placing books in a category. Not all books can be placed in only one and end up with two or more categories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right — most books have more than one genre element. I think that setting sometimes discourages readers: they see a story set in the future and think “I don’t like scifi”. It’s easy to miss an incredible romance or adventure that way. I have friends that don’t read Zane Grey because “they’re Westerns”, and they miss out on some incredible romances, which are their stories of choice. I try to be very open-minded when it comes to my reading decisions, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve “settled” on.

      Liked by 1 person

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