Sunday, June 20, 2021

What Genre IS Dancing with the Lion?

(N.B.: This post should not make anyone feel guilty for mislabeling the novels; I’m posting it because there seems to be some confusion.)

One of the most important parts of selling a book is getting it into the right hands: that is, to the readers most likely to enjoy it. And that involves labeling it correctly.

If you picked up Dancing with the Lion because you’re a fan of Alexander the Great or ancient Greece, the book’s genre probably matters little. I’ve read novels about Alexander in everything from lit mainstream to SFF to mystery to old-school Romance.

Yet such readers are a fraction of potential readership. For those with no particular inclination to a book about Alexander the Great, naming the genre matters. Will it meet reader expectations and appeal, or frustrate and annoy? That’s why authors worry about genre labels.

So, to answer the question:

Dancing with the Lion is a mainstream historical coming-of-age novel with touches of magical realism and queer themes.

Below, I’ll explain in brief why it’s some labels and not others. But I want to stress that getting a book correctly labeled is NOT a diss at genres it isn’t. Again, it’s about getting it into the right hands so readers like it instead of hate it.

Novel: At root, two basic story types exist—those that focus on plot (romance, small /r/ = adventure story) and those that focus on characters (novel). I write both, incidentally; my current WIP is an historical fantasy adventure series. But DwtL is a novel. Characterization IS the plot, rather than characters moving the plot along.

Mainstream: Just means the book doesn’t fit into the plot conventions of commercial genre fiction. Saying something is “mainstream” therefore says mostly what it is not: not mystery, not horror, not Romance, not fantasy, etc. Some folks will subdivide it further into “literary” mainstream versus commercial mainstream with the distinction that the latter sells better and/or the former is more artsy.

Historical: A subcategory of several genres, including mainstream. Readers of historicals tolerate more historical detail and unusual names, although genre historicals can alter that. Too much historical detail in an historical Romance that slows down the love story can get an author in trouble. Mainstream historicals may include glossaries, character stemma, timelines of historical events, or other reader guides. Afficionados of historical novels are reading for that detail, not in spite of it.

Coming-of-Age: as the name suggests, this very old story archetype is all about the characters growing up. In DwtL, three characters have coming-of-age arcs: Alexandros, Hephaistion, and Kleopatra.

Magical Realism: Unlike genre fantasy, magical realism combines realistic/non-magical elements with supernatural ones. They also take place in this world, not a different fantasy world in which magic works. Yet the line between historical fantasy and historical magical realism can be fine because, in the past, people did assume magic worked, and the better authors of historical fantasy employ magical systems appropriate to that place and time. The biggest difference is that magical realism is subtler, and the supernatural elements may not be perceived by all, or even most characters. (So while Alexandros sees Dionysos, no one else does.)

Queer Themes: This is more than just Alexandros and Hephaistion as lovers. Especially in Rise, one sub-plot for Hephaistion’s coming-of-age is his own growing awareness that the way he experiences desire does not conform to the expectations of his society. He is what we, in the modern world, would call gay. I wanted to explore how it might feel for someone to be gay in a world that doesn’t have that label, and which might, on the face of it, seem more accepting…but really isn’t.

Now, for the genres it’s not, and why:

Not Romance: Capital /R/, Romance the genre has fairly locked-in plot arc expectations. The Hero and Hero (if it’s m/m) meet, go through trials and tribulations, then finally hook up in some sort of permanent way to live happily-ever-after (HEA) or at least happily-for-now (HFN). The focus of the novel must remain firmly on the Hero and Hero and their relationship. Other relationships and events should serve to frame the main one, never distract from it.

DwtL: Becoming simulates some of those things. The book does begin when the boys meet, and they go through a friends-to-more plot arc, but there’s too much Other Stuff, and in Rise, the story just keeps going even after they get together. Furthermore, Rise is not a Romance plot arc, even loosely. It’s all about Alexandros and Hephaistion entering the adult world of politics and war, and the larger theme (of the whole series, not just these books) asks what it means to be a moral/ethical sovereign?

Not YA (Young Adult): Although YA novels should have an adolescent protagonist and will often be a coming-of-age story, not all novels with an adolescent protagonist or coming-of-age story are YA. So what’s the difference? The themes and the language employed.

The plot of YA should focus on things important to that age group (13-18), not necessarily what could equally matter to someone in their 50s. That doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy YA stories; about 55% of YA books are purchased by adults. Another aspect of YA is the vocabulary used and complexity of ideas. Sometimes adult coming-of-age stories are called more “sophisticated,” which isn’t a term I like. Intricate might be better, in characterization and theme.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye are all coming-of-age novels, and some are even assigned in high school English classes. But they aren’t commercial YA in language or theme. In contrast to, say, Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time, Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, or Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Yet I don’t think anyone would call those latter three “unsophisticated.”

In short, a teen protagonist and/or coming-of-age story does not qualify a book as YA.

Finally, most YA treats sex gingerly as they must be appropriate for readers as young as 13, 14, 15. They may have some romance or none at all, and they may have elided sexual situations light on description. It shouldn’t be shocking, but age-appropriate to adolescent curiosity about sex. (By contrast, the category of New Adult [18-25 readership] may have quite a lot of graphic sex in it, although in other ways NA resembles YA.)

When I wrote Dancing with the Lion, despite the age of the main protagonists, I made no attempt to moderate the language. There are also POV scenes from adults, and three of the chief thematic concerns—what does it mean to be a moral king [Alex], how does one support the powerful without losing one's self in the process [Hephaistion], or how to exercise personal agency when one has none legally [Kleopatra]—are themes that can apply to any age group. Last, the sex scenes have no stop on them. If two are over fairly quickly with general/poetic description, the third is graphic because it needs to be as what they are doing matters very much to Hephaistion’s character arc. There is also reference to the rape of women and children in war; only the aftermath is shown, but still. While I realize emotional maturity can vary wildly, I wouldn’t recommend the second novel for readers under 15/16. (I told my niece not to let my great-niece read it yet.)

That’s why I’m concerned about Dancing with the Lion being labeled YA. An unsuspecting parent might buy it for their early teen child, only for that child to get a textual eyeful in book 2!

Also, readers who pick it up thinking it’s ___, get angry when it’s not. E.g., in an otherwise fairly positive review, at least one reader wrote: “Because the western spellings/pronunciation are so ingrained using the stranger sounding Greek slows the pace even further and seems to over complicate things merely for the sake of it. This is clearly aimed at a YA audience and so I find the choice doubly baffling - Because you want to encourage teens reading not put them off by making this harder than it needs to be.”

But it’s not YA, was never meant to be YA, nor marketed or labeled as YA on the cover. Apparently, some folks on Goodreads labeled it that in their tags, so now “Young Adult” shows up as one of its genres…and I can’t get rid of it because I don’t set those tags (nor does my publisher).

In the above case, the reader mostly enjoyed it, but her perceptions affected how she reviewed it. Authors can’t always control those perceptions and expectations, but as we really do want readers to like the book (not feel deceived), we endeavor to use the right labels on them.

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