The year is winding down and it's time for LDS fiction readers to give some thought to nominees for the annual Whitney Academy Awards. These honors are awarded in various categories, generally referred to as genres. Genre fiction and popular fiction are terms used interchangeably in discussions of literary works. They don't mean the exact same thing, but their definitions are close enough that I'm not going to quibble. For this discussion, either term will refer to the type of fiction purchased and read most frequently by readers, though literary fiction is not excluded.
I'm often asked to define what the various genre labels mean, and I'll be honest, defining categories of fiction is not as easy as it may sound. Many authors, teachers, librarians, and critics disagree on precise definitions, and for good reasons. What the reader brings to a book is often as critical as what the author put into it. Someone I admire greatly and I have often disagreed over the genre categories various books have been placed in for judging the Whitney Awards. She may see a story of historical significance while I recognize a beautiful love story as the paramount element of the story. I might call a story Young Adult and she sees it as General Fiction.
I'm pleased to hear that this year LDS novels may be entered in more than one genre for Whitney Academy judging. There have been several occasions where a truly excellent book has been a finalist or even won when it didn't come close to fitting the parameters of the category it was placed in and equally sad were the omissions of great books because, though some readers may have thought they were a particular genre, the judges did not. In my opinion there's nothing wrong with a title being recognized in more than one category. Hopefully this decision will make recognition of the truly best books more probable.
At one time the term LDS Fiction was considered a genre class of its own. Now LDS fiction is broken into as many categories as is main stream fiction. Here's a quick, though not definitive, rundown of the various genres.
Romance: This category includes love stories which may be humorous, historical, western, suspense, or mystery as well. Some readers lump all stories considered of particular interest to women in the romance category; others prefer a separate women's issues genre which includes social issues stories dealing with parenting, abuse, divorce, and other subjects generally discussed more openly by women than men. By the way, stories where sexual attraction is the major factor, more so than the actual relationship and emotions experienced by the lovers, is another genre, not romance.
Historical: These stories are set in a previous time period and are related to known facts of that era. They may or may not include historical figures. Unless the setting is historically accurate and the events of that period can be documented, novels in this category are generally considered more speculative than historical. Stories based on a verse of scripture or a little know scriptural character, particularly those from the Book of Mormon where little is known of day to day life and precise locations, sometimes fall into a strange limbo as the background and events are more guesswork than based on fact. Educated guesswork often places these novels in the historical realm, but whether they belong there is questioned by many historical readers. Historical accuracy is of prime importance to readers of this genre.
Mystery/Suspense: Sometimes Mystery and Suspense are lumped together as one genre though they are not precisely the same. A mystery includes a puzzle to be solved while suspense implies high tension and may not even involve solving some unknown question. Both have as many sub genres as writers are able to imagine. Many include a great love story. They can be set in any time period or place, real or imaginary.
Speculative: This category is loaded with sub genres. Some of the most popular are those that make a guess about the future, whether it is the Second Coming, near annihilation of our planet, or Space exploration. Some make educated guesses concerning a previous time period such as the Ice Age or a scriptural time period. Others deal with imaginary demons, monsters, special powers, mythical characters, or life on an alternative world. Horror, especially if imaginary creatures or pseudo science are involved, may fall in this category. Science Fiction and Fantasy are both generally included in speculative fiction.
Westerns: Westerns deal with the settlement of the Western United States. They are usually lighter than historicals dealing with this same time period. Horses and/or cattle usually appear prominently and there is a strong distinction between good and bad. Native Americans often play a role in this genre as do miners, guns, and wild animals native to the West.
Youth Fiction or YA: This category is broken down into all of the same genre classifications as adult fiction though the characters are younger, the language a little simpler, and the stories are of particular interest to a younger audience. There is usually a "coming of age" factor shown as the characters progress toward maturity. Once YA was considered pretty much aimed toward the high school/college age crowd, but now often includes the first post college years when young people first step into the real adult world. On the other hand, when I worked as a librarian, I found more and more books once considered middle readers, suitable for fifth through eighth graders, reclassified as YA.
General Fiction: This is a catchall category for books that don't fall into any other category well. These books range from social issues, explorations of philosophies, to a blurring of several other categories. Sometimes they exhibit elements of literary works. Horror is generally considered a sub genre of General Fiction, especially if it contemporary and closely linked to possibility, but because of its increasing popularity it may be placed in its own genre.
I urge readers to get nominations in for the 2010 Whitney Awards. Any novel written by an LDS author and released during 2010 is eligible. For this award to be of significant worth in the field of LDS fiction, there needs to be more nominations come from non-industry-related readers. To read more about the Whitney Awards Program or to nominate a novel(s) go here. You can suggest which category or categories you think your favorite novels fit in, but you don't have to. You are also welcome to expand, agree, or disagree with my definitions of the various genres in the comment trail below. I'll even forward your comments to the chairman of the Whitney contest.