by Lesley George
I’ll admit—I have spent hours skimming through fanfiction, picking the perfect tag to fit into the hyper-specific story I wanted to read: friends to lovers, fluff, slice of life, alternate universe (AU). There is something euphoric about being able to find a story so acutely tailored to my tastes; the only thing that could ruin the experience for me would be a misuse of a story tag [“Please use story tags correctly!” I cried]. Tropes and tags are a staple within the fandom realm and exist to satisfy the fans desire for curated content, made by other fans, involving their favorite characters. But can these markers exist outside fandom culture?
Of course, there are differences between fanfiction and published literature, as there already exists an understanding of the characters, the setting (if the fanfiction isn’t an alternate universe), and a general love for the original piece. Regardless of those differences, there are fans who write novel length fiction that could very easily exist as a published piece; I once read an 80k word piece of fanfiction, but found myself struggling to pick up a 200 page novel that likely had a similar word count. I want to explore this struggle for a moment.
I, like many others, struggle with getting into reading novels due to not knowing what the book actually consists of. Published literature has recently even switched from having their blurbs on the back of the book, to the inner jacket sleeve—that itself can feel like more work for those who have strayed away from the literary world.
Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with having a bit of mystery to a novel’s genre—in fact, I acknowledge that there is something exciting about blindly reading a novel! Still, the hanging question is: how can published literature benefit from openly disclosing the tropes within it?
During the promotion of his book Infinity Reaper, YA author, Adam Silvera, outlined the tropes involved in the piece. He says, “I hope people keep discovering my series with a gay chosen one + a power hungry influencer + a bisexual vigilante + a bisexual shape-shifter.” What Silvera is doing here is teasing at some of the core features of the story—that is the benefit of using trope markers to describe a narrative piece. He directly outlines, without spoiling the full story, what readers can be expected to engage with. In addition to a strong blurb, any writer can use this technique to successfully market their books to fanfiction readers. Bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, have already begun to implement this tactic by setting up “As Seen on #BookTok” or “Arranged Marriage Romance” tables, for example. There are a lot of readers who want the experience of something tailored to their specific niches and interests without having to waste time reading 100 pages before realizing it isn’t something they enjoy.
I want to emphasize that the usage of trope markers is inherently different from that of a cross-genre label; for example, describing a novel as a science fiction romance novel doesn’t actually explain what kind of book it is, just what genre conventions it is adhering to. Take that same cross-genre definition and a trope marker and now you may very well have a science fiction romance novel that contains angst and enemies to lovers--see how this is more specific? It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters other than suggesting that their relationship starts off bad and that there will be sad parts to their story. The central narrative aspects are not revealed, but readers do enter into the text with a clearer sense of what to expect.
One issue with migrating to this method of book promotion is that it relies heavily on the preexisting knowledge of fandom terminology. Not all novel readers also read fanfiction, and there are many people who have never heard of that niche of popular culture before either, despite how common it may seem to those inside of the fandom bubble. While the existence of trope markers isn’t new, adding this to the current genre conventions may be confusing for some people, but it may also bring in a wave of new readers who have either strayed away from published literature or have never felt drawn to a specific novel based on the blurb alone.
As both a writer and reader of fanfiction, I have seen the perks of using tropes to describe the narratives I am creating and consuming--as long as the tropes work alongside a blurb or synopsis to give further context to what is contained in a piece of literature. Ultimately, using this tactic will help readers have a better literary experience as they will be able to tailor their interests to a specific story. In a modern literary world, authors should strive to not only tell a story that they are passionate about, but to also welcome change and fluidity in the genres they are writing in–even if that means brushing up on some pop culture!