Saturday, 4 August 2007


This has been on my mind a lot recently. There have been several interesting articles circulating, I have had some interesting conversations, and my current reading has prompted some thought on the subject.

One of the ways in which we deal with the vast amounts of information that pour into our brains on a daily basis (other than my patent method of letting most of it in one ear and straight out the other), is to put things into categories. That way, we can juggle with the categories rather than the individual items. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that categories are a convenience.

For example, it makes life a lot easier for the manager of a bookshop to be able to classify books in certain ways so they can be shelved together in ways that make it easier for customers to find what they want, or at least browse amongst those books they favour. I do the same at home. Reference books on one set of shelves; general non-fiction on another; fiction; children's fiction...

Of course, there are always books that never quite fit. There are several history books in my reference section as I go back to them constantly for my current project. When I have finished, they will be moved.

There is no problem in any of this. The problem (if it can be described as such) is that books, especially works of fiction, are further subdivided into specific genres by publishers. This would be all right if it was, again, a matter of convenience; unfortunately, it no longer is.

When and how genres became 'fixed' is a matter of debate. It did not seem (and I am happy to be corrected on this) too much of a problem in the 19th century or even the early 20th. An author wrote books. If one happened to be about a time machine, it did not exclude them from writing a story of political scandal, any more than their publisher would reject the latter on the grounds they were a science fiction author, or the reading public would ignore the former as it was 'merely' science fiction.

These days, genre has moved way beyond a convenient way of signalling the content and style of a work. It has developed into a series of ghettoes and this, in my opinion, is a bad thing. It means that readers miss out on good books because the author isn't perceived as a writer of a specific genre. It means authors feel constrained to write a particular type of book instead of developing an idea that interests them in a way that best suits the story. There are exceptions, some authors are well known enough to be allowed to work in several genres, and others are happy writing one kind of fiction. But because the barriers have become rigid, we all lose.

I seek out books and authors for their style and the themes they explore. I don't care if the book is science fiction, crime, a thriller, 'literature', a book meant for children, fiction or non-fiction. In fact, I get annoyed with genre, because of the snobbery that is involved; not just from those of the 'literati' who see genre writing as inferior, but those who hole themselves up in the ghettoes and look down on anything outside that ghetto (and usually on a number of sub-genres within their own ghetto as well).

The writing I enjoy most is often described as cross-genre, slipstream, pays no heed to the conventions or exploits then and subverts them. Not all such books are successful. They sacrifice telling a good story on the altar of experimentation, but they do have the virtue of daring to take steps into new territory.

Recent examples of 'mainstream' authors breaking the mould (remember the fuss when Margaret Attwood wrote a bit of science fiction?) are rarely that. Margaret Attwood may be a good and interesting writer, but in common with a lot of mainstream authors dipping toes into fresh seas, if she looked at the beach she would find a number of footprints already there. But because these stories and these experiments were done by science fiction writers or thriller writers, they have slipped under the radar and been ignored. This means we are left to reinvent a wheel that was designed and perfected by previous generations of writers - many who see their work difficult to keep or get back into print.

I admit there is an entirely selfish reason for all this. My fiction writing has rarely been conventional (which is not to claim it is any good). I'm not keen on sticking to a genre, either. It's not done me much good over the years, partly because I never know how to describe things to agents and publishers. My novel Wealden Hill, for example, could be described as a fantasy, but not in the conventional sense. It could also be described as a historical novel, but not in the conventional sense.

Many years ago I tried to sell a science fiction spy thriller about a government agent caught up in what might (or might not) have been a conspiracy by aliens to take over this planet. It was a novel in itself, but sufficiently open to milk a series of stories out of it. I was told, in 1992, when I touted it round, that nobody would buy this sort of thing. Then The X Files hit the little screen. After that I was, apparently, trying to tout a rip-off.

I use this as an example to demonstrate that many of the big successes on television, in the movies, and in books, are not formulaic or genre driven. People are hungry for something a bit different (and not just another variation on chalk and cheese cops or 30-something female search for the meaning of life sagas), something a bit out of the ordinary, something that teases and takes them into new areas. Not everyone wants to read William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, but a lot of people are bored silly by clones of the real successes (and some of the real successes are depressingly badly written).

Charlie Cornelius sits in awkward territory. On the surface is the tale of a child who, after surviving alone in London during the Second World War, goes in search of her parents. I can hear that being clicked into a genre already. But Charlie Cornelius has unusual parents, travels in time and alternate universes, lives a great deal inside my head into which she journeys very deeply (poor kid), and acts as a mirror to reflect the horrors faced by children around the world on a daily basis. It has a strong narrative core, but will have an unconventional structure.

If I had started with a genre (even the one called 'mainstream'), I would have given up on it a long time ago. I have a story to tell, I have themes to explore. The style of the book and the way it is written will deliberately reflect that. If it doesn't squeeze into a preconceived and useful pigeon hole for the benefit of agents and publishers... frankly my dears, I don't care.


Anne Brooke said...

Oh for more books that don't fit in genres - how I long for them!! I hate the way everything is forced into such a narrow cage these days. Get rid of genres is what I say!!



Graeme K Talboys said...

It's such a shame that publishers seem to have lost that sense of adventure.

Olana Beck said...

I agree with you and Anne on this. Increasingly, genres have become a marketing artifice, which then allow some books to be 'imaginatively' described as 'genre-busting'!