The curse of genre and what’s wrong with the runt of the litter

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I won’t choose a book to read because it is of particular genre. I won’t read a book because of a label dangling from it which screams THRILLER, ROMANCE, HORROR or whatever else. The label means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book – preferably, a brilliant book. I want a book to make me think, laugh and cry, get angry, care for someone in the story and keep thumbing through the pages until the end. And after that I want to remember, reminisce and wonder: what a fantastic piece of fiction I have just devoured.

And, naturally, I want to write that book too. Many of them, to hell with genre.

But it seems people like the clarity of genre. The readers reach for their favourite genre before -if ever- they contemplate something outside their comfort zone. Publishers want that clarity, too. I’m such a lucky, bum-in-butter writer to have landed myself a publisher – the dynamic, feisty Accent Press. They gave home to my DI Marsh detective crime series and now to my new cosy crime trilogy, The Shire Mysteries. But they didn’t accept every book I shoved in front of their noses. Oh, I did have to deal with a rejection and I am still reeling from it. Remember Paula Goes to Heaven?

At first, I rejected that book myself – abandoned it like a prodigal mother leaving their new-born baby on the step of a church, hoping God takes care of it, because that baby isn’t quite perfect, not quite viable. It took me more than a year to go back to fetch my abandoned manuscript. I have been re-writing it, working hard to make it better. And I have been asking myself what is wrong with it.

It’s the genre, you see. That book does not belong to any distinct genre. It could be classified as women’s contemporary fiction but for the supernatural elements. It could be humour, but it is quite tragic in places. I could be paranormal fantasy, but it isn’t – not entirely. So, I think it’s the ambiguity of genre that renders it flawed. My heart bleeds for I love that book as I love all the others. But the others are happy and they thrive in the world. This one – this one is unwanted. I will make it better and I won’t give up on it, but sometimes you start doubting yourself and your commitment to that runt of the litter.

It is a little bit like that, isn’t it? Like with puppies. Most people want a pedigree dog with all the trademark characteristics its breed is supposed to possess. But, you know, cross-breeds can be wonderful. They ARE wonderful! They have it all: pointy ears and curly tails, shaggy coats and white socks. And they have as much bounce and give as much joy as your average Labrador, poodle or Yorkshire terrier out there. The same with books: their genre – their breed – shouldn’t matter as much as their unique bookish personalities and what they have to say.

I thought of that when reviewing Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death yesterday. It is categorised as crime fiction. It may well be, but it is so much more diverse. Psychology, society, family, prejudice, vulnerability – everything is there. Narrowing it down to a sequence of steps to detect the killer wouldn’t give it justice. Summing it up as a damn-good book would.

I may be wrong. Maybe it is important for a book to belong to a particular genre? Maybe classifications in fiction are as helpful as classifications in biological sciences? Are they?

7 comments

  1. I very much relate to this post, Anna. But in my case, all my books don’t perfectly fit a genre or sub-genre. Getting published back in the day I now see as a fluke. My publisher created an imprint to provide “The thinking Woman’s Mills & Boon”. My books fitted. There was love, but there was much more. The small independent failed. In the years following, one agent admitted I was a good writer but there were too many “issues”! Is it the publishers fault that cross genre books don’t get put out there, or if they are, promoted? or is it the buying public who want to be sure of what they’re getting?

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    • I think it’s both: it’s easier for publishers to market ‘clean’ genre to a clearly identifiable audience and it’s a touch of’ laziness’ on part of readers who want more of the same and prefer not to experiment with anything new. Having your expectations met is yet another symptom of commercialisation of fiction. (I am trying very hard not to say ‘dumbing down’ – but, whoops, I did say it now!)
      Thank you for popping down here 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds familiar – trying to keep to one genre when your heart and mind says a good novel should be so much more. My novels aren’t clearly definable, either – they’re all love stories in their way, but more life & character studies than ‘romance’. Hence going independent some years ago. The bottom line is that clear genres are easier to market for the publisher. Sad but true.

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  3. I agree. It makes commercial sense, but doesn’t stop it being frustrating. If you’re not willing to tow the line then you’d better be ‘literary’. And being Indie doesn’t really help in getting noticed. It’s harder work

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    • ‘Literary’ is another arbitrary term, a bit like the upper class of the class-less world of fiction. Poignant points and beautiful prose shouldn’t be and isn’t exclusive to ‘literary’. And there is the question of the purpose of fiction. It isn’t art for art’s sake. ‘Literary’ implies something insular.

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      • Agreed. It’s just another label. It’s perception, isn’t it. If publishers and critics agree that a book is literary, it transcends the need to fit into a genre, and can be enjoyed for its own sake. If your book is just well written and a good story, but cannot aspire to the loftier heights. Sorry!

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