Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The Non-Genre Genre
I have been thinking about so-called ‘genre fiction’, and why I try not to write it. I think the concept is rather vague, and also a little strange. Initially I suspect the concept arose because people like to categorise things: it is this compulsion that human beings have to bring order out of chaos. To achieve that, we like to build boundaries around things; to put things in boxes. It is an understandable process and probably has its uses, even as regards literature.
Nowadays, people always ask a writer what genre there book is, whether they be literary agents, publishers or friends. I hate the question, for several reasons. First, it seems to me that I cannot slot my books into any of the conventional genres. This is not because my books are particularly special. Like many, if not most books, they do not fit into any single category. It is easier to say what my books are not, than what they are. So, in the end, I feel obliged to describe my books as ‘literary fiction’, which, I am coming more and more to understand, simply means: They do not fit a particular genre. ‘Literary fiction’ is simply the box into which to place all ‘other’ types of fictional writing which have not yet been adequately categorised, and means very little. But I don’t like saying my books are ‘literary fiction’ either, because that sounds pompous and pretentious. They are not necessarily any more literary than any other fiction; or, rather, genre literature is also, presumably, literary. Or are we simply using the term ‘literary’ to mean ‘well-written’, which much literary fiction probably isn’t?
It is also odd to think that a book has to fit within any single literary genre. Cannot a fantasy or science fiction novel also be a romance? Can’t a mystery novel also be science fiction? Of course, this begins to generate all kinds of sub-genres. Latter Day Saints Science Fiction Mystery Romance. Or we come up with a new genre called ‘cross-genre literature’. Eventually each of our books falls into its own genre, the exemplars of which number precisely one: The Philip Newey Angel’s Harp Genre.
If a book is labelled as a particular genre, it is expected to follow certain rules, which are mostly unwritten. Despite the vagueness of these rules, they are what make a novel a romance or a mystery. They give rise to certain expectations: When I read a romance I expect certain elements to be present, or I may feel let down. I suspect this owes a lot to the marketing mentality. Publishers like to be able to promote their projects to a specific readership. There seems to be the belief, among publishers and, to some extent, writers, that if I like a certain book, I will like another which is very similar to it. I probably won’t. Books are not vacuum cleaners. They don’t have a very specific function to perform which, should they fail to do so, causes them to cease to be books, even good books.
While the concept of genre begins with a descriptive purpose, it soon becomes prescriptive. It begins to say not only what a book is, but what it ought to be. Writing and writers begin to be channelled by those who pretend to understand ‘what people want’. It is not impossible for a genre book to also be a great piece of literature, certainly in the sense of being well-written. There is also a certain skill required when writing within particular guidelines and for a specific readership. However, any book which truly fits within a particular genre is likely to be somewhat formulaic. This may make some readers and some writers comfortable, or even happy. Not this reader and writer. The best genre literature will always be that which breaks the rules, dares to cross the boundaries between genres. Some will try to define this as another genre, so there will always be new boundaries to cross and new rules to break.