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Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Am I going to get in trouble?

I ask the question because I seem, without meaning any harm, to have entered into the stormy waters of what-makes-something-genre.

I recently read a review (http://www.emcit.com/emcit131.php#Wolves) of my book on a science fiction website which, while gratifyingly positive, shows something I've encountered before in friends who are sci fi fans - a deep exasperation with authors, publishers or critics who produce books that have a fantastical or speculative element and then deny that it's sci fi or fantasy. The frustration is twofold, I think: one, annoyance that something gets sublimated out of their favourite genre out of a kind of critical courtesy because it's well written (with the implication that good writing is out of the question for a genre work); two, annoyance with works by mainstream authors that re-invent the wheel and get considered more original than genre fans think they are. Now, I wrote a book involving werewolves, which is being marketed as a 'literary thriller that transcends the bounds of genre'. A phrase which I've got a dawning suspicion is going to have a red-rag effect on some genre enthusiasts.

Of course, it is annoying if critics deny that anything in your favourite genre could be good. It's silly, as well: every genre has good stuff in it if you know where to look. But from a personal perspective, it's an argument I never really had a position in. I never read by genre, and really I think the whole idea of genre can cause more problems than it solves. (There's a lot of rambling to this effect in my FAQ section, so I won't repeat it here, it's just a click away . . .) I certainly don't want to annoy sci fi fans, who have generally been very nice people based on personal experience, but at the same time, I don't mind being referred to as genre-transcending; my desire is that the book can be read by people both in and outside the various genre communities, and the description hopefully points towards that.

More than that, I just didn't write it with a genre in mind. As the reviewer most perceptively points out, the real focus is on the heroine, which is the case in all kinds of books of different genres. I'm a bit stupid about genre, really: I had no idea what genre the book was while composing it. I wasn't fussed. What mattered to me was the heroine and the story, and to serve that, I was taking a genre salad approach. It has elements from horror, from crime novels, from feminist literature, from history, even from poetry - at least, the Christina Rossetti poem I quoted at the beginning was as big an influence on the style as anything else, including all the sci fi and horror books and movies I went through to make sure I wasn't re-inventing the wheel. It was just the book what I was writing.

As a result, now it's getting published, I find I don't really care what genre it gets called. Correction, for I am sworn to tell the truth: I do care what genre it gets called. I want everyone who reads it to think it belongs in whichever genre is their personal favourite. I want people to like it; what other books they like is up to them, and the more the merrier, say I.

But will this position wash? Am I going to be allowed to get away with it? Or have I idly steered my little ship out of the bay into a howling gale?

I have the feeling I shall shortly be finding out.

I think there can be a tendency for genre fans to read any attempt by an author to 'transcend the boundaries' as being motivated by some kind of embarassment about the genre, or even active prejudice against it. In Sci-fi they seem to like their authors loud and proud. I think as long as you remain your usual friendly, open-minded self you'll be absolutely fine.
The key, I imagine, is to avoid actually insulting anyone. The largest recent outbreak of genre wrangling was over Oryx And Crake, as summed up by affable uberfan Dave Langford:


Blessedly, Atwood didn't go as far as the "sciffy can't be literature" position that really pushes buttons, but the Squids! In! Space! thing maybe comes off as a little dismissive.

Folk who identify as fantasy/horror fans may roll their eyes if Bareback gets shelved in "Novels", but as long you avoid sweeping dismissals of all they hold dear, I doubt they'll hold it against you.
I'm sure this point has already been debated to death elsewhere but I wonder if it's possible for any novel to belong to only one genre. Even the most rigid detective novel will invariably contain some elements of romance or thriller tropes. Ditto Sci-fi, Fantasy, etc.So genres are really more about a book's predominant flavour than it's entire content.
Hmm... That's not very controversial.
OK, how about this: books should be assigned genres based on the author's hair colour and credit rating...
All books should be assigned a genre by HAROLD BLOOM. As a freebie, he'll also label each work as either Sublime or The Death Of Art.

All books should also be assigned an SKU category, by the chief buyer for WATERSTONES. Category will be chosen strictly with the intention of maximising sales potential, and if this leaves White Teeth shelved in Cosmetics & Skin Care and Bareback in Erotica, so be it.
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