Don’t Fear The Genre

October 18th, 2005 · 7 Comments
by Booksquare

We have often wondered how certain books would fare if presented to contest judges in manuscript format (sans author names). If a book is stripped of all identifying markers and judged simply by the words inside and how they are presented, would genre fiction have a fighting chance? It is a fair question — how much of how we perceive literature is determined by the label given a particular work?

We also feel like we’ve written that exact paragraph once before. Either it was a dream or we’re getting repetitive in our old age. If the latter, oops. As he wonders how Charles Dickens would have fit into our current literary slots, Peter Preston puts his thoughts into modern context:

And there is a deeper point beyond this fantasy debate, the same point that Ian Rankin and PD James made at Cheltenham’s festival the other day. What is it, when Man Booker juries meet, that makes genres “inferior”, asked Baroness James? Why is crime writing, with its “very conscious structure” and ability to raise “big moral issues” outside the box of introversion, such a poor relation of “literary fiction”, asked Rankin?

There is no easy answer here, but one suspects it’s a bit like fashonistas who will only wear Prada. Often the label is mistaken for quality. There may be more attention to certain details, but when your zipper gets stuck, it’s all the same problem.

File Under: Square Pegs

7 responses so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Oct 18, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Poor Ian Rankin! He was jostled by the earl and his unruly entourage as they unwrapped the box of introversion, believing, incorrectly, it was something to eat.

  • Karen // Oct 18, 2005 at 1:38 pm

    Some of it must be because if you can label it, you know in advance what it is, and if you know in advance what it is, then at some level you’ve lost the illusion of innovation or originality. If PD James writes a crime novel, then there is always a crime. Always, always. This might make a reader think that James’s story, no matter how satisfying or entertaining, is formulaic — which it may or may not be. And formulaic is to prize-winning as garlic is to vampires.

  • Booksquare // Oct 18, 2005 at 8:12 pm

    And formulaic is to prize-winning as garlic is to vampires.

    You win. I cannot top this. Best laugh of the day (and the previous high point was someone telling me that “Point Break” was a good movie).

    David, that was my box of introversion, by the way. You can only imagine how I felt, seeing it on display. And the bite marks made selling it on eBay impossible.

  • Booksquare // Oct 18, 2005 at 8:21 pm

    Okay, I wanted to take the notion of formulaic seriously. Just for a moment. I’m hungry (though someone has told me that food is overrated). I think readers like books that follow certain conventions — and while you can argue that readers aren’t the best judges of artistic endeavor, at some point, you must accept that there’s art and then there’s art. As a species, we have a range of archetypes that mirror the conventions of our stories. As writers, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of these conventions, and judging panels praise this innovation.

    But sometimes, it seems to me, we should take the structures embraced by the readers more seriously. There’s a reason these conventions endure while many experiments fail. That’s not say that trying new things isn’t a worthy endeavor — it is simply to say that sometimes judges are distracted by bright and shiny things while really good stories are dismissed as run-of-the-mill.

    Hmm, that was deeper before I typed it.

  • Molly // Oct 19, 2005 at 3:56 am

    Interesting post — did you notice that in the Guardian’s discussion of genres, romance never once was mentioned as underrated? They discussed crime novels, sci fi, Westerns, etc., but no romance.

  • David Thayer // Oct 19, 2005 at 7:47 am

    These conventions do endure in Romance, Crime, Fantasy because, without them, there wouldn’t be an audience. So we’re all stuck with the structural requirements. I think those strictures vary in severity somewhat. For example the amateur sleuth in a cozy mystery really cannot explore her inner Rambo anymore than the tough guy PI might toss his gun aside for an interlude of shopping therapy. This might be fun to write, but rejection would be swift and possibly punitive.

  • Booksquare // Oct 19, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    David and I have been discussing conventions all over the place. I think we’d both agree that editorial decisions tend to err on the side of overly cautious when it comes to breaking conventions. While I believe readers are willing to push boundaries (how else do new sub-genres evolve and why do established sub-genres fade away), I’ve come to accept that they like a solid dose of predicability with their genre-bending twists.

    You must solve the mystery. You cannot leave the reader hanging. Or if you do, you must do in such a way that the reader believes this is the best possible ending to the story.

    As for the lack of discussion about romance, the British have a different relationship with that genre. Which is something we don’t need to explore further tonight…