Wednesday 21 January 2015

Whose Genre Is It Anyway? by Carol Cooper

Carol Cooper
Continuing with the series of posts featuring writers whose books are included in the Women Writing Women Box Set, today's guest post is by Carol Cooper, author of One Night at the Jacaranda.


Whose Genre Is It Anyway?
Carol Cooper
If I close my eyes and think of genres, up pops a long list like this:

Thriller                        Detective fiction            Murder mystery
Action & Adventure       Psychological thriller      Science fiction
Supernatural                Western                       Horror
Steampunk                  Legal thriller                 Medical thriller
Contemporary fiction     Urban fiction                Women's Adventure
Women's Fiction           Chick-lit                       Romance
Historical romance        Domestic chiller            Women in jeopardy

And of course the big one: Literary fiction.

Most people can understand what a bodice-ripper is. But what, pray, is literary fiction? You can rely on Wikipedia to have an opinion:
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”
Ah, the human condition. There’s not much consensus on that either, but one thing is certain about the human condition. Once your publisher says you’ve reached the heart of it, you know you have arrived. With a capital A.

There may also be a big A on advance, but the book won’t necessarily earn it back. Maybe that should be in the definition? I can’t recall who told me that a literary novel is the kind that sells under 200 copies a year, but he had a point. Literary fiction appeals to a smaller audience.

I asked around, and got the following essential ingredients for literary fiction:

  • Beautiful style
  • Complex characters
  • Big ideas
  • Depth, but not necessarily action
  • Takes itself seriously, and may require years to write. 

Is it also difficult to read? So much the better.

If this is what you’re after, I’ll lend you my copy of A Brief History of Time. The most obvious snag is that it’s not fiction.

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I didn’t bother repeating the exercise for every other genre I could think of. Genre is a major preoccupation for publishers, agents, and writers. But how much does it bother the customers?

Talking to book clubs, I had my suspicions confirmed. Readers can’t always define their preferred genre. They don’t necessarily have one anyway. They enjoy far more than one kind of book, and it insults their intelligence to assume their tastes are narrow.

Broad categories can be useful when they assist in distinguishing, say, crime, contemporary and YA novels. 
They may help people twig that A Short History of Tractorsin Ukrainian is a novel, rather than a manual on dual diesel engines. Years ago, I proofread just such a manual. Take it from me: nobody reads it for its social comment or its riveting plot.

On the other hand, labelling books can also deter readers. I’m a fan of page-turners with vibrant writing and strong characters, so I loved IStopped Time by Jane Davis, as well as Maggie’sChild by Glynis Smy. But I nearly didn’t bother with either of them.

They’re both ‘historical,’ you see. I don’t really care for mannered speech, or for tons of period detail that weigh down the story and can sink the plot. And the sex scenes? Without running water, I’m sure everyone stank to high heaven beneath their hand-stitched bodices, basques, and bloomers. I’m a doctor. I know how people smell.

Many books don’t fit neatly into a genre anyway. My fiction debut One Night at the Jacaranda was, I thought, simply a novel. But as a newbie on the fiction scene, what did I know? 

One book doctor dubbed it ‘chick-lit’, even though it tackles many darker issues. It’s not even exclusively ‘women’s fiction’, since much of it is written from a male point of view. Certainly many men have read it and reviewed it. 

Excerpt from One Night at the Jacaranda
A friend calls it a ‘multi-viewpoint ensemble novel’. That may be nearer the truth, but what a mouthful! I prefer to think of it simply as ‘contemporary fiction’. What’s the point of shoe-horning it into a genre?

Genres are a means of branding, and I’m not convinced readers find them meaningful. Think back to the last few novels that carried you away. Was it the genre that persuaded you to read them? Or did you rely more on the cover, the first page, and maybe reviews, to make your choice?

The next time I see a phrase like, “With this latest book X, author Y has pushed the boundaries of genre Z,” I know I will think, “The hell with all that! Will the book be worth my precious time?”

As their own publishers, indie authors can afford to take risks, to bend the genres a bit, and to concentrate on producing what people enjoy reading. And surely that is the mark of a good book?

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Thanks to Carol for an insightful post. As someone whose books never seem to fit any particular category, I am happy to see independent authors stepping outside the box.

For more information please visit the WOMEN WRITING WOMEN website (there is a form to fill in to win a digital goody bag) , watch their video and follow them on Facebook.

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