How helpful is ‘genre’?

Not very long ago I first became aware of the complexities of ‘genre’. I understood this to mean that books had to fit into a category with a label recogniseable to others in the book business. My prior knowledge was rudimentary: I knew about fiction and non-fiction, and that some fiction is about the present day and therefore ‘contemporary’, or set in the past and ‘historical’, but as a wide-ranging reader I had never given the issue much thought. When I started to write myself the original motivation was an interest in my own community, in the first half of the last century¬†before mains electricity, mechanised farming and antibiotics. Within that community I created a woman with a respectable position and a dark secret, and so it began.

In the opening chapter of the first book ‘A Good Liar’ a young woman’s body is discovered and the reader might ask, ‘Who pushed Alice in the river?’ Very soon, however, the demise of poor Alice fades in importance as characters rather than events begin to drive the story. Thus far I had not asked myself about ‘genre’. It was only when I started to learn about finding an agent that problems of definition appeared. ‘You have to be very clear about your genre’, I was told. Why, I wondered: what matters is the writing, surely, not the ‘format’. But I was the novice so I complied, concluding that my genre was ‘local historical fiction’: you could almost hear the groan from any prospective agent, all of whom were in London, as far as possible away from West Cumbria where I live and my stories are set. ‘But is it literary fiction of commercial fiction?’ was the next question, and is it ‘women’s fiction’, whatever that is?

I ended up by defining my first book, the product of four years of struggle, learning, frustration, effort, determination and optimism, as ‘local historical women’s commercial fiction’, which I suspect is the kiss of death in publishing terms. Needless to say I have found this process of genre definition unsatisfactory, and am still unsure of its purpose. Searching for an agent with this definition hanging round my like an albatross seemed like such a fruitless task that I decided instead to self-publish, and did so, with that book and the two more that followed. I believe that the three books in my trilogy – ‘A Good Liar’ (2012), ‘Forgiven’ (2013) and ‘Fallout’ (forthcoming, May 2014) – have a life and a quality beyond this clumsy pejorative label.

How do I define my own books? They tell of women’s struggles against limitations placed upon them by the circumstances of their lives in the middle years of the 20th century, set in the richly varied and interesting landscape of Cumbria’s west coast. They are both universal and particular. The strictures of ‘genre’ are more of a hindrance than a help.

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