Genre: what on earth is it?

I was half listening to Radio 4 the other morning and caught the end of a discussion with some literary worthies, about whether the prejudice (their word) against ‘genre fiction’ is relevant any longer, or has it become as superficial and snobbish as ‘designer labels’ in fashion? All agreed that ‘genre’ was a form of labelling for marketing purposes, and that some ‘genre fiction’ was actually pretty good even by (undefined) ‘literary’ standards, although yet again the example they cited was Patrick O’Brian with his wonderful naval saga set during the Napoleonic era. O’Brian tells great stories in an engaging style, and those characteristics seem to be define ‘genre fiction’. If that’s so, I wonder what are the defining characteristics of ‘literary fiction’? How different can they be?

Readers of this blog, a small but discerning group, have heard me bang on about this before, and other much more successful writers than me do the same. Why do I and other ‘story tellers’ feel that the ‘literary’ world seems bent on patronising and belittling us? What’s wrong with a classically good story, well told, which readers find accessible and compulsive reading? The analogy with the fashion industry is an obvious one. The high street stores sell some very good clothes, pitched at the average purse and taste. These clothes may not be unique to this season, or  easily dated, or made with exclusive materials, but they’re affordable, wearable, and occasionally really interesting and appealing too. Some high street clothes even appear on models in glossy magazines, alongside their more expensive and extraordinary counterparts from the big name designers. 

There’s no profit for producers in fashion that doesn’t date. The fashion industry relies for its survival on the view that last season’s version of clothing and accessories must be replaced, as a form of conspicuous consumption. Perhaps the book industry has the same aspiration. Publishers used to be content with ‘high class’ books that sold to only the most discerning buyers, but it couldn’t charge excessive prices – such as some would pay for a handbag – and when the profit margins shrank under competition from you know who and ebooks they found themselves in a pickle. They wanted to publish ‘quality’ but needed to make larger profits to survive, so they ended up publishing books by known names that would sell not because of their intrinsic quality but because of the name on the cover and sycophantic reviews commissioned from other big name authors from the same ‘stable’. Incidentally, the urge to ‘ghost write’ must be really strong: is it true that Jeffrey Archer’s best-sellers are actually written by other people? And the pressure on successful authors to publish more must also be acute: could their quality suffer as a result?

Obviously, one victim of this ambivalence within the book business is the novice author, apart from the infinitesimally small number in any year who fit the criteria to be hyped into success by massive marketing investment. The message from publisher to agent, and thence from agent to writer seems to be ‘Unless we can guarantee to sell millions of your book, thanks but no thanks.’ And what really are the criteria for this lottery-like selection? ‘I need to fall in love with your book,’ say the agents. And what exactly does that mean? Is it really as arbitrary as it sounds? We’re also told that agents and publishers are looking for ‘trends’ and would-be authors need to spot the rising wave and attach themselves to it. That’s not a very satisfying explanation either, and who determines which waves will burst into flood while others web quietly away?

So here we are again. It is slowly occurring to me that the best way to avoid the frenetic pressure of literary fashion, or the pursuit of quantity over quality, is to avoid traditional routes to publication and do your own thing. The only exception would be the handful of published writers whose talent is so extraordinary that they can make their own rules and stick to them. There may be other extraordinary writers out there, but unless the quirky and  unspecified needs of the agent and publisher can be fathomed out, these writers will remain beyond the ‘literary Pale’. There may come a time when this ‘Pale’, ie. a constructed boundary, will cease to be important to the majority of us who remain outside it and become a self-regarding cage for those within. Maybe that’s why the literati I heard the other morning on the radio were admitting that the concept of ‘genre’ is increasingly outdated and needs to be ‘refreshed’. I agree. Let’s do it. 

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