As any regular reader of my blog will know, I’ve always been puzzled by the complexities of ‘genre’ and its effect on those in the book business whose role is to decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Apparently in the latest edition of the ‘Bookseller’ magazine, which I haven’t seen myself, is an article about a new ‘sub-genre’ label ‘grip-lit’, a term used to describe psychological thrillers, such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Girl on a Train’. (I’ve already noted the repeat of ‘girl’ in the title, to bring one’s work instantly to the notice of a literary agent.) ‘Grip lit’ is hardly a new idea; it’s been around for decades, displaced more recently by the new wave of ‘detectives’. Perhaps literary fashion, like its clothing counterpart, has a ‘retro’ phase, when the delights of a previous era are re-discovered and claimed by a younger generation.
If genre is indeed driven by the vagaries of fashion, writers like myself face some choices. We can scour the landscape of current trends to find what sells, analyse the component parts and imitate them as quickly as possible, before the trend fades. And if we’re really clever, we’ll use a trendy title book too. Alternatively, we could aspire to something more timeless and run the risk of being ignored by the bandwagons that sweep by so relentlessly. The beauty of aiming for the timeless is that the books’ shelf life is much longer. If you’re self-publishing in paperback – which you probably are as no agent is interested in anything so untrendy – shelf life is an important consideration. Self-publishers can’t afford the ‘launch’ and promotion budgets available to traditionally published books, and have to rely instead on steady sales over a longer period to get any return on the initial investment.
In the Saturday Guardian review section, a few pages on from the piece about ‘grip lit’, there is an article by Hilary Mantel about the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard’s work is often disparaged, with a genre definition of ‘by women, for women’. Mantel believes that this category existed ‘until very recently’, but I think it’s still around, and just as disparaged as ever. The difference is that now such novels rarely if ever penetrate the net thrown around the publishing business by the professional agents on whom the business now relies. Confusions abound. When does fashionable ‘chick lit’ grow up into unfashionable ‘by women, for women’? Is this another example of the confusing irrelevance of genre? Isn’t it time we dropped the whole labyrinthine idea, or a least cleared away the clutter and returned to a smaller range of overall ‘categories’ of fiction which is not defined by assumptions about who will read them?