My conversation with Edinburgh-based writer and tweeter Andrew Blair continues apace today, after a wee little break yesterday. You may remember that in the last post I asked him what his view was of the BBC’s emphasis on Literary Fiction over all else for their World Book Day coverage, my own view being that it’s a little bit silly because it ignores a vast section of the reading population.
The documentary with Sue Perkins was a bit patronising. It only really dealt with popular fiction aimed at women and even then managed to assume that this meant nothing more than Chick Lit.
It started with the assumption that Literary Fiction is objectively better, which is flawed. People do not read books based on objective critical analysis. Then an unsympathetic presenter tried not to ask people ‘But gosh, don’t you realise it makes you look thick?’
The next show featured a group of first-time authors of literary fiction and a brief history of the genre. It was amazingly dull, and represented a tiny fraction of the books that we sell. Ignoring genre-fiction for a second, I don’t think Non-Fiction even got a look in.
What’s more, quite a few of the new authors were writing books that were clearly science-fiction, fantasy or crime novels but had apparently managed to find publishers who would market them as literary fiction.
A general rule of thumb I’ve learned from working in a bookshop: if a new book is clearly genre fiction but is going to sell well, it will be moved as quickly as possible to the Fiction section so that everyone who has heard about it won’t have to mingle with the Martina Cole and Joe Abercrombie fans.
12 Books in 12 Months:
*Going into journo mode*
Crime, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Dark Fantasy, Romance, Erotica, Classics, Graphic Novels and Manga.
Everything else is under ‘Fiction’. This includes Historical Fiction (which includes Historical Romance if the author is popular enough to make it out from the Romance section), Literary Fiction, Chick-Lit, Modern Classics, Westerns, Popular Fiction, Thrillers and Comedies as well as stories that would happily fall under the smaller genre fiction banners.
So when I say ‘Genre Fiction’ I mean something that would fall outside of a Fiction section in most bookshops (other chains and indies usually shelve things along similar if not identical lines). In ‘Fiction’ you might find The Passage by Justin Cronin, or I am Number Four by James Frey (and some poor bastard he screwed over), and Ishiguro, Niffenegger or Atwood… People who have written Genre Fiction but managed to somehow avoid being shelved there.
The reasons for this, I assume, are to do with marketing and critical reception. Genre Fiction celebrates itself because all the works of Genre Fiction that have won major literary awards have been distanced from Sci-Fi or Fantasy or Crime by their authors. There is a perception of Genre Fiction as being niche, or popular within a certain audience. It cannot win, for it is both populist and niche simultaneously. So there is a stigma for Genre Fiction of being lowbrow and culty, as opposed to highbrow and selective. Then there is simply the fact that more people look at the Fiction Section than the Crime Section, so you want your book to get looked at more.
There are weird associations people have based on genre, shorthands and stereotypes that are propagated by a cyclical set of behaviours of authors and audience. If something is genre but popular, it gets assimilated as being representative. Hence all Dark Romance is brooding supernatural beings ploughing pale young whinos, and all fantasy is witches and wizards going on bloody long walks. Whereas you could quite easily say that The Time Traveller’s Wife sits comfortably in Dark Fantasy. Definitions are more fluid than the Genre Sections allow them to be.
Of course, there are simply books you like and books you don’t. But that’s more difficult to operate as a shelving system.
I mean, how would you deal with it? Would you rather your book be put in the Fiction section if it meant more sales? Do you think Fiction should just encompass all genres? And do you subscribe to the belief that there are just good and bad books, whether they be Literary Fiction or Crime Thrillers?
Are there just good books and bad books? What a very subjective question! What you want to read depends on mood, where you are in life, and all kinds of other things. On holiday or in the bath you might want to read something light that you don’t have to think about, on a rainy weekend you might want something completely engrossing and escapist, if you’re miserable you might want something funny…
In addition, depending on your mood, age and whatever, slightly clunky writing can be forgiven when you’ve got a good story on the go, as with Magic Kingdom for Sale, Sold by Terry Brooks. And well written prose can be really dull – I struggled to get to the end of Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, but there was nothing technically wrong with it and I’ve enjoyed articles written by her in the past, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to judge all her fiction on the back of the fact that one novel didn’t grab me.
What I hope to do is write engaging characters and storylines across all 12 genres, but I suspect that all 12 of my first drafts are more ‘fiction’ than genre fiction and will require a lot more research and tweaking to market them to fans of the particular genres. And even then I suspect I’ll have got a few of them wrong…
April 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm
Fascinating interview. Thanks for posting! I’ve been involved in a few genre discussions lately, as I was recently told by a writer that I’m writing genre. Really? Me? I’ve always written literary fiction, but my new novel is historical. Set in the 19th century. But as you pointed out, I haven’t yet studied the conventions of the form and what readers of historical fiction expect when they pick up a book. Mostly because I’m writing a literary story that adheres to those qualities, but it’s historical.
Andrew’s information about how certain books get marketed differently, depending on expected popularity, was fascinating. And I’m really interested in his explanation of where genres get shelved. If it’s common to shelve historical fiction with literary, then I have less of a problem, perhaps, in identifying my novel as one or the other.
Thanks for giving me so much to think about!
April 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm
Thanks for your comment, Laura – I agree it is really interesting to get the large bookshop perspective on genre! Good luck with your historical-literary novel!
April 30, 2011 at 9:40 pm
Thanks! And good luck with your 12 books.