Friday, 15 August 2008

The Great Genre Debate

If you trawl around some online writers' groups like me you may have encountered a strange subterranean war that is going on vis-a-vis the subject of genre. I first encountered it on a forum where someone had brought up the subject of how useful reviews were if the reviewer wasn't familiar with your particular genre. I was startled by the vitriolic response of some members on the subject. It's a publishing invention, they say. A Good Story is a Good Story, full stop. All well and good, but go into any bookshop and you won't find books arranged according to "Good Story" and "Not Good Story". So ignoring the phenomenon seems a bit naive.

According to which source you go with, there are hundreds of different fiction "genres" ranging from Chicklit to Crime and all points in between. And then of course there's Literary Fiction which seems to sweep across everything but take it to a deeper level, whatever that means. (I'm not sure you can get a Literary Chicklit novel - what do you think?) I recently enquired on one forum about what constituted literary fiction and brought down on my head accusations of snobbery. In fact I'd only wondered because while researching agents and publishers I find the term used by them, and I genuinely wondered who decides if a book is "literary" or not.

But the overall impression is that the subject of genre twangs a few writerly nerves out there. I'm not sure why. Do writers just hate to be categorised? Any thoughts, people?


Tracy said...

I've encountered the very strange phenomenon you've described and I've often wondered why these writers feel the way they do.
I think it's extremely naive to ignore the market and genre when it's crucial to achieving publishing success.
Publishers and marketing need to know how to gear their marketing to achieving maximum selling potential and quite often that would involve focussing on specifics, eg, Chicklit - advertise in women's mags. That kind of thing.
And as you say, where to position the book in the bookshop, which is important if you want to attract the right reader.

Personally, I think that the most disgruntled of writers haven't had much success in finding a publisher/agent and often define these issues as 'publishing inventions' because they feel it's all set up to defeat them. Mainly because they don't understand why they haven't been taken on.

I've often seen comments made about how publishers and agents are just looking for the same old thing, hence the genre issue becoming closely entwined into the argument.
I think publishers are looking for things that fall into genres, that can be easily marketed, but I do believe that within these rather broad boundaries of genre, they also want work that is fresh, original and brings a new angle.

So, personally, I don't have an issue with genres because I don't think they are as narrow as often presumed by other writers.

I've never quite been able to decide what's literary fiction but in broad terms I consider it to be psychological character studies and poetic, lyrical writing as opposed to action-packed daring do or easy-reading chicklit. I think it's quite wide-ranging and diverse in relation to specific themes. But then again what do I know, I write kids books. ;-)

Sandra Patterson said...

Good post, Tracy. I think you may be right, there is an element of paranoia in these reactions. And marketing does matter, let's face it.
On the subject of litfic, I once saw it defined as "nothing happening and a cure for insomnia" but I don't think the publishers would agree!