Talking about Genre (or: Trying to avoid the ‘L’ Word!)

A Round Robin Post

Hello dear friends and brave blog-readers.

Today I am going on a new adventure – I am trying out a blog-post for a writing-related ‘Round Robin’ that I discovered through a fellow member of the Book Connectors Facebook page. Here’s how it works:

Each month I will receive a new topic that I can choose to write about if it appeals to me. There is a specific date for publication, with other bloggers who are interested also posting on that subject on the same day. At the bottom of our posts we will all provide links to the other blogs that have participated. Thus you can dip into a whole series of alternative views on that topic should you feel like a marathon read. image: a shelf of books

Here is the topic I was asked to address today:

Whatever genre you write, do you have a different one that you love to read? What do you think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well, my first thought was: don’t get me started!

Genre is one of those things that people often ask about if you tell them that you’re a writer. ‘What kind of books do you write,’ they ask. ‘Literary fiction,’ I reply. Here there is usually a long pause and then, inevitably, the killer question: ‘What’s “literary fiction”?’

This is not something I find easy to answer. I think it’s obvious; other people clearly do not.

I looked up ‘literary’ in the online Oxford Dictionary which came up with the following: ‘Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’.

Great, I thought – although it can sound a bit arrogant if you use the ‘quality’ word as it seems to imply that other forms of literature are less than acceptable in this department. Further, the dictionary suggested that, in relation to language, ‘literary’ is associated with writing that has ‘a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect’.

I’m not sure about that, and it does all seem a little vague. I am definitely a sucker for emotion though, and for anything that moves me or makes me think deeply about things. If I look honestly at my own novels it’s possibly only the most recently finished one that would fully qualify as ‘literary’. The one before might be ‘commercial women’s fiction with a literary bent’, whatever that is – but thereby hangs another tale.

I do have a get-out clause to explain what ‘literary fiction’ is when people ask me: anything that is likely to be entered for the Booker Prize. And, to be honest, this is also my favourite type of thing to read. Give me John Banville or Jon McGregor any day over romance or crime or steampunk (although that is rather fun). My favourite books of all time would include The Bone People by Keri Hulme (yes, it won the Booker) and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton-Walsh (full of amazing ideas, and yes, a Booker shortlistee).

I find it interesting that I have attracted an agent who does not fully share my overly literary tastes. Her background, workwise, is slightly more commercial and also crime-orientated. When I described my reading tastes to her they included authors that she simply doesn’t get on with – I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child at the time. I do find it comforting that when I heard Alan Hollinghurst speak about his writing process it was remarkably similar to my own. Maybe this is an omen that there is hope for me yet in getting that publishing deal!

But I am a wide reader and I always have some non-fiction on the go, too. I am very into philosophy and spiritual writing, and am currently enjoying a brilliant translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, subtitled Love Poems to God. I love poetry. And I’m not averse to the occasional foray across the fiction genres – for instance I enjoyed Stieg Larssons’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the Millennium Trilogy (it helped that I also have a dragon tattoo so there was an inbuilt affinity from page one).

So what do I think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well it’s so personal that I find it hard to say. I’m told that, however literary your work, you still need a good plot with a hook and direction and engaging characters, but I could give you examples of books that break that rule and still work. It helps though, whatever the genre, to be carried along with the characters and what they want to achieve; to feel that you are in good hands and will arrive at your destination without disappointment.

Personally, I love language. I love rhythm and metre and the way writing can make you sense and feel the things that the author is describing. I like an emotional journey as well as a practical one. I like ambiguous endings that don’t wrong-foot you at the last minute.

I do find it interesting that many of the writers that I like are men. I think that there can be a divide between the sexes in tastes, and where authors want to appeal across the gender divide they sometimes resort to de-sexing themselves by using initials. Think P D James or J K Rowling. I have not checked this statistically, but I suspect that men are much less likely to buy a book that they know is written by a woman. Women, however, seem to be more willing to cross the divide. (I have just done a little online search on this and discovered a Goodreads survey from a couple of years ago that showed an overwhelming proportion of books read – by both the sexes – were written by authors of the same gender, however the authors had branded themselves. I am always happy to be proved wrong!)

So… Perhaps readers make assumptions about what a book will be like depending on who has written it, and perhaps they have a better chance of liking it if they do! They also make assumptions based on the cover. Look at how standardized the styling of different genres has become, and at the repackaging of books aimed at young people with alternative covers to also appeal to an adult audience. We are a gullible lot, and well led by the media and the publishing industry.

But this cover ‘uniformity’ and branding by genre (dark pictures with big author names in silver letters equals ‘thriller’, etc) reflects what is probably a wider truth – people love the reassurance of what is familiar. They like to dip into a new book knowing that it will ‘fit’ like a comfy pair of old slippers. They stick with what they know. How they decide which genre constitutes a comfy pair of old slippers for them is another story.

Maybe there’s a case for simply going into a bookshop or an online store and choosing the fourth book along, on the third row down, and seeing whether, without prejudice, you might just happen to like it after all…

© Anne de Gruchy

Now check out what some other authors think about the subject of genre…

Skye Taylor
A.J. Maguire
Heather Haven
Dr. Bob Rich
Helena Fairfax
Connie Vines
Rhobin Courtright
Fiona McGier
Kay Sisk
Rachel Kosinski

14 thoughts on “Talking about Genre (or: Trying to avoid the ‘L’ Word!)

  1. I was invited to ‘like’ this when it appeared in my inbox (always a pleasure) but I can never find the ‘like’ button when I follow the link provided. Anyway, consider yourself liked.

    I suppose literary fiction can be either fiction that doesn’t fit easily or comfortably within the boundaries/constraints of any recognised genre or – and here’s where it potentially gets a bit more controversial – fiction which, it might be inferred, is considered (either by writer or readers or publisher) to be a ‘cut above’ your run-of-the-mill commercial fiction. A bit like the difference between the ‘legitimate theatre’ and a summer season in Blackpool.

    Incidentally, I think whenever anyone asks you what kind of books you write, you should reply, “Quality fiction”.

    Personally, I’d say read and write whatever you like. In the case of writing, this only presents problems if you’re looking to sell things. I agree with you completely in what you say about the idea that a novel must always have a strong this and engaging that (and an engrossing bit of the other?). Much of my favourite writing would never have existed were that always so.

    I love ‘trashy’ category fiction – those wonderful old New English Library paperbacks, 120 pages if you were lucky, knocked out on a typewriter in a few weeks, with beautiful painted or photographic covers, that would spin mesmerisingly before your eyes on those old display stands you’d get in newsagents or branches of Woolworths – and I love ‘literature’, like you read in school (the classroom as opposed to the playground) or found, often by accident while you were looking for something else, on library shelves. I love them both equally because they both transport me to places, or make me feel things, I wouldn’t go to, or feel, otherwise.

    (That last sentence might need some work.)

    I’ve had short stories published in horror anthologies that I wouldn’t consider to be ‘horror’ myself. It’s not because I look down on horror as a genre, I grew up devouring that stuff alongside everything else. I just write what I write. Whatever turns up in my head. If anyone else can find some use for it subsequently – get something out of it – that’s very nice.

    I also think you’re right about people reading certain types of genre fiction because it’s familiar. You see the book on the shelf, maybe it’s an author whose other books you’ve read and enjoyed (maybe it’s by somebody you’ve never heard of but looks the part), and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. Maybe it’ll exceed your expectations or maybe you’ll be a bit disappointed. Either way you’ll probably come back for more. If you like chips and you’re feeling a bit peckish and think, “Oh, I just fancy some chips,” and go and avail yourself of a portion (medium, let’s say… salt and vinegar? Yes, Please… wrapped, thanks…), even if they’re not the best chips you’ve ever had, even if they’re a bit soggy, you’ve still had some chips. What are you complaining about? Some people would have been glad of those chips.

    Literary chips, they’d be twice fried and stacked up in a tower (I suppose if they were in a tower, they could also be fantasy chips), which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your lovely observations, Steve – you always give such interesting insights! I will never look at chips the same way again… !!


  2. How interesting that you are parsing out what a “literary” style is. One of my sons, who had toyed with pursuing an English degree (until I talked him out of it…no money in it!) because he reads constantly and writes very well, told me that in my books I “write in a literary style, with tasteful sex scenes.” I took that as high praise, since my other two sons just wrinkle up their faces and say, “Read my mom’s smut? No thanks!” Someone should have raised them with more of an open mind, eh? *Grin*

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sentence resonated with me: “Personally, I love language. I love rhythm and metre and the way writing can make you sense and feel the things that the author is describing.”

    One of my cliches is “All prose is poetry.” And if you can’t get the reader to feel the character’s emotions, then you have failed.



  4. I enjoyed your exploration of what constitutes literary fiction. I also agree with your comments on gender as for what people read – for the most part. Being a healthy, heterosexual woman, I LOVE reading what men think and write. I do love romance, but there are probably 70% of female romance writers I don’t enjoy because they never take the time or have any interest in understanding how men think, feel and talk and their heroes don’t come across as very manly to me. But then, there are some men who venture into creating female characters who do just as one sided a job. I think authors who read both male and female authors create the most well rounded characters.


    • What a fascinating observation! As a woman I used to be very nervous of writing male characters for fear of not being realistic or getting properly into their heads, ditto other characters whose experiences I don’t share like characters who are gay or characters with different cultural or class backgrounds. I’m a lot more confident now after decades of writing and meeting and talking to people. One of the joys of writing a novel for me is interviewing people who share the experiences of my characters and learning about these things. I have met some wonderful people this way and they are so generous with their time. Thanks for your thoughts…


  5. Welcome to the round robin group, Anne! I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts, especially the one about authors using initials to invite both sexes equally. I’ve even thought about doing R.E. Kosinski or something. Might do it in the future depending on what book I write!


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