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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.

www.annedegruchy.co.uk 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 http://www.askyetaylor.com/blogging_by_the_sea/view/542
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-11v
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Kay Sisk http://www.kaysisk.com/blog
Rachel Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/

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