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Jumping the gap

The slippery beast

The latest post on the Macmillan New Writers group blog is an interesting rumination among those interesting authors about whether or not they think of themselves as writing in a particular genre. The responses, as you might imagine, vary. The difficulty is that the term 'genre' is a slippery beast at the best of times, being used in lots of different senses in many different contexts.

Genre as plot-style. As in romance (will they live happily ever after?), detective (will they find the murderer?), thriller (will they save the world?), adventure (will they come out alive?). This seems to be the one that literary criticism meant when it decided to talk about genre: A S Byatt has fun with this in Possession, as her campus satire characters point out that they've moved from 'The Quest' to 'Chase-and-Race'.

Genre as set of rules. My Dictionary of Literary Terms defines 'genre' according to the classical French origin of the word: epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy, satire, 'to which must now be added novel and short story'. In their tidy-minded way (the French were horrified by the 'muddle' that Shakespeare made of his genres) they set forth the rules that writers in each genre had to stick to. There still are rules: Detective stories do need a body fairly early on, even if we've all got a bit more sophisticated since the absolute outrage that greeted Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, when... No, I won't spoil it. Romance does need great love, even without a happy-ever-after ending: sadder-but-heroically-wiser is also an option.

Genre as setting. Historical, fantasy, sci-fi, and what I'd call 'exotic' (think The Beach, or The God of Small Things). In these settings, of course, any plot is possible, though I have a theory - entirely unsupported by looking for evidence - that you don't get a lot of pure, full-on romance plots in a sci-fi setting.

Genre as opposed to literary. This is a book-trade rather than a literary distinction. Commercial fiction has to be jacketed/packaged/sold as a known quantity: as crime, lad-lit, sci-fi, fantasy, saga, mum-lit, and so on. 'Women's fiction' is probably the broadest church (why is there no equivalent label of 'men's fiction'?) but they all have their rules which readers expect, and have covers and PR campaigns to match. And yet, while conforming to those, the novel between the covers can be anything from tick-box dull or utterly banal, to a thumping good read or truly original. As Valerie Shaw says, 'Where originality comes over is in the skill with which a writer can simultaneously meet the demand for comforting sameness and divert it into new and often disturbing areas.' The odd result of the opposition between 'genre' and 'literary' is that books which clearly belong to a genre are somehow disqualified from also being literary. 'Not just a good detective novel, but a really good novel' they said of Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and Margaret Atwood's recent dismissal of much Sci-fi writing was greeting with some scepticism, given The Handmaid's Tale. And yet, to the book-trade 'literary' is just another genre with covers and PR to match: one where prestige and prizes make up for relatively modest sales, and which you can't classify by plot-style or setting, but only by its style, where the quality of the prose and the complexity of the ideas are as important as the drive to tell a story.

So how does it feel as a writer to find your work classified in a certain way? The MNW writers each have their own reaction. I was very disconcerted at first to be asked, 'So what genre do you write?' and 'What period do you write?' because all I knew was that I wrote novels which at the moment had partly historical settings. Genres needn't be reductive for a writer, at least not at the more loosely-defined, literary end of the market, and besides, there's a lot of sophisticated fun to be had playing with the rules. But for me they are too defining. What if the next thing I want to write isn't historical? What if it doesn't chiefly involve the development of one or more sexual relationships? Chances are, knowing me, that it is and it will, and maybe my publishers will be relieved to know it. But something small and cussed inside me needs to say very clearly every now and again: 'Well, if what I want to write next is a short, sharp sci-fi techno-thriller, I shall. So there!'