Talking about Genres – The problems with genre writing…

Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.

Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors whether we need genre distinctions, what problems exist within and between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.

Pigeon Park Press – Does genre actually matter?

William Thirsk Gaskill – Human beings love to categorise things. We have to live with that. Most consumers like to have things pre-categorised for them, because it means they don’t have to think as much about what they are buying. My writing is an attempt to connect with readers who say they are looking for something new and stimulating – and actually mean it. With regard to marketing, genre is something writers and publishers can’t ignore. In the creation of original art, genre is something deliberately to be subverted. If successful, this results in the creation of new genres.

Dean M Drinkel – Until recently genre probably did matter, writers wrote in specific genres and readers would only read specific genres. However, like many things there is a lot more fluidity nowadays and whilst genre can be still deemed important (i.e. there are some publishers that will only publish particular genres or even agents who will only look at specific genres) what is more crucial is that whatever is written is written well. What I find interesting is when you call your work a specific genre and then somebody else calls it something different – with the Oscars around the corner, I am reminded of the furore when The Silence of the Lambs won – some called it a horror, some said it was a thriller and lots of people got their proverbials in a twist! Did it really matter? Probably not. It was a film well made, that was what was more important.

 

“…when The Silence of the Lambs won – some called it a horror, some said it was a thriller and lots of people got their proverbials in a twist! Did it really matter?”

James Brogden – Genre is the narrow point of an hourglass. Feeding in from the top, writers think more in terms of story and character rather than marketing, while at the narrow point an editor has a very clear idea of how a book needs to be marketed to be sold and so shapes it into a form which bookshops can label for their shelves. Out the other end, readers don’t think of themselves in genre terms but at the same time are attracted by covers designed by publishers to very carefully communicate genre expectations, however unconsciously. Genre is a selling tool, basically. In a nutshell, if you want to read or write books it doesn’t matter, but if you actually want to SELL them it’s crucial.

Anna Stephens – Dean and James make excellent points, especially what Dean says about The Silence of the Lambs. That blurring of genres is often something that can really help a book sell. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is such a crossover novel; it’s a modern thriller with a speculative twist and that’s what helped it become a Sunday Times bestseller. It’s sheer unpredictability. So I’d say I think genre is still important. I know my favourite genres are SFF and historical fiction and those are the shelves in the library and bookstore I gravitate towards. If all “fiction” was mingled on the shelves, I think fewer people would borrow or buy books. The sheer scale of the task of finding a book to enjoy would be almost impossible.

Heide Goody – I loved Behind Her Eyes, and I enjoyed the way that it straddled more than one genre, but I have seen several people react badly to it. They started to read what they thought was a “straight” psychological thriller, only to discover that there were supernatural elements in the book. This apparently made them feel as if they had been let down, that their expectation had been mismanaged. These people were in the minority, and the book was the massive hit that it deserved to be, but it suggests to me that genre does matter to some people; it represents their expectations.

 

“They started to read what they thought was a “straight” psychological thriller, only to discover that there were supernatural elements in the book.”

Jon Hartless – From the practical point of view, genre helps me navigate to the shelf I want in the bookshop, but it can be a self-limiting constraint also as many people will no doubt pass on by any genre they don’t know or like or approve of, and hence they may be missing out. Unfortunately, in terms of “literature”, there does seem to be a distaste of anything outside a narrow, prejudiced view on what constitutes “good” literature. I can only assume the reason for this is cultural superiority; literary fiction enables a self-satisfied clique of smug privileged wastrels to perch themselves on top of an ivory tower and drop the turgid turds of literary criticism and self-validation onto lesser mortals below. “I can read and understand this,” is the implied message, “while you can’t. I am therefore more intelligent and infinitely better cultured than you. And I insist I be treated as such.”

Tiffani Angus – To respond to Jon, if we look at LitFic as a genre itself–rather than a lack of genre or a type of writing that is ‘genre-less’–full of its own tropes, then I think its placement atop an ivory tower is undermined. LitFic then, instead of being the thing against which other genres are compared and often found wanting by those who haven’t even waded into SFF, becomes another categorisation. As such, it is still susceptible to placement in a hierarchy and so much a monolith of LitFic in opposition to all other genres together. Genre does matter for marketing, of course, and it helps writers know what context they’re working in. It also allows us writers to play, to combine genres and come up with something new and then, we hope, find readers who may be excited by the combination–something that a lack of genre identification would be difficult to explain.

Pigeon Park Press – So is there snobbery within and between genres? Do some genres look down on others?

Anna – In terms of fantasy, I think there’s a wider snobbery at play in which people who read non-fantasy genres think we’re a bunch of juveniles running around with swords and magic and not writing anything of worth, but among fantasy fans I haven’t come across any kind of snobbery. People have preferences of course – I don’t read steampunk for instance – and I imagine there are some people who think grimdark is like those horror films where it’s all gore and no plot. The literary equivalent of The Human Centipede, perhaps. But I think we all understand that we’re all fantasy fans and fantasy writers and that gives us a bond and a sense of community.

 

“people who read non-fantasy genres think we’re a bunch of juveniles running around with swords”

Heide – I agree with Anna that genre fiction is a tolerant place with a good sense of community. I like to spend time with writers of genre fiction, general commercial fiction and even poetry because I am extremely nosy and I like to see what writers do. If there is a difference in attitude, I am not sure I’d call it snobbery: I think I might suggest that we are driven by different goals. We all want readers to read our work, but commercial gain (and the sordid business of marketing) is perhaps not everyone’s primary driver.

Jon – Heide mentions commercial gain, which reminds me of the old assumption that you can have a literary reputation, or you can have sales, but not both. To me, this shows that intellectual snobbery toward genre, and indeed to healthy sales, is built into the very system and even before we begin we are encoded and trapped by assumptions from the cultural critics who refuse to recognise populist entertainment as anything but vulgar. And the more obscure and difficult a text is, the more they like it as they can pretend to be cultured by lauding something no one else is ever going to bother to read…

“You can have a literary reputation, or you can have sales, but not both.”

Tiffani – It’s not news, but there’s been a battle between LitFic and SFF for decades. A recent article claimed LitFic was in ‘crisis’, as if its slump was the death knell for ‘high culture’, which gives strength to the idea of a hierarchy of LitFic above SFF despite the latter’s popularity and sales numbers. Within SFF there’s snobbery about sub-genres, too, such as ranking hard SF above urban fantasy. While waiting in a green room to be on a panel about love & sex in SFF, I was informed by a (male) panellist/fan/writer that relationships don’t belong in SFF and that we were ruining things. It’s hard not to see snobbery in that!

William – The snobbery shown by literary fiction towards other genres is nothing compared to the snobbery within itself. The Big 5 publishers don’t so much look down on the independents as not notice they are there, except when an independent has a big commercial success, which is a cue for a patronising phone call about taking a writer off somebody’s hands. The Man Booker prize makes token attempts to respond to accusations that it is a white, male London-based conspiracy. The effects of digital publishing are still to be fully realised. Adelle Stripe’s recent novel, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, based on the life of Andrea Dunbar (writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too) has re-exposed some of the old scars. It has also sold a lot of copies.

Dean – There is definitely a hierarchy and snobbery in genre writing that I have witnessed personally at conventions and gatherings but I leave ‘them’ to it though I know people who have suffered and will no longer attend events which is shame because I thought we were supposed to be about ‘inclusion’ rather than ‘exclusion’. I am proud to say that I write in the horror genre and will therefore suffer snobbery from those who think that horror is a lesser form of literature. I am lucky too (ha ha) in the fact that historical writers will also look down on writers like me that ‘dare’ to set our horror tales in THEIR historical worlds…I never make it easy for myself do I?

Pigeon Park Press – So what are the challenges of your genre? What are the barriers that you face within your particular genre?

William You have to come up with something new, because literary fiction is arguably the oldest genre (adherents of fantasy might lay claim to The Odyssey). I am fascinated by the information age. Rather than making us all buy e-readers, I think it offers new opportunities to experiment with narrative mode, ways of writing dialogue – the very idea of how to convey a story – but in ways which are accessible to contemporary readers. But it is not what you can write, nor what you can publish. It is what you can sell. You have to try to be to your genre what Einstein is to physics: make it comprehensible and appealing to people, sellers as well as readers, who think they hate it.

 

“You have to try to be to your genre what Einstein is to physics: make it comprehensible and appealing to people”

Jon – The greatest challenge to Steampunk may well lie in defining what the genre is; “That’s not Steampunk!” is a common refrain within the community, some of whom have much narrower ideas than others on what and isn’t “allowed”. For this reason, your brilliantly imagined world may not appeal to everyone – and they can be vocal in their criticism. Another barrier is that Steampunk, at least within the UK, is still rather niche; not that many have heard of it or know what it is…

Anna – One challenge in writing grimdark is there’s a fairly specific approach to writing it, including a focus on the bleaker side of life and as such it doesn’t have the broad appeal that other types of fantasy does. Sales figures and resulting profits may therefore not be as high as other types of fantasy. That said, Game of Thrones has proven wildly popular, so who knows. Challenges to writing in the genre include a higher than usual ratio of villains, so be prepared for the mental exhaustion that comes with those characters and their nefarious plans. Also, colour schemes tend towards mud brown and blood red!

Heide – A barrier to writing comic fantasy is that sometimes people don’t like to see the “comedy” part of the label. I pitched a short story to a small press last year, but fell at the first hurdle by mentioning the word comedy. “We don’t accept comedy” is not uncommon, even if you’re hitting the right genre. Readers are more open to being told that something is funny, but because humour is so subjective, the burden of proof is on the author. I can’t think of another subgenre where cynicism as to whether you’ve correctly identified what you’ve written is the default reaction!

Dean – For writing historical horror stories you HAVE to have a passion for history and know the particular period like the back of your hand – which means lots of research. You have to ensure that you create something unique and interesting if you are setting something in a particular period of history which we know a lot about e.g. WW2 and make your story ‘fresh’. Something to definitely remember is getting the language and dialogue of the characters right otherwise it can throw the reader out. For example, when we wrote the first draft of our Napoleon II script, we had characters saying “okay” probably a good eighty years before the word was invented!

James – I agree with Dean. I think if you’re going to write anything which needs an historical background the absolute minimum you can do is get that background accurate. There’s a lot of fun in world-building an entire secondary reality as part of a fantasy novel, but part of the fun of writing this folk or historical horror lies in finding the gaps in the real world where the weirdness might slip in. Aside from the obvious challenge of Knowing Enough Stuff, you have to be careful about info-dumping all the really cool things you’ve discovered, because there’s the need to balance it with actually telling a story.

 

“Aside from the obvious challenge of Knowing Enough Stuff, you have to be careful about info-dumping all the really cool things you’ve discovered.”

Tiffani – Research is key. There is a fine line between getting the information you need for X character living in X place and X time and falling down the research bunny hole for days or weeks at a time. You don’t have to know every last thing about your place or time period–just enough to get the story down. And you do all of this research but need to avoid info-dumps and long passages where you report on the time period or place. You want your research to inform the character’s actions, etc., and for the piece to pull the reader in and sing as fiction–not a report. But I find the biggest challenge, the one that stalls me, is really closely related: it’s getting out of your own head and remembering that you’re writing fiction and not non-fiction. You find yourself stopping and questioning “Would X character do that, then?” or “Could X happen?” In some cases, you have to adhere to historical rules, but at the same time you’re writing fantasy and can and SHOULD play with all of it, tweak it.

The Contributors

Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.

James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.

Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.

Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus

 

William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.

Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.

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