No puntastic title this week I’m afraid – this is part of a new series, in which I try and introduce you to parts of the reading experience that you might be missing out on. Often, the genres I talk about may well be something you’ve never read, but hear me out – I will only recommend the best!
‘Genre fiction’ is fiction that fits into a particular category of narrative, from crime and thriller to romance, from science fiction and fantasy to historical novels. There are a fair number of readers in the UK whose fiction reading is exclusively limited to one or a couple of these genres. There are also a great many readers who’ve never encountered them at all. Each to their own – I’m reluctant to tell people they should read anything in particular – but I personally feel that this is a shame for both sides. It’s not surprising that this divide exists, though. There are two main reasons for it.
Firstly, prejudice. I just attended the Society of Young Publishers annual conference. Juliet Mabey of independent house Oneworld, which is launching a crime fiction list in early 2016, admitted in her keynote speech that Oneworld had perhaps been “pompous” until now about genre fiction. People often have the impression that genre fiction is a lesser literature – not helped by the fact that it is distinguished from ‘literary fiction’. Genre fiction’s focus on plot is looked down on by formalists and philosophisers; the tendency of individual genres to conform to certain expectations can lead to a view of them as thoughtless and formulaic.
This brings me to the second thing that scares people off genre fiction. The conventions that guide (they shouldn’t govern) genre fiction can seem inaccessible or even frightening to the uninitiated. Many readers who don’t frequently turn to fantasy have been led by the television series Game of Thrones to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – but what made A Game of Thrones so remarkable to the fantasy crowd in the ’90s, ‘before it was cool’, was the fact that it spectacularly, brutally broke with the tradition of epic fantasy. For instance, there’s an unspoken, general understanding between fantasy readers and authors about who can be killed, and when, and on what moral and emotional terms. Martin disrupts that understanding.
This is not about ‘predictability’ or ‘formula’ – Martin didn’t invent the devious fantasy plot twist, and not all fantasy readers are even conscious of these ‘unspoken rules’ and how they affect their response to plot. It’s about what we recognise as fantasy. To turn to another genre, detective fiction actually has a famous set of Ten Commandments, laid out by author Ronald Knox in the ’20s. These dictate how the mystery is presented to, yet hidden, from the reader, and were intended to help writers construct the tightest, cleverest narrative possible. If you’re not familiar with the ‘feel’ of a genre, such frameworks risk seeming like a closed world.
Here’s my argument: neither of these potential problems apply to the best genre fiction. The idea that it must be poorly written or of lesser intellectual quality is obviously nonsense. Hilary Mantel, the only British author and the only woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice, won for the first two volumes of a trilogy. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, dazzling as their prose and unsettling as their intimate characterisation may be, are still historical novels. Soviet writers frequently used science fiction to get around censors and filter their critiques and concerns about society or politics through an imaginary tint. Doing this – writing good, or excellent, genre fiction – is impossible if you let tropes and rules write the novel for you. There has to be character development, narrative ingenuity, compelling themes…all the things that make a good book, whether ‘genre’ or ‘literary’.
Some branches of Waterstones have started to acknowledge this, integrating crime novels into the General Fiction section. Regular crime buyers initially complained, but sales have gone up for both crime and general novels – proving that these distinctions are often arbitrary, and unnecessarily limit our reading choices. So let’s try and do something about it – follow me to the first post…