Saturday, March 3, 2012

Guest Post: On genre in fiction and why it's not very important

So what's a nice literary fiction gal like me doing blogging at a dangerous place like Boychik Lit?  Am I at the wrong party? No, I don't think so.  The way I look at it, good writing is good writing and when it's happening, a genre label is probably little more than something publishers use for marketing purposes and readers use to make sure that the book they're about to read isn't going to bore, bother, upset, or irritate them.  When a novel is superbly written, and the characters are distincitive and 'true', then the reader won't get bored, bothered, upset or irritated no matter whether you call the book chik (or boychik) lit, fantasy, romance, sci-fi, or literary fiction.  Here are two reasons why I don't believe genre really matters:

Few novels stick perfectly well to genre conventions, especially when they're employing the elements of good fiction writing, such as the character arc, a powerful setting (whether that setting is Stavromula Beta or, as in my new novel Black Cow, a remote farmhouse in Tasmania), an exciting dramatic plot, a rich theme, and a unique concept. In fact, the only time that genre conventions are crystal clear and 100% conformed to are when stereotypes are in play and the overall result is clich√© laden. I've never written a story or novel that didn't have elements of romance, horror, historical fiction, and even sci fi.  It's all part of the complex spectrum of human experience. Yes the overall tenets of genre may apply and give the story it's distinctive feel, category, set of parameters, and these can add important flavour, but if the story is good, I'll enjoy reading it no matter what the genre, and especially if there is no obvious discernable genre but rather a blend of elements that make up different genres. 

Even the notion of genre is a moveable feast.  Have you heard of "medical-romance"? "Airport fiction?", "beach reads", "steampunk", "squid-lit"? They're all relatively new genres coined by marketers to try and attract a particular audience, based on broad but sometimes (when everything is working well) nebulous criteria.  How about the distinction between "Young Adult (YA)" and "Adult" fiction?  One of my favourite novels The Life of Pi is sold as YA in the US and adult fiction in Australia.  The same goes for The Book Thief.  Sometimes parents use the genre "YA" as a means for ensuring themselves that the book will be suitable for their teenagers.  But some of the best, most sophisticated (and disturbing) adult novels I've read have been tagged as YA.

The best novelists don't get too caught up in genre unless they're writing to a very clear specific spec - and that may well hold true for Harlequin staff writers, but most of us just get on with the writing.  Maybe when it's all done, some canny soul in the marketing department (or the author under duress) will decide that it fits into one or more genre categories. Maybe the cover will hint at a certain type of escapism which will appeal to a certain type of reader.  If these things open new markets to the work, then everyone wins. 

Magdalena Ball is the author of the newly released genre free novel Black Cow (actually some people have called it "Recession-lit", "contemporary fiction", and "literary fiction". If any of those appeal to you - go with them!). Grab a a free mini flip book here:
Check out Gerald's review of Black Cow right here at the blog. Or dive straight over to Amazon now for some instant gratification. 


Unknown said...

Good point Maggie. I'm struggling right now with my WIP Winnie's War. I can't decide if I should gear it to YA or adult? Maybe it doesn't matter. It onlu matters for submission purposes.

Magdalena Ball said...

Thanks for hosting me today Gerald.

daboychik said...

Maggie, thanks not only for dropping by but also for kicking off a topic that needs airing here. You are not at all in the wrong place here. Boychik lit, as I see it, is all about the ways men relate to women and to themselves. I'm finding that The forthcoming Farnsworth's Revenge (the third Rollo book) expands and expounds on the notion of women as sex objects, and yes it's an engine of humor, but obviously (or maybe not) it's not presenting that particular brand of dysfunction as a recommended lifestyle.

You are one of two official guest authors here, Catherine Delors being the other, and even though she writes (genre-speak here) romantic historical novels, I have found some fascinating threads of sexual politics running through her work, and those have been commented on here.

And it's just the place for it.

As to your work, I sense it is autobiographical as to emotions, if not facts. Sleep Before Evening was a diary of a coming-of-age transition, not the screwball kind, but a series of life choices so risky that they could have easily ended the life prematurely.

With Black Cow, you have fast-forwarded to the wife-and-mother dilemma, but updated to the particular nonsense of the current age. It's hard being a parent, but it's harder just being alive. Somehow we must figure out why it's worth it in time for those decisions to apply.

I coined boychik lit as a genre because I thought fratire (fraternity satire) wasn't all that satisfying. I the puke-on-your-own-shoes stories somehow missed the point, or didn't go deep enough. Maybe it's just the distance of age.

I do think that the notion of boychik lit as a genre is a helpful focus. At least it's helped me define the intent of the Rollo books. I'm telling stories about a young man on the make. But I'm clear that many of my most perceptive and engaged readers are more mature men who like to fantasize about being a young man on the make.

The women fans have their own reasons, and you would know more about that than me.

daboychik said...

Maggie I meant to say you are one of the two *female* guest authors here. Craig Allan Williamson is also on our team. He's a relatively new father, and it's interesting to see how his "college lit" stories have modulated into advice for wiping the baby puke off your own shoes.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great point about genre. I have seen writers get caught up on genre while writing. I think you write a good book and as you said, often it's the marketers who decide the genre.