Thursday, 28 May 2015

The curse of genre fiction

I've just been listening to Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on Radio 4's 'Today' programme. They were talking about social attitudes to literary and genre fiction.

Now no-one's about to invite me to discuss literary trends on 'Today', but some of the ideas seemed a little familiar. So, for those of you who don't do Radio 4 in the mornings, here's a slightly revised re-run of a blog I wrote for the lovely Jenny Kane earlier this year.

I write historical novels. I am therefore, apparently, not a writer to be taken seriously. Kazuo Ishiguro used military historical novels (which may well include Burke at Waterloo) as an example of a genre which is not respected though, as he pointed out, Patrick  O'Brian's books, for example, are well written novels with complex and developed characters. So why are there so many people happy to say (with a certain smug superiority) that they never read historical novels?

It’s annoying, but don’t we all have these gaps in our reading experience? For me, it’s Historical Romance. I can’t face it. I’ve tried – I’ve really tried, but I just can’t make it through to the end. She notices his well-turned calf, the sweat glistens on the muscles of his arm or her heart beats at the thought of his tender yet manly kiss and I give in and read no further. And the awful thing is that the author may not even have used any of these clich├ęs, but there’s something about this particular genre that has me imagining them whether or not they are there on page. I admitted this in public and was taken to task by a Historical Romance writer who pointed out that her stories are well researched, nicely written and featured often quite complex characters in interesting social situations. She was right and I’m wrong. I am going to give her books another go, but I suspect that, once again, I will give up.

Why do we all have genres that we just don’t read? The obvious suggestion is that it has something to do with “books for men” and “books for women”. In my case, though, this is far from being the case – I love contemporary Chick Lit: Bridget Jones sits proudly on my bookshelf. (Not the actual Bridget Jones, of course, though the idea is quite appealing in a disturbing sort of way.) Perhaps it’s the background to the stories? But I write historical novels myself and I read other people’s historical novels set in all sorts of periods. So why this mental block with Historical Romance?

The problem does seem to be with the genre and not the book. This is particularly clear with people who sniffily announce that they would never read, for example, Harry Potter because “I don’t read books for children.” Publishers responded by putting an “adult” cover on the Harry Potter series and, lo and behold! adults were suddenly happy to read them. The same result can be achieved more subtly: my wife, for example, doesn’t read Science Fiction, unless “it’s someone like Ursula Le Guin, who’s writing really good books – not really just Science Fiction.” Well, yes, Lord Copper – up to a point. What, I think, the most honest of us will eventually decide is that if the book is a “good” book but placed in a genre that we don’t read, will simply reclassify it. So Bridget Jones is not Chick Lit, it’s Social Comedy; John Grisham doesn’t write rubbishy Crime Stories, he writes the altogether superior Legal Thrillers.

Part of the reason that we are so strict about what genres we will and won’t allow ourselves to enjoy is, I think, that the books that we will admit to reading – displayed on our bookshelves (or, according to Ishiguro, our coffee tables - is the man stuck in the 1970s?) say something about us. In a world where mass entertainment is, arguably, increasingly democratised, books are still one of the great class markers. I have a friend who runs an online group where people can discuss their reading matter. Apparently all these people read massively more James Joyce, Chekhov,  Peter Ackroyd, HE Bates, Guy De Maupassant, and Albert Camus than they do Agatha Christie or Dan Brown. (I swear I’m not making this up and nor are members of the group all graduates from an English Department.) Ishiguro argues that this reflects the fact that literary fiction carries a far greater social cachet than the books that most of us actually read and I'd say that he's right.

Admitting to liking genre fiction marks you out as somewhat less cultured than fans of literary fiction. And within genre fiction, there are levels of social acceptability. The genre is far more important than the book.

We see the same applied to individual writers. “Oh Dickens is such a wonderful author.” Well, many of his books certainly are fine examples of English literature. It doesn’t take a particularly critical reader, though, to see that some of them are definitely better than others. But to explain that you consider this or that book to be deserving of critical approval and another one to show signs of having been written to a deadline on a bad day, calls for more discussion and analysis than we can tolerate when deciding whether people do or don’t fit into our social group. What we want in social markers is a straightforward way of deciding whether we are in or out of the Magic Circle of social acceptability.

I know a couple of writers who provide a particular example of the importance of keeping our genres separate. Both write (among other things) Contemporary Romance – Chick Lit if you will – where we follow a young woman through the unfolding of her relationship until we reach, hopefully, a happy conclusion. But both also earn the odd crust (sometimes lavishly spread with butter and jam) by writing what an earlier generation quaintly called 'naughty books'. Both are careful to write the more lively novels under a different name. Mills and Boon, faced with the same problem, put their – actually rather well-written – erotica under a completely different imprint. After all, when my maiden aunt tells me that she really enjoys Mills and Boon, it’s important that I know exactly what sort of Mills and Boon she is into.

I suspect, then, that this is at least part of the answer of why we will respond warmly to some genres and reject others out of hand. Like so many things in England, it’s a matter of class. And now I am aware of that, I hope that I will try to restrain my prejudices. If I’m faced with a Historical Romance in which credible characters form realistic relationships against an authentic historical background, I will persevere. I might even come to love it. Perhaps we should all try to read things outside the genres that we are comfortable to say that we like. Reading, after all, should be about broadening the mind. So let’s try to broaden our own minds.

There you are: all the cultural improvement offered by Radio 4 and no need to wake up in the morning to listen to it.


  1. Well said, Tom. But....
    Like your wife, I don't read Sci Fi, but when I was a young woman, I did read and enjoy J G Ballard's dystopian short stories. One of the problems is time. If I am offered a choice between reading the latest C J Sansom, or trying a critically acclaimed new Sci Fi (which I'm assured isn't full of bug-eyed space monsters and rockets) I will still choose the Sansom. I can't read everything. My prejudice is maybe just a kind of self-preservation. Isn't there a song about it? I know what I like and I like what I know.
    There is another debate to be had about genre and sub-genres, but perhaps another day? gx

  2. Yes, that's why we read authors that we've read before (and why it's so difficult for new writers to break into the best-seller lists). But I have taken to reading things that I have randomly been offered for review or books by other Accent authors and I have been pleasantly surprised to find things that I would never usually have read have actually proved very satisfying. Sometimes it's worth just trying something more or less completely random. When I was younger, that was a large part of the appeal of public libraries, but they are losing out to electronic systems that just give us more of what we liked last time. Like fast food, it's very convenient, but not necessarily good for us.

  3. And also, the older we (I) get, the less elastic is the brain. When I was young I would take on anything, the more pretentious the better, and worked my way through Camus, Zola, Kafka, Sartre and the Russians. I won't say I understood it all, but I still read it. Maybe it's not elasticity but energy I lack now - I'm not so willing to to give up my time and potentially giving myself brain ache. x