Discussion – genre fiction

I read a lot of so-called genre fiction – mainly detective novels, sci-fi and fantasy – and I’ve been wondering why certain books tend to be pigeon-holed as genre fiction and others don’t, when they’re superficially about the same concepts.

I’ve reviewed The Gargoyle and Cloud Atlas on this blog, both of which were classified by the bookshop where I bought them as general Fiction. The concepts and plots of both could equally well have been classed as science-fiction, particularly Cloud Atlas, in which Mitchell writes about two dystopian futures. Conversely, works by Neal Stephenson such as Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) are usually firmly shelved with Science Fiction, but I’d regard them more as general, tending towards historical fiction (particularly the Baroque Cycle) with their mingling of real life and imagined characters. Previous form seems to count, here – Stephenson was known as a SF writer prior to Cryptonomicon (Interface, Snow Crash and Diamond Age are all firmly in the SF genre), whereas Mitchell and Davidson were not.

Why, for example, are Brave New World and 1984 not generally categorised as science fiction and the works of H. G. Wells, for example, generally are? Wells’ books are perhaps more obviously about science – the idea of time travel or invaders from another planet are certainly the stuff of science fiction – but the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 is nominally a time traveller, yet no-one suggests that this novel should be called science fiction. The dystopian future imagined by Orwell, and Huxley’s less terrifying but horrifyingly more realistic future, are definitely science fiction in that they predict (or try to predict) the future, much as Wells did. Perhaps again it’s convenience: most of Orwell’s books are not genre fiction, therefore all his books are shelved in general fiction (and even when they’re factual).

Perhaps it’s a patronising label put on novels that are deemed not quite good enough, or important enough to be simply novels? The label ‘chicklit’, for example, is superficial and flippant (as are quite a lot of the books marketed as this genre), but there are some which are genuinely moving. There are certainly genre novels – often in the crime fiction category, of which I read a lot more than science fiction, for example – which are tedious and badly-written (and these are the ones which are published!), but there are many which, apart from a setting involving crime, are better novels than some which don’t have to struggle with the genre label. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary crime novels which fit into this category (Minette Walters’ and C J Sansom’s novels come to mind as rare examples), though I think Sayers, Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler manage to say a lot about the world in some of their books, examining life as a whole, as well as many straight novels.

Stephenson is quoted as having approved the label for his not obviously sci-fi books since it allowed readers to find books in a category which they might enjoy. I find it interesting the division between science fiction and fantasy, for example – generally most people would able to say whether a certain book was one or the other – and perhaps the definition of fantasy would be something set on another world, in which magic is allowed to happen; whereas in science fiction, the other world is grounded in the physical laws of the universe (even though that is allowed to break, for example in imagining faster-than-light travel). Certain readers object to ‘magic’ in any form, and so steer clear of fantasy genre novels altogether, and so might miss superb books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls (previously reviewed on this blog).

I’m sure it must be limiting for writers, particularly if their first book is successful in a specific genre – there are very few who manage to be seen as serious writers rather than as generic writers, if their works are seen primarily in terms of genre. Of course, this is where the pseudonyms come in: Agatha Christie wrote crime novels, and under the name Mary Westmacott wrote straight novels; Iain Banks inserts the M when writing sci-fi; Nora Roberts writes family novels, and sci-fi crime novels as J.D. Robb; and so on. It’s a rare writer who can span genres effortlessly (or who even tries) – so much so that I can’t think of anyone but people like Huxley and Orwell. So is it the reader or the bookshop or the publisher who categorises?

Perhaps genre pigeon-holing is a shrewd marketing move. There are hundreds of books published every day, and anything which could make it stand out from the crowd is welcomed. Not to mention there are specific imprints of the big publishers who specialise in certain types of genre fiction. If you have a devoted public of crime-fiction aficionados, who will only read crime fiction (and almost every taste in crime fiction is catered for, with subcategories), then feed them crime fiction and they’ll be happy. Yet there is a huge difference between novels by Christie and Chandler, Cornwell and Crispin, just as there is between novels by Fleming and Fitzgerald. So is it a good way for the reading public to whittle down their choice of reading?

If I, as a reader, limited myself to, say, only crime fiction, I would find some excellent novels, but I think I would find my palate rather jaded after a while. Rather like only eating, say, chicken: it can be served in a variety of ways, but in the end it’s only chicken, and one longs for bacon, or fish, or even the vegetarian option after a while. I do read mostly fiction for pleasure (discounting things I read for work), but as the reader of this blog will know, I do try to leaven the mix with some non-fiction as well.

So, in a few words, I think pigeon-holing of novels should be left to the reader, and the great tract of fiction should be left for us to discover, unaided.

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6 Responses to Discussion – genre fiction

  1. ARD says:

    I’m reminded of a con I attended when I started at Edinburgh University. I arrived in time for a meet-the-author session only to discover that the previous session was overrunning (eventually by so much that meeting the author was cancelled). It was a debate on ‘Is SF&F ghettoised?’ or words to that effect. After I lost patience I commented that the ghetto exists only if one reads nothing but Tolkien or nothing but Asimov. The chairman remarked that that was the most sensible thing anybody had said, and the debate didn’t last much longer.

    Categorising books can be helpful if one is looking for an Aga saga or a farce, for example, but most bookshops don’t use those as genres (although some do have similar headings and even ‘tragic life stories’ – what are also known as misery memoirs). Bizarrely, Jasper Fforde seems to crop up in general fiction. Perhaps he defies categorisation, but I’d have thought he was clearly SF&F, even if one can’t decide whether he’s more science fiction or fantasy. I think I’ve also seen _Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell_ more often in general fiction than in fantasy, although it’s certainly the latter.

    These labels are often pragmatic marketing decisions rather than reflecting any system. Iain Banks’s latest novel is published with the M. in the USA but without it here, because there he sells more SF than ‘mainstream’. He reckons it’s mostly mainstream and a little bit sci-fi (which he pronounces ‘skiffy’), if you can be slightly skiffy any more than slightly pregnant. Sounds obviously SF to me.

    Ian Rankin says that his first Rebus story was intended as a novel of manners, with the police investigation intended as a device to bring the top and bottom echeclons of society together, and he was surprised to see it marketed as detective fiction.

    On a more personal note, I spent most of my teenage years reading fantasy and lamenting that I couldn’t find any contemporary mainstream fiction that I enjoyed apart from Adrian Mole. I have since discovered a lot of general fiction authors to delight me, but many of their novels hadn’t been published at the time in question and those that did I wouldn’t have appreciated at that age. I suspect that a lot of people fall into reading genre fiction because adult mainstream writing isn’t actually mainstream, or at least doesn’t resonate with what matters to people in the transition from child to adult. Who wants to read about Hampstead adultery when they are more into adventure?

  2. ela21 says:

    Your last comment about it being a half-way house between children’s books and adults’ books seems to strike at the root of the problem with how SF&F is viewed, in that it’s seen to be read by adolescents who haven’t matured enough emotionally to read about real people. Of course I’d disagree with that, but I wonder if the reputation (particularly of fantasy) has been tainted by the very pulp nature of a lot of the genre, so that a lot of people don’t associate it with good writing. Whereas crime fiction and science fiction have a reputation as being slightly more intellectually respectable (though there are ‘pulp’ elements in both genres)?

    Surprised to read that about the first Rebus novel, and it actually makes me more inclined to try it (I’ve not read any Ian Rankin at all).

  3. ARD says:

    I’ve read one Rebus novel and I would regard it as just a detective story (and an unconvincing one at that) rather than a literary novel using the whodunnit form.

  4. I argue that Slaughterhouse Five ought to be shelved with the science fiction! 😉 The term “literary fiction” (which inevitably privileges itself over “genre fiction”) drives me into a berserker frenzy. Genre is a helpful way for people to know what a book is about; historical fiction versus thrillers, for instance–it should never be a way for people to ascribe their own pretensions to it.

    • ela21 says:

      I think ‘literary fiction’ in its own way is as narrow a definition of fiction as anything genre-specific. But yes, it does seem to be implying that it’s “better than” genre fiction. Which I do not agree with!

  5. Pingback: 2010 in review « Ela's Book Blog

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