Two novelists talking sense about genre


Like many other writers, I frequently struggle to decide or define my books fit into conventional genre categories. As a body of work, they span many genres. But even individual books cross genres, or combine them, or take a bit from here and a bit from there.

So, as a consequence, I’m a bit fast and loose when it comes to writing to genre, and I know I’m not alone in that.

I sometimes read articles online which condemn this approach as being self-centred and self-absorbed. I should be ‘writing to market’, I am told. Give readers a genre they know they already want.

“I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them”

But I don’t read in genres, so I find it hard to write to them. I read across genres so much that, in truth, I think I all but ignore them completely. I can happily read sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thrillers, literary fiction, YA dystopian, historical fiction … in fact, offer me a book that’s a mixture of all of those and you’ll probably get my attention. I want good books, ones where the characters come to life on the page, where things happen and keep happening but it’s not all crash, boom, bang, because there’s a theme in there, and insight into the human condition…

So, I found it immensely encouraging to stumble across an article in which two highly successful, popular and respected writers, weigh in on genres, and its limitations. 

The article is from 2015 in the New Statesman, and I highly recommend reading it in full. But these were some of my favourite soundbites:

 KI Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.

NG I love the idea of genres as places that you don’t necessarily want to go unless you’re a native, because the people there will stare at you askance and say things like, “Head over the wall to Science Fiction, mate, you’ll be happier there . . .”

KI . . . or, “Come over here if you want but you’re going to have to abide by our rules.”

NG I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel.

Neil Gaiman also quotes Terry Pratchett on the problems of being pigeon-holed:

“You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.”

If, like me, you don’t want your writing, reading or both to be confined by strict genre conventions, then it’s encouraging to know that two of the most celebrated and successful writers of the last few decades agree with us.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.