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Blogging about genre

This month, I was asked to submit a guest post to Euro Crime. This is what I wrote:

I don’t read crime novels. I didn’t think I wrote them either but after my first novel, Rupture, was published, I discovered that, actually, I do – at least according to some of the agents and publishers who were interested in taking on the book, the bookshops that now stock it, the reviewers who, well, review it. Note some. That is, not all. Others maintain that I do indeed write literary fiction, just as I had suspected and, initially at least, had hoped.

Which is all very confusing. At least, it could be. The truth is, I have actually found this instinct to categorise illuminating. It has helped me to understand just how subjective and porous such definitions can be. In a recent article in the Guardian, for example, John Mullan explains how the term ‘literary’ can imply anything from ‘pretentious’ and ‘plot-free’ to novels that ask us ‘to attend to the manner of their telling’, and ‘invite discrimination’ because such fiction ‘calls attention to form’. Which seems fairly comprehensive – and suitably nebulous – to me.

Likewise, ‘crime’ fiction is . . . what? Books that adhere to the conventions of the genre? There is no police detective in my second novel, The Facility. There is no crime (in the traditional sense) nor an unmasking of whodunnit – yet still the first review to appear (in Red magazine) described the novel as ‘an elegant crime thriller’. Similarly, the Telegraph said of Rupture that it was a ’superior detective novel, proof that crime fiction can break free of the bounds of the genre into something much more complex’. Which means it is literary fiction then, right? A detective novel but also something more? Great! Except . . . Hang on. Does this mean the book is actually pretentious and plot-free?

Oh.

Don’t get me wrong: in a world tyrannised by choice, labels of all kind have their uses. They can guide us, and keep us from feeling overwhelmed. But they can be misleading too. They can build barriers, boxing us in or, worse, out. In my experience as a reader, I can certainly testify to that.

And so I maintain: I don’t read crime novels. I don’t read literary novels either. I read novels that I find engaging – through their prose, their characters, their plots – whether they are genre A or genre B or genre A + B + C. On my holiday last week, for instance, I carried in my suitcase books by Colm Thóibín, China Miéville and Scott Turow. A literary writer, a SF writer, a crime writer – or just good novelists, as I aspire to be?

Posted on Thursday, March 24th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

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