A graduate got in touch the other day, asking to interview me about genre. On the train, yesterday, I started to think.
I was reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, and came across a short, dismissive allusion to the works published by the Minerva Press. The Minerva press specialised in gothic and romance novels and flourished at the end of the 18th century. Although Ruth is (so far) about a young orphaned girl, apprenticed to a cruel and capricious dressmaker and seduced and abandoned by a wealthy young man, Gaskell warns us by this illusion that she is not writing Genre Fiction – she is writing Serious Literature.
It’s a tricky thing.
A writing friend and former student (I grow my own mates) has always wanted to straddle the lucrative but dangerous divide between Women’s Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction. I’ve been there myself. No one knew what to do with Welcome to Eudora. On the book tour, I found it stacked in Literature, Romance, Humour and, long after it should have been there, New Writing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it exactly right. I had the same problem with The Saint Who Loved Me. Not funny enough for the chicklit brigade and not serious enough for the TLS. I don’t think I was as savvy as Gaskell – I don’t think I signalled how serious I was when I wrote those books.
Like I said, it’s tricky.
The fact is, genre is more of a marketing than a literary phenomenon. It belongs, truly, to the bookshop and before that, the magazine. The logic is simple: if a group of readers like Mystery or Romance or Sci Fi, make sure they can find it. Put a big sign on a shelf, a big spaceship on the cover. Assume they are not too bright and that their reading is about their class and culture. Also assume the reader will be limited in their literary tastes.
Today, we may not be so limited by education or class, but we are limited by time. No one wants to pick up a book on the off chance they might like it. Most of us know what we like and want more of it. So genre classifications are alive and well and have even subdivided, hence the chicklit/ladlit/cosy mystery/medieval fantasy literary landscape we inhabit today.
Although genre writers must, in some way, conform to their genres, they can write Literature as well. Literary authors often write genre – for example, Margaret Atwood writes Sci Fi (but we call it speculative fiction when we’re posh). What these writers do is mange to both fulfil and disappoint genre conventions.
David Baddiel pointed out something interesting about Genre v Literary. He wrote that while genre fiction reaffirms what we think about something (ethically, or intellectually), literary fiction asks us to question our assumptions.
I read a recent article about how music works in our brains that relates to this idea of expectation. Sequences of notes produce dopamine – the chemical of pleasure and delight – in our heads. What was particularly interesting to the researchers was that the anticipation of the sequence’s apex was as pleasurable to people as the actual moment of hearing the apex notes. And when that apex – when what we thought was going to be the next in a sequence of notes – does not occur, and then occurs later, after perhaps several of these build ups to an apex, our pleasure is greater. I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing with sex…
Great genre fiction, as with great literature, or great sex, is about the tension between our expectations and what the artist provides us. Too little tension and the narrative lacks the aesthetic shock or intellectual challenge that we associate with great writing. Too much and we find it difficult to read. The more wedded you are to a particular readership, the more you have to cater for the ease of reading, and the less leeway you have for the shock/challenge.
Last night, I read a few chapters where Ruth is bettering herself through study and through association with the Dissenter preacher and his sister who rescued her when she was abandoned by her wealthy seducer. I think both of those chapters would have had a red line drawn through them by the editors of the Minerva Press.