Do you think that when Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy or Emily Brontë packed their manuscripts off to their publishers they were asked, ‘What genre is it?’ I doubt it. But today it’s the first thing anyone in the book trade wants to know - agents (if you have one), bookshops (if you’re lucky enough to get stocked by them), Amazon, advertisers, you name it. It comes before anything else (apart from the invitation to pay up front, if you’re with some advertisers!) and it’s a lazy question. It really means, ‘I haven’t the time/interest/energy to read even a short synopsis or the cover blurb to find out what this stuff is about, so tell me where to put it on the shelves (or on the website) and save me the bother of thinking.’
Why is genre a pain?
It’s a pain because it's limiting. Although some authors - those who write for children, or sci-fi fans, or people who like who-dunnits, or those who want to be scared witless - have a certain reader in mind, many of us don’t. Many of us haven’t a clue what genre our books fit into. My new novelWhat Dreams We Had is about a gang of 18/19-year-olds who come under the psychological and material influence of a wealthy manipulator. What genre is that? Young adult? Psychological thriller? Contemporary? The truth is, I didn’t set out to produce a book for readers with a particular taste; I had a story I wanted to tell and some people I wanted to use to tell it.
It’s a pain because it doesn’t work. I wrote my first novel, Paradise Girl, six years ago and when I presented it for publication I was more or less told that it’s Young Adult (because the heroin is 17). So that’s where it got slotted, and that’s what the rest of the trilogy was filed too, although by the time the narrative gets to the final book in the series, Jericho Rose, the main characters have grown up!
It’s a pain because it doesn’t help. I’m pretty sure that Paradise Girl has been read by many more adults than teenagers, some of them well into their retirement.
It’s a pain because it limits the reader. I remember a conversation I had many years ago, when I started my career as an English teacher, with a colleague who had been in the profession for a long time. We were talking about how, actually, you teach English; not spelling, or punctuation, or grammar (important though these are) but how you encourage and stimulate the thirst for ideas and the creative spark which are at the heart of the subject. Her advice was 1. Teach them to read. 2. When they can do that, sit them at a table with a pile of miscellaneous and unsorted novels and leave them alone. And that’s exactly what doesn’t happen when you become obsessed by genre. All the books on the table are of the same kind. The readers’ horizons are reduced because they are in effect told which books are for them and which aren’t.
It’s a pain because it doesn’t help. Pre-pandemic I did a book signing at a local branch of WH Smiths. Fellow writers who have had this experience will know that unless you have a big following or have managed to work with the store to drum up advance interest you’re unlikely to get a queue forming and you have to waylay customers and try to interest them in what you have to offer. So you ask questions like, ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ ‘What sort of books do you enjoy reading?’ Thankfully there are many people who can’t answer these questions because they’re not looking for anything in particular, just something that will engage and entertain them. I appreciate their breadth of interest, and I salute them.
So let’s ditch genre. Let’s pick books at random, glance at the blurb, read the first couple of pages, and if it speaks to us, let’s read it, whatever it is.