Skip to main content

Another Genre-buster

As of 20 February, Ardmore Endings is now finished, proofed and checked. The cover is being designed and the book should be available by the end of the month.

This novel - my tenth - is not like any of my other books in plot or setting. At best, it can be called a psychological novel, but it has elements of family saga, mystery and buildungsroman. It explores motivation, secrets and lies, and the concepts of chaos and the desire for order.

Genres are a useful shorthand for categorising things, but too many writers are expected not only to follow certain genres, but to obey their "rules." Writing in a tradition provides a structure and format that can assist with writing a novel. There are excellent models to follow. The down side is that breaking free of the mould can be difficult. It can be done with comedy (Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and others), but one runs the risk of offending readers and critics. There are also the shackles of expectation and conformity. A A Milne's father wanted him to write a murder mystery. He did so (The Red House) and while a decent book, one senses Winnie the Pooh behind each tree.

Satirists have enjoyed writing parodies imagining writers getting out of their genres: "If Zane Gray wrote Star Wars," or, "If Jane Austen wrote Lolita." Back in the 1960s Punch had a similar article, "If Ernest Hemingway wrote Born Free." 

"It was dawn. The sunlight filtered through the trees. In the silence, a baboon vomited. . . ."

Genre writing also creates an audience expectation that many writers thrive on, but others find claustrophobic.

One such writer was John Fowles, who appears to have disappeared at the moment. He wrote clever, erudite novels and stories, several of which were huge best sellers and turned into successful films. Yet, they had little in common: The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman were exceptional books, and excellent films. His The Ebony Tower remains one of the most powerful and devastating discussions about modern art. The BBC film of it, with Laurence Olivier, Roger Rees, Greta Scacchi and Toyah Wilcox, is long overdue for a reappearance. 

Fowles made not being predicable work for him because he was such a good writer. He had the ability to make people interested in whatever he wrote. 

There are other writers like that, but on the whole, they tend to be the ones who get pushed to the sidelines. Anton Myrer has virtually disappeared, yet his Once an Eagle was a fine war novel and New York Times best seller, as was his The Last Convertible. His eight novels span a wide range of subjects and time, but Wikipedia lists his "genre" as "military fiction."

The origins of genre marketing can be traced to the New York rag trade. Clothing designers would push out variations of the same thing again and again until the public stopped buying. When the young men from those families moved to California to become Hollywood producers, they used the same model to build their success.

Bible-beating epics, westerns, gangsters, railroad, slapstick, screwball, musicals, murder mysteries, noir, road shows, more westerns, war films, science fiction, spy films, and so on. Again and again until people stopped buying them.

Try crossing genres in cinema and you get into real trouble: The Valley of Gwangi (1969) "where cowboys battle monsters in forbidden valley."

Unless a genre-buster is making fun of something, deviating from genres in films makes audiences feel very uncomfortable. 

Perhaps this is the long view of the publishers: if I can't get a film or TV series out of this book, I'm not going to touch it, regardless of literary merit. With most of the publishers owned by conglomerates who also own the studios, this is not an unreasonable commercial decision.

It's just very hard on writers who are interested in more than one thing.


Popular posts from this blog

Was Scrooge Conned?

It would be interesting to trace the tradition of the Christmas ghost story beyond the superficial (see below). I am sure it is related to the darkness and cold of the year and people huddled around a fire for comfort and warmth, but the association with Christmas and ghosts is incongruous - or is it?

Yes, there were pagan mid-winter feasts, but it's hard to see why they would emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries when ghost stories rose in popularity. Dickens is, of course, associated with the genre and wrote the quintessential Christmas ghost story.

Ironically, given its Christmas theme, God barely gets a look in in A Christmas Carol. There are only a dozen mentions of God - mostly in passing "God bless you"s or the singing of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. There is no mention of Christ, Jesus, or Saviour, and no one is seen going to church.

So, what we have is a ghost story trading on a secular commercial Christmas so that Dickens and his publisher can sell a few extra co…

First Lines

First lines are first impressionsTeachers of creative writing are always bleating about the importance of first lines. They're not wrong, but a first line isn't make-or-break. Many excellent novels have indifferent first lines, but their significance is often created by the fact that they are the opening lines of great books; they are not great books because they have killer opening lines.

Consider the first line of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. it rambles on for 119 words, and demonstrates that Dickens had no understanding of the semi-colon. Most people can only remember the first dozen words; show-offs know the first two dozen. Dickens was being paid by the word, and was a master at turning one good idea into a whole chapter. (Don't misunderstand me: A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favourite books.)

First lines are like book titles. They can take a while for the writer to feel satisfied with them, but often, they don't really matter. When asked what he'd cal…

Reflections - Moby Dick

Has anyone read all of Moby Dick?

Congratulations if you have. I hope you enjoyed it. I've started it half a dozen times; it was required reading for at least three courses I took over the years, but I never finished it.
Each time I began, I felt that this was a wonderful book, to be read at the pace that a whaling ship travelled. If you read it carefully and let it go at its own speed, you can feel the roll and pitch of the Pequod, and catch the fresh scent of the sea, and the stale smell of Ishmael, Queequeeg, and the crew.
Forget the interpretations people have told you about the symbol of the whale; of Ahab's vision of a malevolent God. Let the whale and Ahab explain themselves. Try to listen to Ishmael, and put your own urgencies and the 21st century world out of your head, and slow to that pitch and roll.
The detail about whales and whaling is almost overwhelming. Melville is like the best of hunters: he knows - and one suspects, loves - his prey. Ahab is th…