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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.






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