On Being A Professional Writer No.3: The Genre Pool
The reviewers of JK Rowling’s first adult novel were quick to point out that they consider her still to be, at heart, a children’s writer, saying that it’s only in the teenaged passages that the book takes off. I wonder if this typecasting would have held if ‘The Casual Vacancy’ had been Rowling’s first work.
We are branded by what we choose to write about, which is one of the reasons why I dance around in different genres all the time. It’s worth recalling that a genre is anything that can be typified, as opposed to being general fiction. So Crime, SF, Horror, Romance and Fantasy are all genres but Young Adult, Comic, Supernatural Romance, Misery Memoir and so on are all categories.
Within general fiction we have subdivisions, from the university satire to the coming-of-age novel, but within genres there are even more, with Steampunk, Hard SF, Alternative History, time travel and Space Opera in SF and Cosy, Procedural, Psychological, Legal, Period and Serial Killer in Crime. Once you venture into a category, there will be pressure to make sure that you can deliver further volumes in the same area, so that your readership can locate you easily. You quickly become known for writing novels set in, say, Chicago or Helsinki, and claiming that territory as your own.
Publicity agents are appallingly cynical about this. I received a book last month by a writer called Camilla Ceder. On its cover there was a roundel that said; ‘The New Jo Nesbo’, which is offensive to both of them, implying that Nesbo is over and Ceder – in just her second novel – must now fit the mold created by someone else.
What happens when you rub out these demarcation lines? Six years ago I embarked on a book that caused me endless trouble. Its working title was ‘Plastic’, and it was the inverse of a Gothic novel. In it, a lone rural heroine faced terror and redemption in an urban setting. That by itself might have proven saleable, but I decided to hobble my chances further by using a first-person-female narrative and mixing comedy in with the darkness.
Publishers could not even choose two genres for ‘Plastic’ to fall between. I suddenly felt as if I had dropped into the conversation between Hamlet and the Player King, presenting something that was pastoral-allegorical-satirical-horrific. If they couldn’t see what it was, they certainly couldn’t imagine who would buy it.
I reworked the book forty different ways according to the whims of acquisitions boards. Finally, I threw out the demographic rulebook that had come to bind me so tightly and reverted to a new version of my original intention. The answer, for me at least, has always been to go my own way; ‘Plastic’ comes out in Spring 2013 from Solaris.