Thursday, 21 March 2013

GUEST BLOG: Leave the door open - By Michael Marshall

Many years ago I consulted a hypnotherapist in the hope of giving up cigarettes. It didn’t work. This was my fault, not hers: the very next day I went to give a talk to lifers in Shepton Mallet prison, one of the most dismal places I’ve ever been — and the inmates were all smoking furiously the entire time I was there. During the conversation prior to being hypnotised – or perhaps as part of it, I wasn’t sure where one ended and the next began — the therapist mentioned the idea of a red cross. She noted that as soon as someone tells you not to think of a red cross, that’s all you can think of. The mind doesn’t truly understand negation, and so helpfully serves up an image of a red cross because that’s the ostensive subject matter of your thoughts.

I’m coming to believe that the term ‘cross-genre’ works the same. It doesn’t function when you think about it. It only helps when you realise it actually just means... ‘fiction’.

Many readers don’t even know the concept of ‘genre’. They don’t have to. So far as they’re concerned they simply read ‘books’. Stuff presented as fact is non-fiction, the rest is fiction. It’s simple. Or it should be.

The only people who give a lot of thought to genre are writers or readers who’ve been backed into a corner, penned in, over-categorised. In many circles being assigned a genre is akin to having ‘niche interest’ tattooed across your forehead. There’s a ‘horror genre’, an ‘SF genre’ and a ‘crime genre’, with the ‘thriller genre’ hanging off the latter like a disreputable slack-jawed cousin. There are others, too, further sub-divisions within the low-rent end of town.

The word comes from French, of course, and means ‘kind, sort, style’. If you say a book hails from the crime genre then you’re declaring that – to paraphrase Lincoln - if someone likes books of this kind, this might be the sort of thing they’ll like. You’re implicitly also saying, however, that if you don’t see yourself as a fan of this style of fiction, this is the kind of thing you probably won’t like. A genre designation will put off as many people as it attracts — and often far more. It closes the door to the book being considered on its own merits. There are many intelligent and worthwhile stories written within the ‘horror genre’: but labeling them thus is like painting a red plague cross on their house. Similarly science fiction, which people are happy to watch in the cinema but often won’t go near in the bookstore. Tell a lot of people that a book is science fiction or fantasy and they won’t touch it with a barge pole, in case it turns them into a geek, immediately upon contact.

It wasn’t always like this. When D. H. Lawrence wrote his classic tale The Rocking-Horse Winner in 1926 – about a boy who can predict the results of horse races – nobody revoked his Literary Writer card and told him to bugger off to the fantasy ghetto. The obsessive pigeon-holing of books into OCD-friendly genres is a feature of the last several decades, and wholly divisive. Worse still is a book that doesn’t even slot neatly into a genre. This is what the term ‘cross-genre’ is supposed to help with, but in fact it’s the kiss of death. It effectively announces “Not only is this book not proper literary fiction, it doesn’t even fit in one of those icky genres! It must really suck!”

But if a work can’t be dismissed away into a genre, surely that means it’s simply…fiction? Why lever the word ‘genre’ into the conversation for the sake of it? It’s the red cross problem all over again. The term ‘cross-genre’ declares that a book doesn’t fit into a genre, and thus in theory opens the very idea of genres to question — but has the word enshrined right there within it. The term implodes. It’s meaningless.

And yet some of the most interesting recent fiction is intriguing precisely because it doesn’t fit. J. Robert Lennon’s MAILMAN, Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE, or Ishiguru’s NEVER LET ME GO, not to mention everything David Mitchell’s ever done, notably CLOUD ATLAS: all dare to play with themes and styles and techniques from multiple ‘genres’, and present them as general fiction. And it works. It produces works with energy and imagination and the power to show new things.

This is what I’ve always tried to do, especially in my new book WE ARE HERE. Sometimes events happen within these novels that don’t fit comfortably within ‘literary fiction’ or even consensual reality — in the same way that superstitions don’t, or believing you knew your mother was going to call just before she did, or the notion that people are ‘meant to be together’. Real life has strange and magical stuff in it too, but we don’t label ourselves as ‘cross-genre’. We’re just people.

So let’s forget about the term and think about these books as ‘fiction’ instead. It opens a lot of doors.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Thank you for this post! It’s so true and needs to be said more often.

As a young reader and writer, I fell into the genre trap, effectively cutting myself off from reading many great books – not to mention writing the kind of stories I wanted to write. A few good friends, and a lot of life experience, changed that. Now, as a writer, I often struggle to find a label for my fiction when someone asks for one. I tell people I write stories – usually about people – that I hope other people can relate to. And when people ask me what I like to read, from now on my answer will be fiction.