In Today’s Genre-Sensitive Publishing World, Might George Orwell Be *gasp* Unreadable?
Ever since ‘genre’ was invented (by Plato and Aristotle, no less, when they divided ancient Greek literature into drama, poetry or prose), theorists have philosophized about the concept of genre, evolving and expanding it such that, today, genre and genre theory have the power to:
- impede writers from publishing and selling their work (oh yes, read on…),
- cause expectant readers unnecessary disappointment, and
- incite literary cage fights.
One such cage fight took place last Friday night, at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt, and I’m not sure yet whether anyone escaped unscathed. The guest panel of speakers, James Bradley (“Wrack”, “The Deep Field” and “The Resurrectionist”), P M Newton (“The Old School”) and Kirsten Tranter (“The Legacy”), along with their honorary chairperson Sophie Hamley (Literary Agent, Cameron Creswell Agency), philosophized over so many aspects of genre that their discussion could not fail to get you thinking, especially me.
You see, I’m not sure how genre affects me as a writer, or a reader, or a film fanatic, or even whether it should.
Technically, a genre is “a style or category of art, music, or literature” (“Oxford Dictionaries Online”) and, when classifying the genre of an artistic endeavour, for example a film or a book, you’re supposed to:
- examine the structural elements involved in the telling of that story,
- identify any conventions it uses, such as phrases, themes or explanations commonly used by other collections of stories, and then
- try to fit the patterns/structure with other already-established collections of stories.
Given the huge range of story-collections established today, genre classification should be easy. However, in the publishing world, literary critics and scholars continually disagree over the finer points of textual classification and some novels simply do not fit in any particular collection of stories. Why all the disagreement?
Well, the Greeks (who invented genre, see above) believed that the type of person an author was, greatly affected the type of poetry they wrote, and that certain metrical forms only suited certain genres. So genre wasn’t just invented for ease of reference, but to distinguish certain styles of literature from others and, in this, there was a judgment. That judgment is still alive today.
For example, do you remember the BBC’s snub of sci-fi and fantasy books earlier this year (their show “The Books We Really Read” sparked an impassioned response from Stephen Hunt)? And, as our cage-fighting panel observed, people happily flock to the cinema for “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars”, yet hide their sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks on the bus. Why? Because some genres suffer from stigmatization, especially speculative fiction and collections of stories produced industrially. Kirsten Tranter gave the example of Charles Dickens, whose work was published (if not originally written) in monthly serials and who earnt money by reading his work aloud on tours. Yet isn’t it amazing that Dickens, arguably the Victorian era’s most popular English novelist, should attract a stigma just because of the way his work was published?
The solution? Well, Kirsten Tranter tries not to think about the technicalities of genre when she writes.
“I don’t think about genre consciously when I write. I decide on the story I want to tell, then hope readers will respond to that. I like novels that sit across the shelves in the bookshop.”
Like Kirsten, I too enjoy seeking out cross-genre novels. The labels a book is given to market it don’t matter to me as much as the story it tells, as long as that story is written well. I think this is because I’m a style-over-substance reader. But not everybody likes stepping outside the categories they know and trust. Which is why publishers have to market novels by genre and why, as Sophie Hamley pointed out:
“there’s a lot of great fiction that doesn’t get published because it doesn’t fit in a genre.”
So what should you do as a writer? Do you write the story you want and, if it doesn’t fit with any particular genre, hope your publishers will risk it anyway? Or do you write in keeping with a selected genre’s conventions for ease of sale? And what if you don’t identify yourself with any particular genre? Genre is not a static concept, it is fluid. Genres form as new conventions emerge and old ones are discounted. So what if there’s no name for your genre because its creation is yet to come. Think of all the famous authors whose work was rejected because it didn’t fit with current genre-conventions:
- Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” was once rejected because it was “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
- When H.G. Wells tried to market “The Time Machine” he was told “it is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”
- Stephen King’s “Carrie” was rejected because “we are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
- George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was rejected because “it’s impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”
Luckily for us, George Orwell, perhaps the twentieth century’s best chronicler of English culture, published his allegorical “Animal Farm” even though it was subtitled “A Fairy Story” and even though his previous works were published in such an array of different genres that publishers today might have considered him, in James Bradley’s words, “unreadable”.
And what of the future of genre? Is genre set to become only more important as Internet fiction buyers restrict themselves to the ‘book categories’ of their preferred online bookstore, only branching out should a trusted blogger recommend a good read? Or will word-of-mouth prevail through “what other readers bought” recommendations, awards and bestseller lists? Meanwhile, will writers choose to restrict themselves to genre or chance writing what they love, pushing genre’s ever-evolving boundaries into the future? What kind of reader will you be? What kind of writer will you be? As for me, I’ve recently stumbled on a theory called the ‘ecology of genre’, which believes that:
- genres sometimes create writing, and
- writing sometimes recreates genres.
And I like the yin and yang feel of that. It kind of says it all.