Does book genre really matter?

Does genre matter?
Classical Greek or vampire thriller? As long as we enjoy it, do we care? (Image source –
The great genre debate. There are a cornucopia of articles on the Internet discussing it. So what is it? It essentially boils down to a showdown between genre fiction and literary fiction. The former being books with such well–known epithets as crime or romance or fantasy, the latter usually being a work that defies classification, that is well-written and provokes thought. Which is better? Can a book be both? Is literary fiction even a genre in its own right? (Short answers – neither, yes and the jury is out.)

So does genre even matter?

It certainly does to the marketing departments of publishing houses, and to shops like Waterstones, both of which rely on the use of genre to boost sales figures. But sales figures aren’t my concern (at least not yet).

Genre as a reader

As a reader, it doesn’t seem natural to me to think in terms of genre, at least not when I am purchasing a book. I prefer to choose books based on the feeling evoked by the cover and the styling and especially the blurb on the back. As alluded to in my previous blog post, I am often drawn to books that creep me out and stop me sleeping at night (which isn’t great, given I’m an occasional insomniac at the best of times). Books as varied as Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and (cough) the Twilight series fit this description, but I certainly wouldn’t dare to claim they belonged in the same genre.

Aside from an overriding feeling of gloom, there are two thing I tend to look for in a book – beautiful or unusual prose (the odd guilty pleasure read aside) and unpredictability. They might be a marketer’s nightmare, but I love books like these, books that are often described as crossing genres. I adore books that make you vigorously shake and wake the person sleeping soundly next to you just to say, “Oh my god, you’ll never guess what just happened in my book”.

I might not believe that genre is something I consider particularly closely, but that elusive “feeling” I look for when making a purchase decision is dictated by design and description. As my husband and I found out on our recent foray into the production of draft covers for my book, these things are very intentionally formulated by marketers based on, yes you guessed it, genre.

Genre as a writer

When I tell people I am writing a book, their most frequent first question by a long way is, “What genre is it?” This is the point at which I start to um and ah, blush a little and then concede that I do not know yet. There is usually a moment of silence, a frown, and then – “But how can you not know? You’re the one writing it”.

It’s a fair point, but the fact remains that what I REALLY want to tell them is that my book defies genre, that I don’t want to stifle my creativity by trying to neatly slot my work into a little hole marked “thriller” or “paranormal” or what have you. Let’s be honest though, that sounds horribly pretentious.

Some writers thrive on knowing – from the moment finger touches keyboard – exactly what they are writing and who they are writing it for. This is great. My preference is to just write and see what ends up on the page. This is great too. It takes all sorts, after all.

However, I am nearly finished with the first draft and have the scary prospect of trying to convince an agent that my book is the one they want, and an agent will definitely expect a more solid answer to the question of genre than “I don’t know”. After much consideration, next time someone asks the question, I will probably say, “Historical fiction with a literary influence and elements of psychological drama and magical realism”. Still pretentious perhaps, but at least slightly more informative.

So, again, does genre matter?

I think genre is a sliding scale, not a binary choice between one category or another. It’s an endless collection of relatives, not one or two absolutes. Most books that I read (and, in my opinion, the one I am writing) fall somewhere between literary and various types of genre fiction, and I don’t care precisely where or how as long as I am enjoying them. Meanwhile, I understand that many readers (including me on occasion, probably more than I realise) find genre useful in selecting their next bedtime/commute/beach read.

So yes, genre does matter, to readers, writers and marketers alike. I, however, am happy to just carry on reading and writing and doing my best to pretend that it doesn’t exist…


What is “essence”? I find out at the circus

Essence of the circus
Performer at Circus Zyair
When I saw that the circus was coming to town, I had to roll up for a ticket in the name of book research (or perhaps it’s just a decent excuse for an evening out, a bit like the time I went for dinner at Ceviche…).

I insist on flouting the advice to “write what you know”, so reading history books and memoirs and scrawling through vintage photos is absolutely necessary to me, but it’s clearly not the same as actually being there and experiencing history first-hand. Which is problematic, given time machines don’t exist yet (note the “yet” – I’m a sci-fi fan).

The library and my local Oxfam book shop have been a godsend since I started writing my book. There are many brilliant textbooks and essays (and even guides on living as a historical figure yourself in case that’s your kind of thing) out there, but there’s one thing even the best struggle to give you – the “essence” of a particular era or place. The unique feeling it inspires in you, or its zeitgeist if you will.

What is essence?

I suppose essence means many different things to many different people, but to me it can’t really be described in words. It’s walking down a jetty in the sun and suddenly realising you’re 1000 miles from home (or 1000 years when science fiction eventually becomes science fact). It’s the collective inhalation of candy floss–choked air as a tightrope walker stumbles in the middle of the ring. It’s probably one of the reasons Shakespeare‘s comedies don’t come across as particularly comedic to a lot of people nowadays.

Although layers comprising wicked humour, exotic foods and a love of the bizarre were added to it as the result of my research, my idea of the essence of the Victorian period came pretty fully formed from years of Dickens and Galsworthy. Inca Peru has required the use of a little more imagination. This is why, meagre consolation as it might be, I have jumped at the chance to eat at Peruvian restaurants and even cook Andean recipes like this at home. I think a trip to Peru would be the logical next step (hint hint to my husband if you are reading this).

The Inca Empire has been particularly difficult to research in the conventional way because there is relatively little information out there. They didn’t have a writing system (they used quipus – lengths of knotted, coloured string) and the main written historical accounts were set down by a conquering force as the empire was drawing to a close. I haven’t even found many examples of novels set in the Inca Empire as of yet (let me know if you know of any as I would be interested to read one!). I find photographs help a great deal though in my quest for essence, as do memoirs of epic journeys like John Harrison’s Cloud Road. It’s illuminating to read a first-hand account of what it’s like to drink coca tea or stand in an Inca temple complex, even if it is 500 years since the characters in my book would have done the same.

Essence is also what leads me to sit in a coffee shop screwing up my nose and sticking out my tongue in an attempt to mimic a character’s facial expression as I try to find the perfect words to describe it, but that makes me look silly so let’s not talk about that…

So did I find it?

So, back to the circus. Did my trip capture the essence of sitting in a big top in Victorian–era Peru? Yes and no. I ate popcorn. I sat on a wooden bench. There were scantily clad acrobats and clowns throwing objects that really ought not to be thrown. But there were also motor bikes and heavy metal and Styrofoam cups. We did, however, collectively inhale the candy floss-choked air when a tightrope walker stumbled in the middle of the ring, and that’s the important thing.

– Kirsty

Hello and welcome to my blog

BlogWelcome to my blog! This is just a quick post to say hi and let anybody interested know my author website is up and running (which is probably pretty obvious as you are reading this on my website right now…). I’m ALMOST there with the first draft of my book (expect to see a blurb and an extract or two very shortly) – after that will come the scary business of editing and the even scarier business of trying to find an agent.

In the meantime, I’m going to be sharing my thoughts on my book, writing and life in general, and possibly linking to some of the many weird and wonderful websites I come across in the name of book research (common poisonous plants and scary Victorian wedding photos, anybody?!).

So that’s it from me for now (read: I want to carry on drinking my glass of wine)…

– Kirsty