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Thursday 4 August 2011

Eggs – Class and Genre

Thanks to Donna Moore at Big Beat from Badsville for pointing me towards Philip Hensher’s piece in the Daily Telegraph on genre fiction, and for her subsequent reaction to it.

For what they are worth here are a couple of reflections from a grandmother who writes.

From time to time I meet up for coffee with another John Murray stablemate who lives in Edinburgh. Now there are very savvy writers who aim for a market. Rather more innocently we both began just writing a book and were later a mix of surprised, intrigued and just a little wary that both our novels had been classed as ‘thrillers’.

Genre left Aristotle a long time ago, certainly by the time bookshops started. Now there are as many genres in novels as types of pop music. There is a kind of marketing taxonomy. After a little research, I note my books get ‘thriller’, sometimes preceded by ‘war’, sometimes by ‘political’, but also contemporary fiction, general and literary, modern fiction, historical, crime and mystery – and others depending on where you’re looking.

I see that Philip Henshers’ latest novel King of the Badgers, published 31 March 2011, is variously described as campus comedy, social portraiture, black comedy and satire, contemporary fiction, and general and literary fiction.

At one level the classification is supposedly a guide to help possible readers. At another marketing people are not there to undersell. A little accuracy might help however – grand or misleading claims don’t encourage this reader.

The point is however that everything is now genre. Even ‘literary’. See above.

Of course, this being Britain, the genre system meshes in with the class system. Class has always been of inordinate interest in the UK. It attracts notice and can induce frothing at the mouth.

I don’t want to say that Mr Hensher was writing to annoy. He was writing to be talked about. In the same way, Martin Amis has a tendency to go public with a suggestion or two around publication time. If I remember, the last one was to put euthanasia booths at street corners.

Mr Hensher was also writing around the time of the ‘broadening’ of the Booker Long List. It’s called talking up, getting people’s interest, nominally at least, pointing towards books.

I am pretty sure some of the best-selling authors mentioned in such articles – Lee Child and Ian Rankin, for example, - know this very well and play their part. I am not suggesting for a moment that they are insincere. But they do get talked about.

Now I hesitate to call the genre debate a load of old eggs but the curate has been pretty busy and I am now calling time, for me anyway, on any more.

Or to put it another way, if this debate were a book, I’d have put it aside.

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