Look away now if you can’t stomach another piece about literary vs. genre fiction.
So, what do you write? This is the question I try to skirt around when somebody finds out I’m a writer. I usually say novels, or fiction. ‘But what genre?’ I’ve always felt like a fraud calling myself a crime writer and I used to say, ‘Literary thrillers’, or go off on a tangent about how my work is hard to categorise. Now, I just smile and say, ‘Psychological thrillers’, while gritting my teeth at the same time because I feel that’s not quite true, but I don’t have a better alternative. The response to this is often — down their nose — ‘Do you write under your own name?’
Before I was published, a writer friend warned me to be careful of falling between the stools of literary and genre fiction. At the time, I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing — something for everybody.
My first book was marketed as ‘A riveting psychological thriller’. In the UK, it had an ‘If you liked The Girl On The Train, you’ll love this’ sticker on the cover. The hashtag for the blog tour was #WifeOrKiller. Some reviews attacked the marketing instead of focusing on the book, which was perceived as more character study than ‘riveting psychological thriller’. One reviewer praised my writing but said the book was flawed as crime fiction as there weren’t enough suspects. The same reviewer said of a book that readers sometimes compare mine to — by an author marketed as literary — that it worked on all levels, including crime fiction [there was only ever one suspect in this story]. In defence of the marketing — my book had to be promoted as something and I’m not sure what else it could have been labelled. It’s a hard one to put in a box. I’m over the moon just to be published, and happy to be called anything [Well, almost anything — maybe not ‘chick lit’].
Marketing is interesting. I recently read an interview with Peggy Frew (author of Miles Franklin shortlisted Hope Farm) where she says that one commercial publisher wanted to make her books more ‘chick lit’ and less ‘literary fiction’. Hmm.
Some authors manage to balance comfortably between the two stools. Peter Temple comes to mind, but he is absolutely a crime writer following the classic structure and using every trope in the book. What sets him apart, I think, is his brilliant characterisation and stylish prose. Maybe Chris Womersly? Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy … There must be millions of others. I haven’t read The Dry (Jane Harper) yet but, by all accounts, it’s up there with the best literary/crime.
Perhaps we should concentrate on writing stories that we’re passionate about, that are interesting and challenging to us, and try not to worry about what they will be labelled as and into which box they will be packaged.
Good writing — whether literary or genre — is good writing.
In [David] Mitchell’s words, “the novel’s the boss”, and arguments about marketing categories are not the writer’s concern.
— Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose, Damien Walter, The Guardian, 20 Nov 2016