Literary fiction gets up my nose. Not the books themselves, necessarily, though some of them do put up-yer-arse-ness above readability and a bloody good yarn to far too great a degree. I mean the idea of it and its elitism. ‘So whose bloodline can you claim? Austen? Conrad?’ … ‘Sorry? Weldon. Keyes.’ ‘Oh. You’ll be needing next door.’
Then there’s the fact that most people, whilst claiming it as their friend, don’t know what it is. I’ve heard publishing folk talk about the need to categorise books so they ‘know where to put them in a bookshop’. Really? I’ve bought all kinds of books off alphabetised shelves and tables of random picks, and my local Sally Army secondhand shop doesn’t even bother dividing the As from the Zs. It never stops me finding what I want. Academics say they know what it is – generally it’s the ‘good’ stuff. A friend who writes genre crime fiction was once asked, ‘Why don’t you write literary fiction instead? You’re good enough.’ I went there once and wrote an essay challenging the existence of a binary opposition between literary fiction and genre fiction. Let’s just say that it was not wholly successful and my theory was not well received. I like to think that the problem was that I didn’t find the right way to make my point, not that I was entirely wrong.
Agents, publishers, academics, the writing industry, seem to be obsessed with labelling books and writers. Writer as brand is where it’s at. I once worked in branding and was told by the very bright but very drug-addled Creative Director that what the label was mattered less than that it be stuck to, consistent. Fine for a toothpaste or a firm of accountants, but a writer?
And the labelling starts before the work is created. It’s marketing, baby, respond to customer need! Tell me what you’re writing? Is it literary fiction or genre? These were the most common questions I was asked during my writing MA. I don’t know! If it’s not deep and intellectual, unlikely to be short-listed for a booker, does that mean that it needs to fit into a pre-existing genre jacket? You find yourself shopping for a genre, checking what’s in fashion, what might suit you. Young, unmarried female protagonist – clearly the high heels and designer handbag of chicklit. She’s married with children – grab the Boden catalogue for slim fit jeans and a co-ordinating sweater to disguise the mummy-midriff. Someone dies in dodgy circumstances – crime – something black, purple nail varnish. Add a bit of horror – stick a hoody on.
What if I want to shake things up, create my own style? Did Dickens think: Ahh, I think I’ll write literary fiction, something Dickensian?
Fine. I accept that it helps to know who you want to read your book and to be able to say it’s a bit like X or Y to help readers to find it. But if you try to hard to write within a box you can create a monster. What would Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights have been like if she’d tried to write it for the YA market? All those sensitive souls who want to write literary fiction and end up writing something faux brow (thank CF) and unreadable. What if you want to mix things up?
What do I know? I’ve decided to write my story and create my own genre (with some help – thanks AB). It’s called ‘Mummycrime’. It’s a mix and subversion of mummylit and crime fiction (not detective fiction – that’s another genre, silly!), and it’s literate, not literary. I’m hoping that if I say this enough, by the time the novel is finished I will have willed my genre into existence – think Boden jeans with something boho from Camden Market and purple nails, probably Mac.