Crossing the Genre Divide

Category: Writing

The coverage of last month’s World Book Night on the BBC has sparked a row between the corporation and some of genre fiction’s best-known names.

Writers of sci-fi, crime, fantasy and horror such as Iain M Banks and Neal Asher, and children’s authors Debi Gliori and Tamora Pierce, signed a letter to Director-General Mark Thompson complaining that the programmes used a ‘sneering, derogatory tone’ towards genre fiction. The 85 signatories were infuriated that the coverage ignored the official World Book Night list’s inclusion of works of commercial fiction such as Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.

This is the latest development in an ongoing dispute, with popular novelists lamenting their lack of critical attention while writers of literary fiction point to their relatively poor sales as evidence of quid pro quo.

There is also a perception that writers of popular fiction are often excluded from prize shortlists. The critic Joan Smith has argued that this disproportionally affects women, citing the suspense writer Ruth Rendell as an example:

‘It’s astounding that she hasn’t won the Booker . . . It’s pure sexism . . . Ian McEwan would never be pigeonholed in this way, even though you could say that he’s written detective novels too.'

Such complaints are not confined to female authors of genre fiction. Last summer, thriller writer Ian Rankin made a film for the BBC’s Review Show in which he bemoaned the lack of crime fiction on the shortlist for the Man Booker.

Smith and Rankin’s interventions highlight an interesting phenomenon. The [Man] Booker has, over the years, included several examples of genre fiction on its shortlists, but only books by writers previously lauded for so-called literary fiction. Remarkably, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale won the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction and made it onto the Booker shortlist in the mid-1980s while her post-apocalyptic adventure Oryx and Crake was also shortlisted in 2003.

Other examples include John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, a crime novel narrated by a murderer, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative tale about human cloning Never Let Me Go. Only last year Sarah Waters’ ghost story The Little Stranger stormed both prize and bestseller lists.

The fact that those writers made it onto the Booker shortlist, when no genre purists have, suggests either a lack of imagination from the judges or a view that only ‘serious’ writers can tackle genre in any meaningful way. Thus, a perception has grown up that it’s fine for literary writers to tackle crime, sci-fi or horror while commercial writers whose work matures and deepens while sticking to genre tropes (as Rendell’s has) are not granted the same freedom of movement. It’s interesting to note that critically acclaimed author Banville has four crime novels under his belt, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, while ‘literary’ author Iain Banks assumes a middle initial when publishing sci-fi, a nod to the rigid classifications of the market.

However, the whole genre-versus-literary spat ignores the growing tendency for literary writers to incorporate genre into their work. Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco sold millions because they were marketed as crime novels – even though the murder mystery was inconsequential next to the exploration of Danish colonialism in Hoeg’s book while Eco used the process of picking up clues in a murder investigation as a metaphor for semiotics in literature.

Other recent examples of this literary cross-fertilisation include Alice Thompson’s The Existential Detective, about a private investigator searching for a missing person, which features all the dream logic and impressionistic sense of place of her previous novels. King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher opens with the abduction of a child before lifting the lid on repressed desires in a provincial English town. Even the horror structure in The Little Stranger could be considered a pretext for the author to explore social upheaval in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

This trend is partly driven by commercial pressures and partly a response to the criticism of ‘literary fiction’ as being, essentially, books with no plot.

In his review of Hensher’s novel in the London Review of Books Adam Mars-Jones makes the following observation:

‘The trick of incorporating genre features into a literary novel . . . is to establish a slower pace than is typical of thrillers. Only when the tempo is allowed to accelerate does the genre element seem to take over, in a way that usually disappoints. The ability to manipulate a formula rarely overlaps with the ability to do without one.’

It seems that for the moment writers specialising in genre fiction will have to seek solace for their lack of serious critical attention and omission from prize shortlists in their royalty cheques. But it’s to be hoped that the snobbery around genre fiction ends soon for, while there are plenty of bad thrillers around, writers of contemporary fiction could learn a lot from the deft plotting of Wilkie Collins, Ruth Rendell and Stieg Larsson, the sharp dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the swift pace of Dashiell Hammett and the wealth of imagination in the dark fantasies of Clive Barker.

Allan Radcliffe

Allan Radcliffe received a New Writers Award in 2009.