FICTION IS FICTION: WHY LABEL IT?

Literary or…? ‘Commercial’ used to be the word employed to describe more run-of-the-mill fiction – by implication, fiction more likely to sell but unlikely to win prizes or be taken seriously by reviewers. Fiction without much prestige for the author. Now the word is ‘genre’. It’s often the first question when you mention you write novels: what genre do you write in? And it always stumps me.

Secrets of the Pomegranate has been categorised as ‘women’s fiction’, ‘issue-led reading group fiction’ and ‘psychological’ (whatever that means). ‘Thriller’ and ‘political’ have also been suggested. The Red Gene, my work-in-progress, could be classed as ‘saga’ as it spans three generations, ‘women’s’ as the three main characters are women, ‘historical’ as it’s set between 1936 and the present, ‘romance’ as a love story is integral, ‘war’ (the setting for a substantial part of it); even ‘crime’ as the plot hinges around a crime (though this is hidden to the protagonists). Or does it fall into the ‘literary’ class? My former agent said my writing was on the cusp of literary and commercial. Secrets of the Pomegranate was described by one reviewer as ‘literary without being overly poetic’. Now I’ve learnt that this blurred area between literary and commercial has a name of its own, the new genre of ‘sweet spot fiction’ and what’s more, it’s in demand.

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The obsession with labelling novels has always seemed to me unnecessary and unhelpful. Shakespeare’s plays are classed as Comedies, Tragedies or Histories. A neat divide but in my view neither life nor fiction can be placed in such distinct boxes. How many lives, how many stories consist of only tragedy or only comedy? Admittedly, the historical/contemporary divide does make some sense – though even ‘contemporary’ novels contain some history (it’s usually referred to as backstory).

As for ‘women’s fiction’, does this label assume that men are uninterested in novels with female protagonists, novels that explore human relationships, those with love interest? Does it assume that women are too unintelligent, soft or domestically-minded to read novels dealing with supposedly loftier themes such as war, politics or murder, for example? Such an attitude insults both men and women. Has anyone heard of ‘men’s fiction’? Or is all fiction that doesn’t fall into the ‘women’s’ box (i.e. more ‘serious’ fiction) by default, men’s?

The stigma attached to ‘genre’ as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction is rather like that attached to indie-published books. As if literary authors have no interest in selling their books. They need to live too: a good review in a prestigious newspaper is great as encouragement but doesn’t put food on the table or pay the rent. ‘Genre’ or ‘commercial’ fiction, despite selling much better then ‘literary’ (with the exception of the big prize winners) is often held in disdain.

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But does ‘genre’ equal bad writing? Absolutely not. It embraces everything from the worst formula writing to Booker Prize superlative. Mills & Boon romances may be written to a formula, but Thomas Hardy’s novels are also romances, even if they tend to have tragic endings. So are Jane Austen’s. There are some brilliant contemporary writers working in so-called genres, whether sci-fi, thriller, fantasy or crime. Margaret Attwood and Doris Lessing (as well as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in the last century) have written sci-fi. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is fantasy but there’s nothing prosaic about the writing. Spy novels by John Le Carré, crime novels by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid or Ruth Rendell, to name just a few, meet all the criteria of ‘literary’ writing. The selection pictured here includes several prize-winners. It includes sci-fi, historical, crime, political and some I’d never even attempt to classify. I guess all would be seen as literary.

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The artificial divide no longer makes sense, if it ever did. Even the fiction/non-fiction split may be questionable. Fictionalised biographies, for example, have become prolific in recent years. Agents and publishers say the bookseller or librarian needs to know where to put the book on their shelves. Fair enough, but in the UK (in Spain books are usually grouped by publisher), every bookshop and library I’ve ever been in has a large section for Fiction A–Z. Is that a valid category? Perhaps it should be.

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