The Power of Genre

 Over to Sandy Chadwin for our latest blog…

1 TYEUFV4SoXzBcevMtS0uzgSO congratulations to Naomi Alderman whose novel The Power has won the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Award for this year. This is interesting as, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a book that is openly identified as being within a genre has won a literary prize. For most of my reading life genre fiction has been looked down upon with weary or angered dismissal by the great and the good and when something genre-like is lauded it of course ceases to be considered as part of that genre. This is why novels such as 1984 and Brave New World are usually to be found in the general fiction section of shops and libraries. Some authors were in the habit of denying that what they wrote was in fact within a genre. Margaret Atwood describes her work as speculative fiction and, it is said, has angrily dismissed suggestions that The Handmaid’s Tale might in fact be SF. The boundaries can be fluid. Does John le Carré write novels or thrillers? He’s treated with a respect that the authors of the latter rarely receive. But then Len Deighton’s cold war spy book Funeral in Berlin is now published as a Penguin Classic. Salmon Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus, was originally sold as a SF novel and according to Brian Aldiss, Midnight’s Children was going to be as well until at the last minute the publishers decided to market it as a literary book.

                And this is the thing. Genre is as much to do with marketing as it is with identifying the style of book. So, when Penguin originally published John Wyndham’s novels which involve walking carnivorous plants, aliens taking over the world’s oceans and other such things, it carefully avoided packaging them as science fiction at all. Indeed the only reference to the genre comes in the little bit near the beginning where they tell us about the author which contains the gorgeously dismissive line ‘[he] decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as “science fiction”.’ It’s like that business of calling ‘comics’ ‘graphic novels’ that took off in the ‘80s when comics became briefly trendy.

                But not everything has changed. Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel, The Buried Giant was greeted with derision and dismay by the critics with Private Eye’s book man being particularly scathing, his premise being that the novel could not be of any artistic value because of its fantastical elements. Ironically the following issue bemoaned the failure to recognise the late Terry Pratchett’s literary skills. Pratchett himself complained about this in his speech when he accepted the Carnegie Award:

                                ‘Recent Discworld books have spun on such concerns as the nature of belief,

 politics and even of journalistic freedom, but put in one lousy dragon…’

So what has changed? The success of the Lord of the Rings films and the Game of Thrones TV series with non-genre readers obviously have had something to do with it. But I think it is more down to writers like Naomi Aldermen who refuse to accept the rigid demarcations and, in Ms Alderman’s case, leapt at the chance of writing a Doctor Who novel. PD James and Ruth Rendell’s detective novels paved the way by being steadily accepted by the better class of critic and the following generation who are building on it. Harry Potter may have something to do with it. Certainly Professor Harold Bloom statement that he would rather children did not read at all than read JK Rowling’s books did a lot to reveal the degree to which certain people see reading not as a pleasure but as a stand to look down on people from.

                Well, here’s hoping anyway.

Sandy Chadwin is co-running the next  North Tyneside Writer’s Circle this Saturday 11am to 1pm in North Shields Library.

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