Readers and writers often find themselves stuck in the same old genre, but would it be better to ask more of other forms? Jonathan Aldridge reflects on a very literary education, and wonders if he hasn’t been missing a trick…
I don’t think the question of genre ever came up at university. We studied novels, plays and poems which fell into the canon (by writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce) and which are called ‘classics’ in bookshops. Our faculty library was arranged by date (with surnames A-Z from 1500-1670, for example) instead of by genre like in a bookshop. And neither students nor tutors ever considered that there was more than one worthwhile genre, especially nothing that resembled sci-fi, romance, fantasy, crime or horror. Maybe studying gothic literature comes close, but even then we called it ‘the Gothic’ and referred to ‘tropes’ and ‘transcendence of boundaries’.
Actually, the question of genre came up once. I remember a conversation with a South African literature tutor. We spent a lot of time studying Apartheid literature, learning about how authors wrote politics and war into high-end literature. So I ask what sort of literature South Africa is reading and writing now (twenty years since Apartheid ‘ended’) and my tutor says “Oh, genre fiction, mainly. A lot of crime novels.” That was the only time genre was ever mentioned. And to me, it cemented an idea that genre fiction was the product of a safe culture full of lazy readers (like the modern-day UK?), whereas meaningful literature was a response to and catalyst of social change (like modernism during the early 20th-century).
So if there’s a reason I only write and read ‘literary fiction’, it’s because that’s what they teach you. In university circles, no one asks any questions of genre fiction; and in popular circles, no one asks any questions of literary fiction. I think we should ask more questions of each other.
It was failing to broaden my bookshelf which meant my early writing failed. In my late teens and early twenties I had little life-experience and would have done well reading and writing young-adult fiction or sci-fi as a way of expanding my horizons. But instead I was emulating TS Eliot, Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, and I was trying to write free verse, villanelles and avant-garde short stories. I guess it taught me an appreciation of those forms, but what I wrote was bad. It was like making little models of Big Ben or the London Eye out of matchsticks: I didn’t have the skill or the material to do it properly.
I think my literary education left me slightly skewed—so when I came to write my first novel, Banes Of Boys And Girls, I was more concerned about how the thing fit in with the Bildungsroman tradition or explored the ‘politics of desire’, rather than how interesting the plot and characters were and, basically, how good it was (I do think it’s good). It’s a novel about coming-of-age and falling in love for the first time, so I could have been reading young-adult and romance fiction to see how they navigate that territory. But it didn’t occur to me.
So for my next projects I’m going to change. I’m going to ask more questions of genre fiction in the hope of diversifying my writing. So before I get around to writing the office novel that is going round my head, I’m going to read some ‘office romance’ novels as well as masterpieces like Something Happened by Joseph Heller.
I’m already starting to kick the habit, and remind myself that plenty of genre fiction has merit. I’ve held literary fiction on a bit of a pedestal. They (Wikipedia) say it isn’t even a genre in itself, but it still has its own conventions: complex characters, minimal plot, linguistic texture, introspective style, slower pace. Just like crime fiction has its rogue detectives, sympathetic villains, dramatic clauses and plot twists. There is plenty of bad literary fiction, where boring characters doing nothing, just as there are bad crime novels with hammy dialogue and stupid plots.
But there’s also the chance to learn from other forms. I’ll give you a couple of sentences which to me epitomise the best literary fiction, especially in its ability to re-imagine a regular occurrence. In Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark On The Wall’ the narrator has been thinking to herself uninterrupted until “something is getting in the way […] Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—”I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”” I like the idea that being interrupted from your private thoughts is “a vast upheaval of matter”: it’s really subjective and lightly melodramatic. You sense the narrator waking back into reality from a place of abstract thought. This is the cadence and mood you get from literary fiction; and the scene is typical too: domestic, psychological, nuanced.
I honestly don’t know what sort of sentence you get from genre fiction, but for the sake of my writing I need to find out. Maybe they can give the urgency, drama and scale which literary fiction lacks. My interest in genre fiction started recently, with something that Michael Crichton said in an interview with The Paris Review. He said that he was trying to write The Andromeda Strain (sci-fi) but couldn’t get it to be “factually persuasive”. So he “started thumbing through” We Are Not Alone by Walter Sullivan and “noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.” I would advise anyone who reads only literary fiction (including myself) to ask more questions of genre fiction in order to find a new “vocabulary”, “cadence” and “structure”.
I don’t think I see myself writing an all-out genre fiction anytime soon, but I want to ask more questions of it. To learn new techniques and conventions beyond literary fiction; to use a sentence structure from sci-fi, or a plot framework from crime; to better my craft. That’s my answer, anyway.