Beyond Literary Genres


What is a literary ‘genre’?

What is a literary ‘genre’? Simply put, a convenient label that groups together a number of literary works that have common characteristics. Initially descriptive, those labels progressively become explicative and then prescriptive. They carve out literary creation into recognisable chunks and dictate how those can be perceived, marketed and distributed. Literary agents proclaim they are looking for this or that genre. Publishers specialise in certain ‘genres’ and channels of distribution index books according to a rigid set of genres with certain categories enjoying widespread popularity. Many readers gravitate to specific genres and are disappointed by novels that don’t fit the mould. This compulsion to shoe-horn novels into a set of pre-determined boxes glosses over the fact that novels don’t let themselves be so easily categorised. Despite commercial pressure and academic influence, the creative process of writing tends to lead to ambiguity when it comes to genre, if not outright promiscuity.

Identifying the genres of my novels

Identifying the literary genre of any of my novels has always been a pain in the neck. As was the pressure to ‘fit in’. I relish crossing boundaries and toying with ambiguity. Why should that surprise anyone when one of the central themes in my work is gender fluidity? My novels necessarily reflect several genres. Take Stories People Tell, for example. It has affinities to chick lit because it is about powerful young women and their relationships, although it has little of the sardonic humour that often permeates such fiction. It has magical elements and parallel worlds that come straight from fantasy, or rather supernatural fiction, as those elements are not central to the story. The novel has gay romance, relating, as it does, the lesbian relationships of the main characters and the difficulties of the LGBTQ community in society. At the same time, the novel is political in that it deals with democracy and empowerment especially in healthcare in the UK.

In service of telling a story

Revolt is always tempting if not salutary in circumstances involving institutions and set ways of thinking. One avenue, especially for the autodidact, might be to argue in favour of an ‘outsider’ literary category corresponding to ‘art brut’. Where such artistic work is produced by someone not versed in art history or au fait with current tendencies, someone who harnesses the creative force of being free of literary tenets. While thinking ‘outside the box’ is a key ingredient to novel writing, undoubtedly what has gone before is also an essential part of the mix and cannot be ignored. The anger of revolt might blind us to the arbitrary nature of such labels. I suspect the main lesson to take from the exploration of literary genres is not so much the need to align with or fight against the boundaries of a fixed genre, but rather to be able to recognise those elements that make up a recognisable genre so as to better employ them in all manner of combinations in the service of telling a story.

The Knight’s Sword

The Knight's Sword

Writing exercise: A second voice

For the second voice I seek to echo, I have chosen a more challenging author, Erin Morgenstern and her debut novel, The Night Circus. There are a number of different approaches in Morgenstern’s work, so I have chosen one, the section entitled, Wishes and Desires (Pgs 160-161), in which Marco confronts Isobel about Celia’s new Wishing Tree. Written in the present tense and the third person, the point of view is omniscient, telling us about both Marco’s and Isobel’s thoughts and reactions. There is a narrator, but little divulges who he or she is, lest it be the confident, knowledgeable voice and the way the information is made known to the reader, but withheld from one or more of the characters.

Isobel’s responses to Marco are both trusting and naive. True. She loves him. But she expresses openly what she thinks, making her vulnerable compared to Marco whose thoughts are disclosed to the reader, but which he deliberately conceals from her. Yet all the same, by revealing his inner thoughts, albeit only half understood by him, he is presented to the reader as vulnerable, not towards Isobel but rather his opponent, Celia.

The Knight’s Sword (359 words)

When the door ghosts open sighing like an vagrant wind, it is Julia who sweeps into the tiny cubicle filling the space with her presence. Martin raises his eyes from the charm he’s concocting and almost swoons at the sight of the young girl.

“I wasn’t expecting a visit,” he stutters, his heart pounding.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” she asks, making no allowance for his evident agitation. She extracts a poster from her satchel and holds it out for him to see. Despite the dimness of the lantern, he discerns a sword impaled blade-down in a rock, the diamond-studded hilt quivering as if an unseen hand had just released it. Unlike the fake blades that often hang limp from the waists of knights on the stage, this one looks real and deadly. It is almost as if he can smell the fresh blood emanating from it.

“The Knight’s Sword,” he whispers, awed. “The dress-rehearsal was a wondrous affair.”

“Now you tell me,” she snaps. “Why didn’t you inform me?”

“It hasn’t opened yet,” he explains, unable to prevent himself from flinching, “and I’ve been so busy with my own performance. What’s more, I wasn’t sure you hadn’t had a hand in it. The illusion is so convincing. It tells a story all on its own. Just like your work does.”

“It’s his,” Julia whispers, half to herself, as she stands absorbed in the poster.

“Are you certain?” Martin asks.

She does not reply immediately. Instead, her eyes devour the sword as if it were a potent draught she could drink.

“I can sense the magic,” she muses. “I feel the power rippling from it. It penetrates to my very core.” She shakes her head. “I imagine a person not versed in deep magic could not perceive that power.”

Dismissing the insult just levelled at him, an idea strikes him, making him feel bolder. “Do you think he can sense your work like you do his?”

His question catches her off guard. She’d never thought of it from that angle. That the other might be aware of her through her work appeals to her. She smiles. (…)

More Notes

At some point, this task ceases to be an exercise and becomes a challenge. Telling the story takes over and ideas come that are no longer in the style to be imitated, additions and improvements that present themselves unbidden. The turning point, I suspect, was when Martin stutters in response to the sheer power of Julia’s presence. As a result, the reinvented story moves away from the near-disastrous, but tender love affaire as portrayed by Morgenstern to a more manipulative, darker tale.

Stay with me, my love

Maud dusted off her husband’s photo and replaced him on the mantelpiece…

In the quest for a better understanding of one’s voice as a writer, Neil Gaiman suggests writing in the style of someone else. So I did. I found the exercise challenging and would willingly have skipped it. While I can recognise the voice of different authors, I have little experience of imitating them, at least not consciously. 

I chose Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, picking a page at random (67). What makes this short passage so typical of her style? The touch is light but intimate. She reveals Liza’s thoughts and feelings for Annie by her acts, by her words. The title functions as a leitmotif, especially in this extract, stressing Liza’s continued preoccupation with Annie. Liza can’t concentrate. She can’t read. And when she tries to listen to music, her thoughts circle back to Annie. She tries to fill her time, knowing full well what she is doing is not necessary. The narrative centres on Liza, her acts, her feelings, her thoughts and very little attention is paid to her surroundings. The words chosen are simple enough. The sentences are often short but vary in rhythm. There’s gentle music to the words.

Maud dusted off her husband’s photo and replaced it on the mantelpiece. Reclined in her armchair, she closed her eyes and wished for sleep, but none came. Instead, memories of their times together drifted through her mind. Unable to silence her past, she flicked through TV channels but found nothing of interest. There never was. He’d always been the one for telly. Not her. She picked up the unfinished scarf from her knitting basket, its colours his favourites, and ran her fingers over the wool then laid it back in its place. Her eyes were too weary to knit. What had he said? “I’ll be with you always.” Maybe I should let you go, she thought not for the first time. She shook her head. I know what you said, she continued, but… She sighed, glancing at her husband watching her from the mantlepiece. Struggling to her feet, she crossed to the photo, lifted it to her lips and planted a kiss on the cold glass. She gritted her teeth. I should move on, she thought, but her hand trembled as she brushed the tears from her eyes. How can I possibly let you go?

It is interesting how, in writing this short piece, the story takes on its own life. Writing ‘you’ rather than ‘him’ in Maybe I should let you go... changes the rest of the narrative. She is addressing her dead husband as if he were present. It suggests the idea of him watching her through his photo. I wanted to end by saying, She lifted the photo to her lips and planted a kiss on his face. Goodbye, my love. Then turned the picture face down and left the room. The passage from Nancy Garden’s novel feeds on the unending yearning of one girl for the other, so I stuck to that lack of resolution.

The inspirational writer

The Inspirational Writer

Alan McCluskey describes himself as an inspirational writer. Rather than following a pre-determined plot, he is the very first reader, discovering the story as he writes. It is the acts of the characters, rather than the author’s intentions, that dictate the direction of the story. The doings of the characters inspire him and drive the story forward. At the same time, he explains that he needs to be reassured that what has been written so far offers a solid basis for what is yet to come. To achieve this, his chapters are increasingly short and he revises them as he goes along. As he puts it, “The trick of inspirational writing is to remain in constant contact with the story while staying confident that the story is convincing and worth telling.”

Undoubtedly the central theme in all Alan McCluskey’s novels is the empowerment of young people, girls in particular. Despite their difficulties, and often as a result of them, his characters go beyond what they thought was possible. That transcendence often takes the form of abilities that might be called magical. However, in his latest novels, Stories People Tell and Local Voices, magic has become much less preponderant, leaving more room for such abilities as leadership, comprehending complex situations, expressing thoughts in writing, organising large-scale events, speaking in public or doing creative work. As the author puts it, “The challenge is to make such abilities as exciting for the reader as wielding magic.” This shift away from pure fantasy has gone hand in hand with anchoring large parts of the story in real-life, identifiable contexts rather than an imaginary world. The setting and the reader’s familiarity with it plays a greater role in the story.

Unlike those novels that are based on a unique theme, his work is characterised by the presence of a number of themes that intertwine. “I like to think my novels reflect something of the complexity of the real world,” he says. The fluidity of gender is an example of another theme that traverses his novels. In the Boy & Girl saga, a young teen struggles with his desire to dress as a girl and in so doing seeks to come to terms with who he is and what he wants to be. The author does not shy away from challenging issues. In the Storyteller’s Quest books, one of the main characters, a young shaman, shapeshifts into a young girl. The ambiguity of his identity obliges him to explore life and sexuality from an unusual and sometimes disturbing perspective.

Beyond the identifiable themes in his writing, it is the story and the telling of stories that is paramount. In his first novels, storytelling vied with formal exploration but as time went by, his focus shifted more and more to telling the story. As part of that increased investment in the story, more attention was paid to the relationships between people as revealed by their words and acts. It was almost as if there was a shift from storytelling centred largely on action to stories in which the action is grounded in relationships.

The Favourite

The Favourite. What a strange film! The story, if you can call this frayed fantasy a story, plays out in a claustrophobic world, folded in on itself, dripping with decay and decline, cloaked in stuffy air, yet run through with violence and rampant sensuality. Naked brutality erupts in the crude words spat from people’s mouths. For all the mad queen’s occasional moments of lucidity, the film is rife with madness, smacking of the queen’s court in the tales of Alice. The courtiers, notwithstanding their political intrigues, are as mad as the queen. Their pastimes and their stilted relationships are outrageous and would be hilarious, were it not for the undercurrent of deadly seriousness. That didn’t stop me from bursting out laughing, laughter offtimes tinged with guilt. Thank heavens the cinema is shroud in darkness. The film director revels in the madness, conjuring up one surrealistic scene after another. We are led to expect the inevitable tragedy, several times, but who knows if the confusion of images that ends it all, brings the relief we were hoping for.

New n​ovel, Local Voices, nearing completion

Local Voices

I have just completed the second revision of my latest novel, Local Voices, a sequel to Stories People Tell. It will be published later this year. Here’s a summary of the story.

Local Voices

In her campaign to re-affirm the role of women at the heart of hearthside healthcare, 17-year-old Annie Wight finds herself pitted against Health England, a conservative think-tank backed by pharmaceutical giants and private healthcare providers. Pretexting the defence of the National Health Service, they stop at nothing to stamp out Annie’s efforts. They target not just her but those close to her, wreaking havoc in friendships and affairs of the heart. As part of her response, Annie launches a project to share the stories of those that never figure in the spotlight. By celebrating local voices, the project fights against isolation and disempowerment.

Stories of people who live far from the spotlight

Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot's article in The Guardian.
Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian.

In an insightful article by George Monbiot in The Guardian entitled, Our cult of personality is leaving real life in the shade, Monbiot points to the ‘spectacularisation’ of the news and the world. “This is a world of make-believe, in which we are induced to imagine we are participants rather than mere gawpers”, he says. He talks of all those that are not in the spotlight and the long shadow cast over key issues. He concludes, “The task of all journalists is to turn off the spotlight, roll up the blinds and see what’s lurking at the back of the room.” He urges us to pay attention to “(…) the story of people who live far from (…) the spotlight (..)”

Untold stories are a central theme of my latest novel, Local Voices, where Annie, the young heroine,  is championing a drive for people to speak out and tell their stories. One of her friends says, “By empowering people to tell their stories, you empower them to break out of their isolation and take a more active part in society.”

In a lull in the action, a group of young woman are discussing the message behind Local Voices. Annie gets to her feet as if she were about to make a speech and says. “We are more and more cut off from the community and the world we live in. That isolation can be traced to the loss of control over our lives, our work, our politics, our health, our education and more. We have chosen to hand over that control to others to free ourselves from the burdens it entails. But the resulting isolation and the feeling of not belonging, not to mention the impression of powerlessness, are at the heart of many problems we face today: exclusion, intolerance, disrespect, injustice, ill-health, depression, addiction, lawlessness and violence. We urgently need to reconnect to our local community. What better way than by giving voice to the stories of our community and the people in it, those stories that draw us closer together and improved mutual understanding and tolerance.”

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system
Source: The Guardian. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian reports that French booksellers have called on the judges of literary prizes to ignore self-published books available only on Amazon. What sparked such a reaction? Marco Koskas’ Bande de Français is one of the contenders selected for this year’s Prix Renaudot. The Guardian article states that the book has been self-published using CreateSpace, a print-on-demand service which is a subsidiary of Amazon, ostensibly making it unavailable to bookshops. The booksellers campaign lays bare the cracks in the publishing system.

On the one hand, bookshop owners are angry because Marco Koskas’s book is available only on Amazon, although, as it is printed by Createspace, it could be made available to bookshops. When Payot in Geneva wanted to stock my novel, Boy and Girl, they had no problem ordering copies even though it was printed by CreateSpace. On the other hand, no editor wanted to take Kostas’s book, so self-publishing was the only avenue for the author. Note, he is no beginner. He’s already had a number of books published by the ‘traditional’ channels.

By petitioning to have this book removed from the long list for the Prix Renaudot, bookshop owners are saying that only those writers published via agents/editors should be considered for prizes because including self-published books would be tantamount to granting Amazon exclusive rights to the book (*). First of all, this is not necessarily true. Secondly, commercial models in other industries, like that of films, do have distribution players with a monopoly on some prize-winning films. Just think of Netflix.

What’s more, agents and mainstream publishers, as gatekeepers to ‘traditional’ publishing have a great deal of power already. For example, self-published or indie-published books are generally barred from getting reviews on most specialised websites because they have not been granted the approval of agents and established publishers.

That Kostas chose to use print-on-demand is not a ploy of Amazon. It is a dynamic of the publishing industry in which CreateSpace and Ingrams offer a viable alternative to traditional publishing at a time when that gateway to readers is getting ever narrower. If anything, bookshop owners should be looking to include the best independent books in their selections for customers. That would contribute to providing a rich diversity of books. In addition, it would fuel a demand for quality reviews that would encourage sites to review independent books.

On the other hand, that bookshops want to do battle with Amazon is understandable. Having an independent bookshop, not only as a place to find books but also to attend readings or to meet other readers, is a clear enrichment of a local community. But it’s an uphill battle. The plight of bookshops is also part of the shifting landscape of publishing. Those changes require a rethinking of the role of indie bookshops. One promising avenue might lie in reconsidering the place and role of the bookshops in the local community. How can they offer an enriching face-to-face experience that Internet-based services cannot rival with?

(*) As Matthew Wake, owner of Booksbooksbooks in Lausanne, points out, bookshop owners “… do not want to support Amazon because it poses an existential threat to their livelihood. ‘Amazon…wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop'” He goes on to say, “As far as I can see they are not questioning the worthiness of the book.” I agree. Unfortunately, the person who gets harmed is the author, who might merit that prize, not Amazon. I question the bookshops’ strategy, not their motives. It is not because a cause is ‘just’ that the methods employed are adequate or have the desired effect.

Article first published in a shortened form on the Geneva Writers Group Facebook page.

Shhhhh! Writing. Local voices.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book. Follow-up to Stories People Tell. Annie promoting local voices. Seventy-five chapters so far. Eighty thousand words. Coming soon.

Writing local voices. Sneek peek!

A feral chant greeted Annie as she threaded between the barriers separating the platform from the concourse. A pack of guttural voices growled “Witch!” or was it “Bitch!” repeated over and over. Alarmed, she dropped Kevin’s hand and squeezed in front of her girlfriend, her eyes darting this way and that in search of trouble. The train had been packed and a throng of panicked commuters elbowed their way forward as if the station were on fire. Borne by the flow bursting from the gates, there was no turning back. If only her bodyguard, Xenia, had been there. 

Annie spotted a dense knot of women brandishing placards some yards away when something hard struck her in the face just below her eye. Smashing as it did, a viscous liquid trickled down her cheek, letting off a foul smell of rotten eggs. She sank to her knees, instinctively putting up her hands to protect her head. Kevin screamed and ducked, cowering behind her.

Sensing danger, the crowd stampeded, bowling over the two crouched figures and would have trampled them to death had not firm hands grasped the girls and heaved them to their feet. Xenia. Thank heavens. No one would dare jostle her. All the same, Annie couldn’t stop trembling as the woman summarily wiped the mess from her face before wrapping her in a strong embrace. Nearby, Kevin was blotted in the arms of Leonor, sobbing. “…like animals…” Annie heard her mutter. (…)

Writing a Sequel to Stories People Tell

Of course, I couldn’t resist. I began a sequel to Stories People Tell. It starts in Waterloo Station, in the press of commuters under this clock where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting Annie and her girlfriend Kevin.

Not all innocent causes are as well-intentioned as they might wish to appear. Under the banner of self-righteous indignation and professed sanctity, many a powerful woman has been branded and burnt as a witch…

See Shhhhh! Writing. Local Voices. for an extract