Monday, September 25, 2006

Not-so-new romantics

The Dr kicked me out while Jane Eyre was on for fear I’d roll my eyes. It’s her favourite book, a comfort in dark times and she’s this thing about cross blokes on fire.

It also doesn’t help that she once saw my A-level copy, where the staid portrait on the cover has been coloured in with biro.

By the time I got home (from watching Mark of the Rani extras with Nimbos), she was absorbed in a trashy documentary about romantic fiction – “Reader, I Married Him”.

As well as chatting to writers of chick-lit about their wares, Daisy Goodwin did a “scientific” experiment to prove she enjoys the books she enjoys, while various marketeers explained at length how you should judge books by their covers.

One lady tried to argue that calling it all “chick-lit” is another example of evil male patriarchy, putting women back in their place. “What bollocks,” I thought. It’s no more sexist than assuming that sci-fi is the province of spotty boys.

Gratuitous girl-on-girl actionObviously I have a vested interest in this; as well as being a spotty boy, I write exploitative knock-off sci-fi with gratuitous girl-on-girl action. I’m not quite as bothered to be barred by sex as Ray Connolly writing in the Telegraph, but the documentary did miss something important more broadly about genres of writing.

Part of genre’s appeal (I’d argue) is we know more-or-less what we’re getting, familiar pieces and situations just in a new combination. As a result, we are comforted rather than challenged. Sometimes we don’t want to have our brains turned upside down and just want to read something fun.

By giving a kind of writing its own sub-category, you not only pigeon-hole the way that it’s marketed, you also cleave it from the rest of fiction and so imply it can't be as good.

(People struggle to describe what the rest of fiction might be called. “Literary fiction” is a common, snobbish term. “Mundane fiction” (i.e. stuff without spaceships) is the same kind of snobbery on its head.)

Generic fiction is seen to be derivative, predictable and lacking nuance. Sci-fi suffers from this a great deal. The monthly Ansible includes “As Others See Us”, in which the great and good deny peddling sci-fi. Their wares, they say, are about how technology can change our lives or about rethinking political systems. Whereas science-fiction is something less noble.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that sci-fi is all marvellous, or all operates as speculative philosophy. The great majority of it is a bit rubbish – but that’s no different from any other genre, or even of publishing as a whole.

The problem, I think, is that the genre gets judged by its lesser works, whereas anything of any merit transcends the genre label. So we tend not to think of “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Cold Comfort Farm” as sci-fi. Despite the evident sf props and stylings, they’re too good to be lumped in with all that ray-gun shit.

“Generic” doesn’t just mean “of a genre”, it also means non-proprietary, common or in other ways undistinguishable. It has similar, derogatory connotations to “mediocre”, which would explain why, as in the Ansible column, some authors are keen to deny all hint of genre attaching to their serious literature.

It’s difficult to agree on what makes good fiction generally. It’s also difficult to discuss this sort of thing without resorting to personal anecdote. But when I find a Good Book I seize on it. Usually it’s all I buy for months of birthdays – until it’s superseded by the next exciting new find.

In some cases, the birthday message scrawled inside the cover says something like, “Don’t mind the cover!” (I’m thinking of you, Neal Stephenson). Covers may make a book stand out on a shelf but it’s the quality of the content that sells the second and third copies.

The packaging at best means an unheard of book declares, “I’m like that other thing you liked…” This is also the worth of endorsements from best-selling authors and peers.

There were people appalled on the documentary at Austen’s work under chick-lit covers because (again) Austen outstripped the genre. The documentary seemed to miss the difference between marketing a book so it’s prominent in bookshops and the innate quality of the writing itself.

As the Dr was saying last night, Janes Austen and Eyre aren’t just about snagging a stiff-collared Mr Right, who’s not so sulky when you get to know him. There’s something more socio-political going on, with stuff about education and history and warfare, and all kinds of insight and nuance.

So I think genre is a good way of selling more-of-the-same to people already converted, but it's a barrier to getting new blood in. It's not evil patriarchy, it's Catch-22.

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