Simon says…

Posted: September 16, 2011 in Friday Guest

My Friday Guest is Simon Kewin, prolific author, software expert and all-round nice guy.

The other day I was explaining to a friend what sort of fiction I write.

“I suppose some of it is fantasy,” I said. “Some is SF and some of is probably more standard mainstream stuff. You know, realism.”He looked a bit puzzled over the last category for a moment and then he twigged.“Ah, you mean boring fiction.”

Dear reader, I knew what he meant although, naturally, I didn’t agree with his description. But it’s an attitude I encounter a lot and it’s one that has always puzzled me. I’m of the opinion that there are precisely two sorts of music: good and bad. Same with writing. I know people who never read fantasy “because it’s not real”. I even know people who never read fiction of any sort, for the same reason. Each to their own and all that – I don’t read many westerns myself – but why limit yourself?

The truth is, I don’t like the notion of genre and I’m not even particularly convinced genres exist. So many books blur the lines. Literary classics like Dorian Gray and Midnight’s Children are clearly fantastical. The writing of, say, Ursula Le Guin, is clearly highly literary. Is Pride and Prejudice a romance? A comedy? A thriller? Who cares? I think writers can and should just write stories and not worry about these categories.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s all very well, but as writers, we want to find readers and that’s a lot easier to do if we fit ourselves neatly into the smooth, round hole of some genre. Readers like to know what they’re getting. If you’re trying to pitch a novel to an agent or a publisher you quickly find you have to decide what “sort” of writer you are. I speak from experience. There are plenty of agents who just say “No sci/fi” (I think they mean SF) but what it always reminds me of are brutal little cards stuck in 1950’s B&B windows saying “No blacks.”

I worry that all this leads us into writing formulaic fiction : the equivalent of lowest common denominator chart music, stripped of all verve and originality. If we only want to write pure high-fantasy with dwarven lords mistrustfully eyeing elven emissaries, then fair enough. If we only want to write bittersweet tales of life in modern Britain, then fair enough again. But why are we so discouraged from writing both if we wish to? Maybe even at the same time? Why not write stories that slip between the cracks and do something unexpected? Why the divisions, the camps, the separate prizes and the book-shop ghettos?

Writers of mainstream fiction are, in my experience, often surprised at the number of short fiction markets out there for “genre” stories. Seriously, there’s a lot. Well worth investigating. When it comes to novels, though, it’s the other way round : most agents and publishers, in my experience, prefer to see only realist work (sometimes they say “literary” but it’s pretty clear they wouldn’t want to see a literary SF novel, say).

I’m not saying all literature should be a genre-spanning mash-up. If a someone wants to spend their life writing zombie apocalypse sagas, then good luck to them. But what I am saying is that, when it comes down to it, there are really only two sorts of fiction. The good and the bad.

***
You can find Simon in the Herefordshire sticks or on his website or blog.
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Comments
  1. Great post, Simon! I have a friend who is a fabulous writer but has been advised by publishing experts not to submit her first novel to an agent yet as they wouldn’t know where to place it. This saddens me as she is incredibly talented. It’s a shame there is that pressure to be pigeon-holed.

  2. Simon Kewin says:

    Rebecca,

    It is a shame. I’m sure we can all think of many great books that would be hard to pigeon-hole.

  3. Batty Jane says:

    As a writer of SF and futuristic novels I found this post heartening. I reckon literature is a broad church, having room for all sized pews.

  4. Thanks, Jane – amen to that.

  5. Formulaic fiction? No thanks. SF/horror is my genre of preference, with plenty of room for western/humor and, of course, literary but with commercial appeal. Good post, Simon.

  6. Old Kitty says:

    Simon!! Such a voice of reason! You know, I’m seriously wondering how David Mitchell pitched his Cloud Atlas to agents and publishers. I mean, have you read it?!?! And it’s now selling millions and about to be made into a fil (or it has already maybe!). But that novel is completely insane! And yet I’m hearing how it’s so important to know whom you are pitching your novel to as if readers could also be pigeon holed via genres. Luckily for publishers there are people like me who read eclectically. Now if only said publishers and agents would embrace us ecletic readers rather than force writers to cut us up neatly into groups.

    Take care
    x

  7. Old Kitty : I have read Cloud Atlas, and loved it. But, yes, I wouldn’t have liked to pitch that as a first-time novelist. Don’t ever stop reading eclectically!

    Milo : You’re one of the finest SF/horror/western/literary/humour/commercial writers I know!

  8. kelda says:

    Interesting, post. You know I write a lot of spec short stoires, and I don’t feel the genre restrictions at all. A little bit of noir or western or mystery or crime or whatever is almost always acceptable in genre fiction.

    Now novels . . . they might be a bit different.

  9. kelda/Deborah : that’s great and you clearly write very successful, very literary stories that go where you want them to go.

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