Why genre fiction isn’t what you think it is (and why literary fiction isn’t either)

Go into a bookshop and you might be fooled into thinking the world was simple. There’s genre fiction (crime & thriller / women’s fiction / sci-fi, fantasy, horror). And then there’s classy fiction. That slice of the market doesn’t actually go under a particular moniker – it’s not labelled as literary or contemporary or general fiction – but all book buyers know that it’s a bit posher, nevertheless.

Book covers tend to reflect this kind of genre division too. A crime cover needs to look crimey. A literary cover needs to have a little sizzle, a little class. Indeed, the basic division of genre vs literary is much more widely etched than merely in bookshops. AD Miller’s Snowdrops was that rarest of rare things: a crime novel that made it onto the Booker shortlist – something that John Sutherland, for example, thought about as likely as a ‘donkey in the Grand National.’ The prizes are different; the newspaper reviews are presented differently; the bloggers and commentators are different.

And then, surely, our reading experiences are different too. Action fiction is stuff like James Patterson writes, all bombs and car chases. Literary fiction is stuff like Alan Hollinghurst writes: demanding and thoughtful, and with not quite so many bombs.

Yet these preconceptions can be deeply misleading and may well tempt writers into writing completely inappropriate work.

Take genre first of all. When I was chatting with my New York editor about my current crime novel, I happened to mention that I’d been afraid of having taken the book too far upmarket. Yes, it has plenty of action, but it’s also stylistically innovative, has some flashes of properly literary prose and centres on a notably odd and challenging central character.

My NY editor answered with some force. She said she loved those innovations, those flashes of class. She said that they were a major reason she offered for the book and that the ‘James Patterson market was dead.’ (Not if you’re James Patterson, obviously, but debut authors in his genre don’t have his name or existing readership.) And note that my editor in NY is a crime editor through and through. She’s not a wannabe literary fiction editor; she’s strictly genre.

So, lesson one: even genre authors will strongly enhance their saleability by writing well, by innovating, by demonstrating quality as well as excitement.

The same thing is true, in reverse, of literary fiction. If we present a client’s literary novel to an agent, that agent will need to see a strong saleable core to the book. The shock-value of Emma Donoghue’s Room would be a classic example of such literary-saleability. Stephen Kelman’s cutsie-playful Pigeon English would be another example.

Are either of those books literary in the Thomas Mann sense of the word? I don’t think so. Yet they sold massively and garnered critical acclaim because they dwelled successfully in that kind of bookgroup market, where quality writing is tempered by enough fun / action / story / quirkiness to take the edge off anything too serious.

In other words, lesson two is: literary authors need to have a strong sense of the commercial in order to succeed.

These aren’t abstract lessons by any means. The Writers’ Workshop promises to present clients’ work to agents wherever we come across something that may be saleable. Assuming that a writer has come to a point where their manuscript is highly competent from a technical point of view, we then have to judge saleability. And with literary fiction, one of our crucial tests is that mass appeal factor – the Pigeon English factor, if you like. With genre fiction, we’ll be looking for something more than competence. Something remarkable, something we haven’t seen before, some little glitter of the truly dazzling.

Our success rates in finding agents varies crucially with these things. I’d say that debut literary fiction that lacks some popular ingredient for success is near to unsaleable. We probably have better success with good-but-not-dazzling genre fiction, but not much better, not in this market.

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  • Whilst I agree with the two points made, I do question your conclusion because not all authors want or need agents. .

    I walked away from traditional publishing after 13 successful books and am currently dominating the football/soccer charts on both Amazon and iTunes with my fiction and non-fiction books simply by being commercially aware and target marketing my books to my potential readership. Something I was never able to do when my books were printed solely on paper.

    As a consequence, I’m reaching more readers, selling more books and making more money than I ever did when my books say on bookshelves. So please don’t dismiss electronic publishing as some kind of poor relation which is what you seem to be doing because it’s not. For some of us, especially those of us who seek to make money from our work, it’s actually a choice.

    Indie publishing has changed everything for authors not least because those of us who publish online as I do no longer need anyone to represent our interests.

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