Man Booker prize head judge Andrew Motion stated that only literary fiction novels had been selected for the 2010 longlist; after all, he says, genre fiction has its own sets of awards.
So, does this mean literary fiction is genreless? Let’s look a little closer at the list…
Odds-on favourite and twice-winner Peter Carey’s entry is Parrot and Oliver in America. It has been reviewed as ‘... a dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, brilliantly evoking the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny…’ Does that mean, then, that this book is a historical novel (like the entire 2009 shortlist), or a docudrama, a romance, a comedy? No, it’s simply literary – Andrew Motion says so. I will be writing to Mr Carey to advise him of the fact that his own website might be construed as misleading.
Another strong contender is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Although on the face of it, it’s another historical novel (surprise, surprise) with a(nother) autobiographicalish romance at the heart of the plot, Mitchell has recently declared that the book, which already contains a hint of fantasy, may be the first of a trilogy that becomes increasingly science fictiony. I wonder if he should have kept that announcement until after the prize giving; Mitchell’s probably scuppered his chances now.
I maintain that genre is in the head of the person who has a desire to pigeonhole a novel and/or its author. And there’s no guarantee that any two people would agree in which genre some novels should be placed. I defy anyone to find me a novel that is of a single genre.
Take Isaac Asimov’s The Currents of Space, a book I read almost thirty years ago while I was in my ‘science fiction’ phase. If you see this on a bookshelf, no doubt it will be headed Science Fiction, or (and this hurts) Science Fiction and Fantasy. However, I dispute the fact that because the novel is set on a different planet and in the far future means that it’s Science Fiction. That kind of simplistic classification means that Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is Fantasy or Horror (ghost stories are horror, aren’t they?). The Currents of Space is in fact a mystery novel, that is also a love story, within a sci-fi shell, that has elements of colonialism, altruism, loyalty...
This type of analysis can be performed on just about any novel.
When the reader reads a novel that engages them, that satisfies them, that wows them, then they desire more of the same. In the vast majority of cases, the reader probably misidentifies why they enjoyed the book. The nearest they can get to it is to choose other works by the same author, but even then, there’s no guarantee of success. What normally happens is that they return to the genre bookshelf from which the book was selected. And this is exactly where the whole process falls down.
The stereotypical common reader is more than happy to stick with ‘their’ genre, buying only crime novels, or fantasy, or chick-lit. And yet within any so-called genre the whole gamut of writing styles and abilities is available. Many authors of what would be considered as genre fiction write in a comparable literary style to that of the writers of that nebulous non-genre literary genre.
Coming from a non-literary upbringing, I fell into reading science fiction, and read nothing but that for several years after leaving school. Of the hundreds of novels and novellas I read, some were brilliant through-and-through, some had excellent concepts but lacked decent characterisation or decent prose, and many were utter tripe. Eventually, I branched out, and now I list in my personal top ten books those written by the likes of JD Salinger, Fannie Flagg, Bill Bryson, and Piers Anthony.
Admittedly, some authors wish to be associated with commercial genres. They enjoy creating stories that consist of overtly familiar themes and plot mechanisms, and rely on a loyal readership. And that’s fine. They have found a market and are feeding it with what it wants: more of the same. The bookshop shelves help this situation. However, I believe that many readers need to be drawn out of their comfort zones and shown that they can be engaged by books from other shelves; that their horizons can be expanded almost infinitely.
I’m not saying that none of the novels on the ManBooker lists is excellent; many are. But it can be argued that they are just as ‘genre’ as those books that Andrew Motion has so-casually dismissed. Motion’s categorisations seem simplistic and outmoded – good literature is good literature no matter what the setting, nor the shelf that the bookstore selects for its display.