A writer wanted to find out what made genre novels genre novels, so she spent a few weeks borrowing a ton of them from the library to see if she could identify the tropes, or the style, or whatever it was that made, say, fantasy different from romance. Her surprising finding was:

Genre seemed like little more than a letter on the spine, pretty much imperceptible to the naked eye… if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead.

She goes on to discuss the other definition of genre: that it’s a marketing tool (you liked this, so you’ll like this) designed to make choosing books easier for readers. There is some interesting stuff in the comments, including a long explanation of the importance of having science fiction as a separate genre (actually, I’m not sure if that is what the commenter was trying to establish, but the notion that once you have assumed the cloak of a specific genre you are “allowed” to do stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise is interesting, if slightly strange. I’d have thought the main criterion for being allowed to try anything crazy in fiction is whether you have the ability to pull it off convincingly and entertainingly but there you go).

The article’s a follow-up to this one, when the same author addressed the question of why so many “literary” writers are moving into genre. Supposedly agents and publishers are requesting thrillers and romances from writers who have previously only produced what is called “literary fiction.” Thing is, there can be few more despicable expressions in the language than “literary fiction,” so it would be kind of delightful if that died as a label. How about just “fiction” instead?

Sort-of relatedly, there were a couple of pieces on The Rumpus a while back that responded to a review in the NYT of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Zone One is a zombie thriller but Colson Whitehead is apparently a literary novelist; the NYT’s reviewer Glen Duncan began his analysis with: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.” Which… well, The Rumpus puts the objections to it better than I could, but it’s fairly mean and generally a dumb thing to say, right? Although, reading it did convince me that it might be fun to get hold of a copy of Zone One; it says things like:

Gosh, hold that thought; I’ll come back with a quotation in a minute because I am struck anew by how offensive the review actually is. Duncan seems so pleased with his rather dull intellectual/porn star analogy that he continually refers to it throughout the review; further, he blithely ridicules the intelligence of fans of genre novels, smugly observing that:

horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have [Whitehead] on their radar. He has my sympathy. I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront.

OK whatever; the book does actually sound great: cutting out the needless snark, we have:

There are moments of Boschean mayhem. Heads are shot and lopped off. There’s at least one (Freudianly amped-up) evisceration. The sweepers trade mordant one-liners, and the skels shuffle and suppurate and tear the living to pieces whenever they can get their teeth into them… in the action sequences we get essayistic asides and languid distentions, stray insights, surprising correspondences, ambivalence, paradox. We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape.

This was the information I actually needed from the review: it turns out that when a (for want of a better expression) literary writer takes on a genre, the results can be interesting. Good.

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