Generalising Genre

The city of Melbourne has exploded in the past week or so with literary events like Reading Matters, The Emerging Writers’ Festival and Express Media’s National Young Writers’ Month. In many of the events that I have been to have ended up on the topic of genre classifications. Are they necessary? Or should fiction avoid the arguable trap of being labelled with a genre? On Monday night, I went along to a panel for the Emerging Writers’ Festival: Get into Genre:Young Adult. Host Andrew McDonald discussed the conventions, joys and downfalls of young adult fiction with the State Library’s (and blogger Persnickety Snark) Adele Walsh and YA authors Tim Pegler and Fiona Wood. The speakers discussed the need for honesty and the need to be direct when writing for a young adult audience. I’m not suggesting that either of these traits is a negative thing, or something that should only be used for younger readers. In fact, with most adults pleading ‘too busy’ as an excuse for poor reading habits, honest, quality, to the point writing seems like something that all fiction should be striving to mimic, rather than patronising it and putting it to the side for ‘young’ readers.

Last night was Dirty Words, and Linda Jaivin , in a mini debate against Harlequin Publishing Executive Haylee Kerans, argued that ‘Erotic Fiction’ should be banished from the face of the earth. “Why” she argued “should ‘erotic’ fiction not just be ‘fiction’ in the same way that a ‘female’ poet should just be a ‘poet'”. This idea echoes the debate that has been raging through the book community of late, surrounding the possible introduction of an Australian Orange Prize for Women. (you can read a brilliant post on this issue here by Literary Minded’s Angela Meyer) Why should we classify genre? Surely all ‘good’ fiction should transcend genre barriers to be appealing to readers. Some argue that it is an arbitrary marketing tool. Perhaps. But it seems to me, that from a purely financial perspective, that publishers would prefer to be able to sell across genres, readerships and age groups, giving them the opportunity to sell more books. Perhaps some authors like to be writing to a genre. Certainly, there are conventions within each genre that pull particular groups of books together, and while some are good enough and strong enough to stand on their own, it would be naive to think that there are not writers working strictly to a formula to increase their chance of sales and ‘success’. Could it be that we are not classifying the book so much as we are classifying the reader? Although we might wince at the idea of a book being classified by it’s genre or cover, there is something to be said for making ‘guided suggestions’ to readers who know what they like, and are more likely to continue reading if they can easily find what they are looking for. And although there is undeniably an attitude from some to those who read (or write) in particular genres, more and more we see open minded readers making smart choices, discussing books and opening their attitudes to other recommendations. Most adults I know are just as happy to read a YA novel as they are to read crime or romance (in many cases happier). And there are plenty of young adults reading adult fiction. We see books leaping out of their once limiting genres (take ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ which once upon a time would only have been known by the extensive but insular group of crime readers) and been passed frantically around offices and book clubs. Walk into a bookshop to buy the hit adult book ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ by Steven Amsterdam, but pick up a VCE book list and realise that as a set text the book is being read and discussed by a large young adult audience. It is dangerous for anyone to be limited by their classifications, reader and writer alike. The idea that being a part of a genre is no different to belonging to a community. It might bring you closer to like minded people, give you access to the activities that interest you, but is in no way the RULE. The best fiction often plays with these barriers, and as engaged and interested readers, it is our responsibility to play right back.

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