Genre As A Dirty Word

When I first began reading fiction as a kid I never knew the word.  I was just happy to read The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and others of the same ilk.  (I read the second generation Swift books because the first were flat out racist and made me uncomfortable.)  In fact, I enjoyed these series so much I read and reread them and still have many ceremoniously sitting on the top of my mystery bookshelf.

Mystery bookshelf?  Why do I have one of those?  Or a science fiction bookshelf?  The same question is also relevant to my classics, modern, and non-fiction shelves.  Why aren’t they simply in alphabetical order by author?

For decades I read without even thinking of categories-let alone the word.  I was omnivorous.  I’d gobble The Foundation Series, chomp down on popular bestsellers like Hawaii or ExodusI’d finish Hawaii and move on to Christopher Isherwood, Hemmingway, and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Later I’d go from Bukowski to Harry Crews to Bernard Malamud to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (which I still imagine a great book and movie, though I haven’t revisited either in decades) to one of my all-time favorites Neuromancer.  In this sci-fi bullet train, William Gibson (known as the “Godfather of Cyberpunk”) chose not to explicate the world he creates but demands that you to buckle up and go for his ride trusting that you’ll get it.

Within all these mixes were sprinkled classics (a few), jags of nonfiction where I read everything I could find about one subject or another.  And, of course, tons of detective fiction by famous authors like Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and the not so famous like Bart Spicer, Max Byrd, Brad Solomon, and Stephen Greenleaf.  (In one of these posts, I’ll dig more deeply into detective fiction authors and their influences on my books.  Though it might take a while since, at the moment, I haven’t much of a clue.)

Until I began my own writing career I never really gave the word much thought.  Though, by that time I was in my 40’s, and finally realized that genre was somehow less than literature, despite a definition that is not particularly pejorative.  “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”

Benign enough.  But definitions don’t always marry reality.  Is a symphony inferior to a quartet?  Most wouldn’t think so.  Is rock music inferior to classical?  Hmmm, now the critics start yammering.  And if you translate this to literary equivalents, you’d have the same arguments.  Or at least quietly smug, smirky looks.  Genre books are always considered a lower rung on the writing ladder.

So I began to wonder why I was choosing detective fiction which, though elastic, really fits the word’s definition.  Was I afraid to stare at a blank computer screen without any structure to serve as a safety net?  Did I consider myself less a writer than those who strive to write “literary” novels?

For a while there, the questions kicked up a real block.  But then I reread Red Harvest and realized that if I could tell a story halfway as well as Hammitt, I would be lucky.  I picked up The Long Goodbye and decided that if I could pen sentences as descriptive as Chandler, I didn’t give a shit what my books were called.

And then I took it further.  If I were going to be labeled a genre writer, I was going to do everything possible to stretch the boundaries.  Sure, I’d use a generalized detective fiction structure where plot was important, but the heart of what I was writing about had to do with relationships, characters and their interactions.  Themes.  Those were important to me and would be at the heart of every book I’d write.

It also didn’t escape my attention that relationships, characters and their interactions are the meat and potatoes of every novel.  Which brought me to the point where I am now.  A novel that contains these ingredients, that explores them intimately, that is written well, that reveals something to its reader, and makes the reader feel–that’s a good book.  And if the author does enough of it beautifully, it’s a great book.  No matter its classification.

But it’s a funny world we live in.  People feel a need to categorize damn near everything.  During my last literary go-round, I repeatedly heard I wrote “airplane books” or “beach reads,” that is, books to toss once you finished ’em.  It usually wasn’t meant to be mean; ironically it often came on the heels of people telling me how much they enjoyed one of them.  But truthfully, despite my stalwart belief mentioned above, it used to bother me, made me angry or sad.

I can’t say whether I succeeded with my goals in my previous Matt Jacob books, or whether I’ll succeed when I write him out of retirement.  And while Matt and I are much older now, with eyes that look upon the world with a different perspective, both of us still think our hearts are in the same place about the interpersonal issues I care about.  And we both agree those issues will always be the guts of my books.

But while writing the Matt Jacob books, I learned something I had never before realized.  No matter the genre, whether it’s a bad book, or one that wasn’t even published, I have huge respect for anyone who takes the time and effort to write a complete beginning, middle, and end.

It really is that hard.

“A bad book is as much a labour to write as a good one, it comes as
sincerely from the author’s soul.” Aldous Huxley

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