To genre or not to genre

What happened when you saw the main image on this post? Did you automatically think palm trees and cows?

Humans love to organise, categorise and classify. Slapping a label on things helps us make sense of the world, and prevents us from becoming overwhelmed by it. The publishing industry is no different. There is a preference to categorise authors – mystery, romance, literary, science fiction, speculative fiction. Apparently they like authors to ‘stick to their genre.’ Failing to do so might confuse readers, not to mention the marketing team.

I can’t blame you for trying to categorize me. It’s a human instinct. It’s why scientists are, to this day, completely flabbergasted by the duck-billed platypus: it’s furry like a mammal, but lays eggs like a bird. It defies conventional classification.

Jeff Garvin, Symptoms of Being Human
Categories can be hot air,
Instrument Museum, Prague

It’s an interesting perspective given one of the other key pieces of advice for writers is to read widely across genres. Reading improves vocabulary, teaches us how to build narrative structure and tension, create interesting characters, and construct dialogue. Reading broadly also provides inspiration. If our creativity is enhanced from reading across genres, the result presumably includes some leakage from what we absorb to what we produce. Novel ideas emerge and the genre lines start to blur.

I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. It’s an absorbing read as well as a great title. A saga about postwar Britain told from the perspective of a single family over four generations. I was captivated by Atkinson’s use of language. Her writing is elegant, poetic and humorous. The story is an expertly plotted, time skipping narrative with rich three dimensional characters. It is rare that a novel will bring me to tears, but some of main character Teddy Todd’s reflections on life did just that.

A God in Ruins is a historical fiction novel written by an author previously best know known by her mystery writing about protagonist detective Jackson Brodie, and her earliest works were family sagas. Atkinson has definitely not stuck to her knitting. She is an author who is unbound by genre conventions, rules and categories. She even makes reference to the genre box in A God in Ruins when Viola, Teddy’s writer daughter is on her way to a literary festival in Singapore.

…she was also down for a couple of panel events as well. The role of the writer in the contemporary world, popular versus literary, a false divide. Something like that.

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins
Image: Jacqui Stockdale, Mann of Quinn from the series The Boho – 2015, Adelaide Biennial of Art, 2016. Art Gallery of South Australia.

Atkinson is not alone in the endeavour of writing in different genres. She keeps the company of well known names such as Stephen King (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and suspense); Margaret Atwood (children’s books, literary novels, speculative and historical fiction); and JK Rowling (children’s and adult mystery)

I love that Atkinson has written what takes her creative interest, rather than what might be expected, regardless of genre, and she done it always using her own name.

Would you be brave enough to defy a genre category?

Palm Trees and Cows, Epi Island, Vanuatu

2 thoughts on “To genre or not to genre

  1. Mandy Paul

    I was also really interested that Atkinson was permitted by the industry to stray from detective fiction into ‘literary fiction’. I though both Life after Life and God in Ruins were fabulous – and was then disappointed by her detective fiction. So, you can’t tell how it’s going to go..
    Go on, defy genre categories!


    Liked by 1 person

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