There are two types of fiction books—literary and genre. At least, that is what perceived wisdom seems to say. There are the ‘deep’ novels that win awards, and then there are the exciting, throwaway stories that are pure entertainment. And within the genre field, there are many subcategories, each with its own rules and guidelines, its own expectations and fan-bases.
To make it as a successful author, independent or traditionally published, many say it is best to stick to these rules and expectations. They say you should give the audience what they want. The phrase ‘write to market’ is bandied about. Some use it as a guide to success (if such a thing exists), and others decry it as an affront to artistic integrity. Most people sit somewhere between these two extremes.
But it does seem that more formulaic books find more success. I’ll mention again the Sterling and Stone team (Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright). Their most successful project is the seven-book Invasion series, written specifically to appeal to alien invasion fans. Likewise, when Chris Fox very openly wrote his Void Wraith series to fit the space opera market, he enjoyed far more success than he had done with his earlier books.
I don’t write this in any negative way. This kind of success does not mean the book were poorly written. I’ve read both Invasion and Void Wraith, and enjoyed them both.
But I far prefer their other work. Platt and Truant’s Unicorn Western is a lighthearted fantasy/cowboy mashup (although it grows more serious as it goes along), and I love it. Fox’ earlier Deathless books (Vampires Don’t Sparkle, No Mere Zombie and No Such Thing As Werewolves) manage to combine horror creatures, Egyptian mythology and sci-fi in a way I found extremely inventive and entertaining.
Yet the sales figures would suggest that I am in a minority. The more straightforward books sell more, suggesting they have a broader appeal, but I prefer those that push at the boundaries. I like stuff that takes chances. If an author is told a book won’t work, but they write it anyway, I’ll want to read it.
One of my favourite authors is the late Iain Banks. He produced books under two brands — Iain Banks for his ‘literary’ books, and Iain M Banks for sci-fi. But two of his ‘literary’ books were strong on the sci-fi, most noticeably Transition, with characters jumping between alternative realities. And his sci-fi, while being big on ideas, worked so well because of his writing. I’d rate the M Banks books as some of his finest work.
Yet, as I start on my own author journey, I am constantly receiving advice to stick with a particular genre, or a particular style of writing. I should study what works in that field, and apply it to what I’m working on. I should follow the tropes, because otherwise I will upset readers.
There are loads of these tropes. In romance, the couple have to meet at the start of the book. There should be no infidelity, and there should definitely be a happy ending.
And yet, I like Wuthering Heights, a story that has no happy ending. And look at Romeo & Juliet, one of the greatest love stories ever—it ends with the couple killing themselves, each believing the other is dead. There is no happy-ever-after.
Of course, these are love stories, not romances, and I know that if I wanted to write a romance, I would need to have a happy ending. If the story worked better with a tragic close, I’d have to rebrand it.
If I write, and I want readers, popular reasoning says I have to stay within the confines of my chosen genre.
But what of the stuff that falls between the gaps? What of the books that don’t fit squarely in one particular genre?
I think these are the more important books. Yes, many of them will not be ‘popular’, and they will not sell as well as those that meet reader expectations. But, over time, these are the books that may well mean more.
A couple of years ago I read a book called Clownfellas, by Carlton Mellick III, in which the mafia consisted of clowns, who were a different species (I think). The book was funny and violent, and definitely strange. It didn’t fit in any one category, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I recently read Mr Ruins by Michael John Grist. I thought I was going to be reading a sci-fi thriller, but the story delved into mysteries of the mind, and left me with more questions than it answered. And I loved it.
As another example, look at Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. They seem to be fantasy, but there are none of the usual range of creatures, and there is no quest. They also seem to veer from deadly serious to comedic. And yet, they are incredible (I have my reservations about the third book, but I definitely recommend the first two).
Think of Robert Prisig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Is it a story or a text-book? Is it fact or fiction? It’s both and neither, but it’s a fantastic book. I’ve read it a number of times, and on each re-reading it opens up a little more. It might not be a ‘story’, but it’s a wonderfully involving piece of writing.
Think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. There is very little ‘story’ in this book, and the descriptions (and the language used) are as important as anything that ‘happens’, maybe more so. To some people it’s horrific, but to others it’s a comedy. Ellis seems to have something to say, but he doesn’t make this obvious, and again it is a book that repays repeated readings.
And I realise, as I’m writing this, that there will be people who look at that list of books and see only ones they don’t like. They will find Zen boring, and won’t see the point of American Psycho.
That’s fine. I don’t think these books were written for everyone. The authors had a particular story to tell, and a particular way they needed to write. I think they were simply writing what they wanted (or needed) to write, regardless of audience.
So, of course, these books struggle to find a place. Of course they won’t appeal to many, at least not initially. The fact that all these books are well-known is down to how well they are written (although savvy marketing no doubt played a part, and I’m sure the subject matter of American Psycho helped it achieve a certain notoriety).
They are different. They don’t give the reader exactly what might be expected. They don’t fit neatly into a particular box.
And that is why, for some of us, these books are so successful, and have become firm favourites. The very fact that they don’t fit is a part of their appeal. Because, for all this talk of writing to market and of giving the reader what he or she wants and expects, there are many of us who want the unexpected. There are many of us who don’t want a repeat of what we’ve read before. There are many of us who simply want a good read, regardless of genre or tropes or any other standards.
Many books can be entertaining. They can thrill us and excite us, or make us hold our breaths as the characters come up against all manner of difficulties. They can draw us in with their language. But the books that stick are the ones that go beyond. The books that last are the ones that are written because they have to be.
The books that follow all the rules can be entertaining, and can be wonderful reads. But the ones that stick are the ones that go beyond expectations.