Falling through the genre cracks and finding Wonderland

COV_CouriersNewBicycle.inddI know a writer who turns her books face out on the shop shelves wherever and whenever she can, and this week I admit I’ve done my personal equivalent of that: sneaking a copy of my freshly published second novel out of Science Fiction and into the Crime Fiction section of various local bookshops. If I had my druthers, I’d stash another copy under Australian Authors and one in Literary Fiction too, though usually, there aren’t that many copies to spread around – and it would make me too obvious in my nefarious activity.

So why bother? Because The Courier’s New Bicycle is a hybrid creature – a genre amalgam, but who would know from the bookshop shelf arrangement by genre, as if being in one category denies the possibility of the others?

My book rep tells me my real problem is that my surname begins with ‘W’. Chastened, I scuff my boot against her bag hung on the café chair. If only I’d had the perspicacity of Jim Grant, who, with a clear and canny eye to his future as an author, carefully gathered together the correct letters and syllables to make his nom de plume, and turned himself into Lee Child.

About labelling, I remember the first short story competition I sent a story to. Its requirements were that the writing be ‘speculative’. I thought, well, my stuff’s that. At the time, I didn’t realise how the term was part of a highly structured system of categorisation: one that a writer and their writing could become permanently ententacled in, despite the term itself being a superfluity, all fiction surely speculative. Anyway, this first story won that competition, then one called an Aurealis, and my trajectory as a writer of speculative fiction was set.

My first novel, The Daughters of Moab, was published in 2008 by HarperVoyager, and so it came out with a science fiction label. I preferred to call it poetic apocalyptic, a descriptor I’d come up with in an effort to flag to readers something of the style and substance of its interior, which was a conglomerate of SF, mythology and the supernatural, all with a literary bent, its bedrock being the land – a post-apocalyptic Terra Australis – and its preoccupations being with humanity’s capacity for destruction and equal instinct to survive.

Fiction that crosses genre lines runs the risk of not being judged on its own terms, but according to the label it comes with, preconceptions firmly attached. The Daughters of Moab, viewed through the lens of science fiction, was critiqued accordingly – and more often than not it vexed expectations, the prose deemed too obfuscatory for the genre. And while I maintained that a broader readership might get something out of a dose of the poetic mixed with the apocalyptic, apparently the story’s SF label made it too lowbrow for literary inspection.

I remember how my first-time novelist’s ego plunged like a bungy jumper into a bucket when (I shan’t say a close family member) saw the book cover’s shout line, Assassin. Protector. Blood Sister… and said, ‘If you write something like that, you have to expect a lot of people won’t want to read it’. Sadly, my close family member wasn’t wrong – labelling and shelf allocation all but killing a broader interest; and alas, the novel fell through the genre cracks.

By now you’re thinking I’m dark on labels. In fact I like labels, and sorting things. Some (family members) would say it’s my anally retentive Virgo nature coming to the fore, but I think labelling was invented to help everybody, not just me, organise a confusing world.

One of my favourite activities as a kid was to put all the animals from my big bag of plastic creatures into groups. Sometimes it was according to kind – farm animal, wild animal, mythological animal, etc; other times it was by biggest to littlest or best to worst; and other times it was according to the new alliances and friendships each had made with the others while I was off eating my breakfast. Eventually abandoning my bag of animals, I went on to list making and room tidying, my clothes drawers organised by colour and my files alphabetically. This, I said to myself, was so I could find things. Little did I know that this entirely sensible rationale would return later in life to bite me in the bum.

Back to the genre amalgam that is The Courier’s New Bicycle. I’m happy to report Australian Bookseller+Publisher has described it as ‘a disturbingly credible and darkly noir post-cyberpunk tale’. This quote-worthy phrase opens up the field of interest: the ‘noir’ a nod to crime fiction, the ‘cyberpunk’ to SF, and the ‘credible’ to current societal aptness. Hopefully, it will spur a variety of readers into wanting to know more about a bike courier and accidental sleuth who has a mystery to solve in the alleyways of a dystopian Melbourne just around the socio-political corner from now, despite the book’s despatch solely to the SF shelves steering it too towards the genre cracks. Which brings me to Venn diagrams.

Unlike fractions (those sharp-edged and unyielding divisions that caused me no end of pain), the circles that I learnt about in primary school geometry class, their intersections alluringly shaded, hinted at a world with grey areas, ambiguities. These days I wonder if my fascination for Venn diagrams was because I knew from quite young that I was attracted to girls as well as boys, desire floating in an as yet unnamed place, and those grey areas speaking to me of the possibilities that might live inside me and at the interstices of things. This might explain, in part, the gravitational pull cross-genre writing has always had on me, and maybe now’s the time to mention that Salisbury Forth, the primary protagonist in The Courier’s New Bicycle, is happily gender androgynous.

I don’t remember when I stopped believing in the binary labelling system currently used to decide sex and divide gender, and began to see both as continuums with any number of identity positions along them; but a non-intersecting binary now seems as blunt and flawed an instrument of categorising as the labelling system used, say, to keep literary and genre content apart.

An either/or world is a brittle, lifeless creature. The pleasure that sorting animals gave me as a kid was also the pleasure of re-sorting; that is, the freedom to change perspective and make endless rearrangements in the order of things. In my fiction I go to the grey areas and in-between places because they hold the most promise. And for those willing to read a novel that slips between the genre cracks, there’s always the possibility of finding wonderland.

Read more from Kim Westwood at her website.

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  1. I was just talking to a smart fellow who works with ebooks and he made the point that genre fiction does well in electronic formats because, without the physicality of a bookshop, readers are guided by the recommendations of the site and they depend in metadata, which much more accurately describes books that stay within tight genre conventions. If you like one sexy vampire novel, you’re quite likely to enjoy another. But metadata can’t really capture what makes a particular literary novel enjoyable — how do you tag, say, an effective prose style?
    In other words, I think the pressure to fit into narrow constraints is only going to grow.

  2. I guess there always has been and possibly always will be stories that travel the rumour and gossip mills, such as those read by popular culture enthusiasts and addicts, and stories that \fill ones bookshelves … that should be read\ (\Universities in Ruins\), and those that \fall … through the genre cracks\, and those which beg and compound a more powerful reading experience by covering and subverting all fields simultaneously (Don Quixote being a fine example).

  3. I was thinking about this the other day. “Re-sorting” and the overlapping of Venn diagrams is exactly what can’t be captured by a hierarchical taxonomy – i.e. categories and subcategories – like a set of bookshelves. A book can only be placed on one shelf – unless you are going to spread them around different areas of the bookstore – a good idea for an author but unmanageable for a bookseller trying to manage stock. With an online bookstore, though, taaxonomies don’t have to be hierarchical – they can work by attribute tagging. It’s not any harder or more expensive for a book to be listed as both SF and crime.

    Jeff’s point about metadata relates I think to the kind of crude purchase-behaviour algorithms e.g. “people who bought this book also bought that” which is usually something obvious you already own, or something irrelevant. Since the technology is new, there may be a chance for more interesting taxa and search functions to be created.

    The Small Demons model is quite interesting (smalldemons.com – they’re still in beta but I think they’re quite free with the invites) – you can search for things in the books – people mentioned, locations, etc. I wouldn’t use it myself but it shows how new possibilities are opening up.

    What I’d really like is some kind of ‘influence map’ of writers. I’m thinking of that charming SF diagram (http://babilkulesi.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/wardshelley_scifiSmaller.jpg) that did the rounds a while ago – but a more systematic model, verified against sources (letters from writers, scholarly attribution of influence etc). Of course the data couldn’t be auto-generated or crowd-sourced – I imagine it would have to be maintained by scholars (or heavily moderated at least). But that would be a great tool for exploring literary history.

    1. I don’t mean just for SF of course – such a system should be for all literature. And it probably shouldn’t be an influence map of authors so much as of works. Authors’ oeuvres, literary movements, etc, could be collections of works that could also be sources of influence. You could take a particular starting point “what influenced this book” or “who was influenced by Kafka” and have 3D maps generated from the data.

      I’m thinking also of Franco Moretti and his comments about wave vs. tree models for literary history ( http://www.newleftreview.org/A2094 ) – a good system of taxonomy should not restrict itself to the tree. Of course the ‘tree’ of genre and sub-genre on bookshop shelves is a synchronic one, whereas he was talking about the (diachronic) model of national literary histories and their tendency to ignore or depreciate cross-cultural influence… but the dynamics are similar.

  4. One more thing – I think some literary databases do track influence. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing “influenced” and “influenced by” data when I last looked something up in AustLit. If there’s something similar (and authoritative) for world literature, with some kind of open-access API to get at the data, all we’d need would be a pretty data visualisation and search facility to layer over it. Could even fund the the development with referrals to a bookshop (not Amazon as they treat their workers like s***, but some other more decent online bookseller).

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