Defining genres

Leo Benedictus was at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival in 2018 to talk about breaking rules and pushing boundaries alongside Jacob Ross and Louise Welsh. Here he muses on the importance of genre definitions – or the lack thereof.

There is a little speech I find myself giving, when someone asks what kind of books I write. “Publishers call it literary fiction,” I say. “It basically means novels that aren’t thrillers, or romances, or sci-fi, or something else. It’s the stuff that doesn’t sell.” I spare us both the embarrassment of what “literary fiction” really means. It means I think I’m an artist.

So when my second novel, Consent, went out to publishers, I was surprised that people started calling it “a thriller”. In retrospect, I am surprised I was surprised. The book tells the story of a stalker and his victim. I meant it to be very frightening. I’ve not read many thrillers, but the resemblance should not have been hard to see. Nor was it unwelcome, altogether. If Consent could be called a thriller, it seemed I might be better paid for it, so I kept my surprise to myself. Now I’m booked to speak at a crime writing festival. These things get quickly out of hand.

Some people say that only snobbery preserves a distinction between literary fiction and the rest. I don’t agree. I think the distinction is clear. It just isn’t very useful – and is frequently misused – because it describes something you can’t see on the page. Literariness is an intention. It exists only in the minds of authors, a mysterious place, especially for authors themselves.

Because when writing a novel, you face one question above all others. Why am I doing this? Is it for readers, or for myself? Both, may be the answer you want to give. But in practice, over and over, you are forced to decide. Do you use an unusual word that delights you, or find a better known alternative? Do you want people to consider your ideas and admire your craftsmanship, or would you rather not distract them from the story? Should the book be easy to read, with a hook at the beginning, a twist in the middle, and a satisfying end? Or can it have longueurs, moments of strangeness, that release their pleasures slowly, if at all?

Every novel is made from choices like these, and if it were possible to list and study them, we would see whether most faced out or in. If you write mainly for yourself, it is a literary novel. It may please others, but that isn’t what you wrote it for. Novels written to please other people are non-literary. They naturally tend to repeat what has been popular before, and as a result they mingle into streams, which we call “thrillers”, “romances”, “space operas” and so on.

In practice, the distinction muddies easily. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy uses the pattern of detective fiction, but was made with literary choices, it seems to me. And let’s not kid ourselves. It is more prestigious to be an artist than an artisan, and some novelists write with that in mind. Their books resemble literary novels, but aren’t, because of course they too are trying to please an audience. As a result, their novels often form new streams. Right now, quasi-memoirs, some of them excellent, are enjoying much commercial and critical success. But if you write one because you know this, it isn’t literary. You are not writing for yourself.

At first glance, challenging avant-garde novels seem to guarantee their author’s literary intentions, because nobody would write one to be popular. On the other hand, for the same reason, this is the genre you would expect to attract people who yearn for literary prestige. Not caring what readers think and trying to look that way are – obviously – quite hard to tell apart.

Which is why it’s best not to worry about the word literary. Yes, it is a badge that means something, but we can’t pin it anywhere. Not even on ourselves.

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