Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sex, Genre, and Rock and Roll

I feel like I ought to say something about writing sex scenes, but every comment that occurs to me seems glib, smug, pontifical, tedious, or just none of your dang business, you saucy imp. I will confess that if a sex-scene in a book that I'm reading begins to grow specific and linger too long on the details, I find myself growing impatient and muttering, "let's get on with the story, shall we?" If I want detail, I can read a Romance. If I want to read a blow-by-blow account (as it were), there's always porn.

Which brings me neatly to the topic of genre fiction. The series I am writing now is different from anything else I had ever done, not least because it is a mystery series.

Are you like me? I was an English major and an English teacher. I was into serious literature. I was taught and I believed that if it wasn't literary fiction, it couldn't impart depth of meaning. That it didn't have gravitas.

Shame on me.

I discovered mysteries only about five years before I decided to write one. I always loved historical fiction, and quite by accident I got hold of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael historical mystery series set in 12th Century England and Wales. These books are so charming and philosophical, and even poetic, that I ended up reading all twenty of them. They not only had all the elements that I love about historicals and literaries, each novel also has an incredibly clever and downright cracking mystery. I went on to read every historical mystery I could get my hands on, then every mystery, and thriller, and I was off to the genre races.

I had finally discovered that good is good, no matter what the genre. Literature is like music in that way. You may not particularly like pop music but adore Gwen Stefani. Or hate opera but get chills when you hear Callas. A master artist transcends our preconceptions.

Genre is kind of a false construct, anyway, made up largely by bookstores, as Debby said, as a marketing tool. Bookstores love to put their books into niches, but most fiction books don't really fit completely into one category or another. In truth, the categories bleed into one another. Many "literary" novels have elements of mystery or thriller, sci-fi or romance, and sometimes all of them at once.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Diana Gabeldon's Outlander series. What the heck is it? It's historical, with elements of thriller and sci-fi and romance, but since the Romance genre outsells the other categories by a large margin, the publisher decided to call it a Romance. It was a smart move, obviously.

I rather enjoy Tony Hillerman's take on the idea that "Literary" novels are superior to "Genre" novels. He said, "Literary fiction is where nothing much happens to people you don't much care about."

I might not go that far, but I suppose the type of novel you choose to read all depends on whether you want to have an existential experience, or whether you'd like to read a story that has a point.

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