Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Genre Pecking Order Comes into Play, Even When the Author is Trying to Subvert It--Another View of "Laura Rider's Masterpiece."

I’m always thinking about how folks respond to genre fiction. I recently wrote about us talking to customers about science fiction, and why a lot of indie bookstores have trouble keeping a good section. Now I want to broach a section that many indie bookstores avoid even mentioning—romance.

I’ve talked to a few customers about why the section isn’t at the Downer store. In fact, the bigger names are mixed into fiction. One was looking for books in the style of Catherine Coulter; another liked Connie Briscoe. I’m actually working on some sort of plan that might help sales, or at least test to see which sales are there. I’ve already had to poke through fiction looking for certain authors for a customer. I’d like to save this discussion for when I actually do something about it.

This prejudice certainly extends to critical reception. I think it's fair to address your audience in terms of thier expectations, and it’s also fair to say that there is a lot of by-the-numbers publishing that calls for reviews not on individual titles but on authors. You like Stuart Woods or you don’t. Vince Flynn is your cup of tea or he isn’t. But it’s the profile of the series that makes a difference to the reader, more than if book five is better than book four.

But the real prejudice to me comes out in literary fiction that plays with genre, in a way, breaking the rules but still usurping the form. I think this is called genre-bending, or at least that’s what I call it.

Adding a crime and its detection, doesn’t seem to affect the status of lit fiction at all, especially if you focus on the psychological underpinnings. Adding sf elements sends a novel into the realm of the speculative, with numerous people arguing over which case it goes in, but young writers have done much to elevate this technique. Plus you always have 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to fall back on.

There are unwritten rules for literary fiction too. Read Michael Chabon’s essay on the elements of the modern short story in his Maps and Legends, now out in paperback.

Steve Hely touches on these structural conventions, both for commercial and literary novelists, in his upcoming novel How I Became a Famous Novelist, the advance copy of which is making the rounds of my booksellers (and somehow veered into the Starbucks next door). I’m not writing about it more, as it’s not out for two months, Jason would suggest you have us call you when it comes in.

But romance? Romance is the prissiest of genres. Writers should wash their hands of it. It’s most tarnished by the factory assembly lines of Harlequin and Silhouette, for many years, the same company, different lines. And I’m not sharing in the trashing. Not only do their series serve a purpose, but it’s my thesis that great works are possible within very strict structural requirements. Isn’t that a basic writing school exercise?

Who’s going to write about that? And who’s not going to be tarnished by a literary writer playing with the genre, unless they ultimate give it wide birth and show their disdain. That’s the problem with today’s review in the Journal Sentinel for Laura Rider’s Masterpiece. (OK, there’s another problem: it didn’t mention our event on May 6th).

I’ve had several good reads on the book, all of them from women staffers. One friend came into the shop, telling me she was afraid to read Hamilton’s new book, because, well, she didn’t really like When Madeline was Young. It turns out she loved it and bought another copy for a friend. I think you have to go into Laura Rider’s Masterpiece with the understanding that this is a book that can’t be rushed through for deadline, event though it reads very quickly. There’s a lot of structural and thematic playfulness that needs some time to savor.

It’s a story that defies expectations of who Jane Hamilton is, and that’s always a tough thing for any writer, genre or literary. Think of all the mystery writers like Martha Grimes, who tired of writing bestselling mysteries and wrote a string of novels. Even when she returned to the genre, her sales never returned to former levels. Every writer who makes his or her mark with dark drama eventually wants to write a comedy. It almost always comes off as a blot on their bibliography.

This is not a rebuttal to Fischer’s review. Not to be sexist but if I were you, I’d probably go to a woman for a critique on this book before making a decision. I’ve had a number of reads on this book and I just don’t think he got it.
Jane Hamilton will be appearing at Boswell Book Company on Wednesday, May 6th, at 7 PM, as part of our grand opening week.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Thanks for this insight. I love Jane Hamilton and have enjoyed just about every one of her previous novels. But this one...I was a little leery about it. I'm going to give it a try and hope to be at the event next week!