Fiction

Literature is split into two main camps: literary and commercial (or genre). Or that’s the general conception. Both forms come with their connotations, and as most binaries do, they fit into a hierarchy. Literary fiction is high culture and commercial or genre is low. Annie Neugebauer addresses many of the stigmas associated with genre or commercial fiction like the idea that it’s “trashy” and less intellectual than literary fiction.[1] What’s important here is the “less than,” that genre or commercial fiction isn’t as valuable as literary fiction and therefore that its readers are also seen as less than – less intelligent and less cultured. Nathan Bransford believes there’s a hybrid form that borrows the strongest elements from both literary and commercial forms, which offers an interesting compromise but one the old-school literary critics would balk at.[2] Heaven forbid that the precious literary canon be tainted by fantasy, sci-fi, mystery or romance. In fact, there are many examples of literary fiction that is rooted in genre, past and present. Jane Austen was a romance writer and Kazuo Ishiguro delves into fantasy.[3] [4] By exploring the differences between literary and commercial fiction and their stigmas with some case studies I will argue the validity of genre fiction for the literary whole using the specific example of science fiction.

First, lets break down the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Neugebauer claims that the primary difference between the two is that commercial fiction is for entertainment while literary fiction is art.[5] Anita Mason claims that “a literary novel is governed by nothing – […] not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.”[6] It’s that whole art for arts sake thing. Neugebauer counters this by saying that it’s a myth that commercial fiction isn’t deep and that it’s always simple.[7] Elizabeth Edmondson argues that literary fiction was just a marketing ploy set up by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and “therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.”[8] Edmondson goes on to say that good fiction, of any kind, is when “the imagination of the writer speaks directly with the imagination of the reader,” and she goes on to say that the purpose of a book is to entertain and captivate, not to have issues shoved down your throat or “be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.”[9] I believe that’s the difference between good and bad writing, period. If a book is obvious and in your face about its intended message, or is in any way pedantic, it immediately becomes less appealing. And to counter the idea of Mason’s that a literary novel doesn’t require comprehensibility is Bransford with his claim that literary fiction should most definitely have a plot.[10] A character “musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence” written with ornate prose is extremely boring if nothing is happening.[11] Although Bransford does make the point that plot happens on the surface when it comes to commercial fiction and beneath the surface for literary fiction.[12]

So why is commercial or genre fiction so bad? The literary critics go as far as to scream horror and the downfall of culture and reading when the “It novel” of the year (2014) has the “’tone, language, and story [that] belong in children’s literature.’”[13] This is in reference to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in an article by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair. The book is apparently not complex enough, it is absurd and has no sense of reality or authenticity – and that’s what makes a book a work of literary fiction.[14] To me this is just simple literary snobbery. If it’s approachable and accessible the high-brow critics aren’t fond of it because it spoils the game of their elite literary club. The requirement of a certain level of education, a certain level of understanding, and a certain connection to a community of people are locked doors that only certain people have access to, and only certain people should have access to – in the elite’s humble opinion. In a blog entry from Kvetch of the Day, Vivian comments on the snobbery of literary elitists, and claims that “literary fiction” in fact often falls into formulaic fiction.[15] They define formulaic fiction as “fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre,” and in this case she makes the claim that “literary fiction” is its own genre of literature, as much a mystery or romance is.[16] The rules of the literary fiction genre that they lay out include, but are not limited to, a “lyrical” writing style, plenty of symbolism and a recurring image or two, also chocked with symbolism – and if it lacks either then it is a “slice-of-life vignette” that can be described as “stark” and “gritty” by reviewers.[17] And of course, the final rule: that there’s no need for a satisfying ending.[18] The lit crit snob wants a “serious” piece when they’re reading Literature (with a capital “L”), and the entertainment factor is a drawback.[19] Which if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Yes, we read to learn and to expand our minds, but we also read to be entertained. Being entertained engages the reader in a different way, it allows them a space to play with ideas and keep their mind open. When authors do it right, this is when they can slip in more complex ideas that challenge the reader.

While The Goldfinch is not clearly dabbling in genre fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is. Ishiguro’s novel is a “full-on excursion into fantasy” and the author worried that readers wouldn’t follow him with this novel because of their prejudices against the surface elements.[20] Here is a case where someone who is classified as a “literary” writer is using “fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.”[21] Ishiguro claims that the combination of literary fiction and fantasy enables him to achieve things that frank blank realism couldn’t.[22] This was also an opportunity for him to put issues in a setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss it as a “a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East,” that it would force them to look at bigger picture questions of humanity.[23]

It’s particularly science fiction that is used as a vessel for these “literary” questions. Mandy Chew writes how “science fiction has always been a platform to explore social issues in a veiled environment,” and gives the examples of Ender’s Game which deals with child labor and slavery, Elysium that addresses health care and SnowPiercer that explores climate change and social classes.[24] It’s often the case that sci-fi stories have “underlying social discussions at the heart of their content.”[25] Anita Mason gives the example of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which is rooted in genre but has all the qualities of a literary novel.[26] Mason describes the book as having writing that is spare, a tight structure, “the observation of the human condition is both profound and impish. Character is crucial. The issues are huge and we feel the weight of them,” and this novel was nominated for the Man Booker.[27] Yet, it’s based in science fiction. How can you then brand an entire genre as simple entertainment?

Stephen Marche’s article in Esquire agrees that “the forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.”[28] He also points out that Conan Doyle, Jim Thompson and Stanislaw Lem weren’t seen as literary geniuses in their time but now their works are considered great literature.[29] Perhaps the snobbery towards genre fiction of today will wane with time as well. Marche also makes the point that “there are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books,” and that most importantly both literary fiction and genre fiction can possess any of these qualities.[30] What genres like sci-fi or fantasy offer is complete freedom for the writer to explore ideas outside the scope of literary realism, “where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.”[31]  Kvetch of the Day’s article says that “the important part about art is breaking the rules,” and so by entwining genre fiction with literary, or simply giving what we classify as “genre” fiction a better look we are breaking the genre rules of literary fiction – and therefore creating art, which is what literary fiction is all about.[32]

 

[1] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” Annie Neugebauer. July 16, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2012/07/16/what-is-commercial-fiction/

[2] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” Nathan Bransford, February 26, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary

[3] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[4] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[5] Annie Neugebauer. “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction.” Annie Neugebauer. January 27, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/

[6] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” The Guardian. April 22, 2014. Accessed on October 19, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/22/genre-fiction-literary-centre-anita-mason

[7] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” 2012.

[8] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Evgenia Peretz, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism

[14] Ibid.

[15] Vivian, “’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” Kvetch of the Day. September 30, 2011. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mandy Chew, “Why We Need Science Fiction.” The Medium, June 20, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/why-we-need-science-fiction-7ee0ac3bfdc3

[25] Ibid.

[26] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Stephen Marche, “How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction.” Esquire, March 11, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Vivian,“’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” 2011.

Writing books is a tough business.

Selling books is an even tougher business.

The world of marketing has been going through a lot of changes over the past decade thanks to technological advances. Advertisements are less effective, competition is higher than ever, and people’s attentions are split between so many things. Media types sit on a vast range now, and the scope of the world just grows.

What was thought to be effective marketing ten years ago is barely mentioned now.

In April of 1997, an article in the New York Times proclaimed that advertisements for TV was the new way to sell books. It had just reached a time where TV ads were affordable, audiences were reachable, and book publishers were getting excited to jump on the new platform. Not only were publishers competing with each other, they were competing with other entertainment and media: internet, television, and movies. So, expanding into the new frontier of marketing was sensible, and necessary.

It meant learning a whole new form of advertisement. “The challenge that we face is that the advertising has to be entertaining, especially in the movie theatres. It’s as much entertainment as the movies,” the article says (Carvajal).

This is a pretty humorous article to read considering books rarely touch TV now. Maybe the author gets a televised interview somewhere–but a commercial? Unlikely.

According to one experiment run by a non-fiction author, which ran a tv ad for a new book for 10 days, the conversion rates of impressions to customers is terrible. The author measured it by having the commercial direct viewers to a specific website and enter their email. “The commercials created a total of 8.3 million impressions but led to only 112 website visits…. Even worse, a mere 40 people filled in the … form requesting name and email to receive the two free chapters.” (Ford).

With such a low conversion rate, it’s no wonder book trailers on TV are so rare, if they ever appear. The costs do not justify the returns.

In a world where book competition is massive and consumer attention to platforms advertising books is infinitesimal, it almost seems like actually creating awareness of and selling a new book is impossible (ignoring, of course, books from names with already-established huge followings). Most book publishers are cornered with such razor-thin profit margins and slim marketing budgets that taking a risk on new marketing strategies that might cost a buck or two is just not considered.

Nowadays it seems more and more like a books marketability is entirely dependent on an author’s established platform. “In the old world… [a]uthors created the product and relied on their publishing company to market it. But that world is dead. That doesn’t mean that publishing companies expect [authors] to do everything. But it does mean that they are more effective if [authors] have a platform already in place.” (Hyatt).

Now while the branding of the author and the ability of the author to sell by having a following is great and makes sense in some cases, it does not create a very inviting atmosphere for newer authors and, to me, does not seem like a very healthy ecosystem for publishers to thrive in.

How can a publisher take a work of fiction from an unknown author with no platform and turn it into a relatively decent success in sales?

How can a publisher create awareness of a book and drive sales enough to at least break even?

According to my Management and Marketing class in SFU’s Master of Publishing program, we know that the driving force of creating title awareness in a customer base is word of mouth. This is corroborated by a study done by GoodReads, which reported: “One of the biggest things we learned—or should we say confirmed—is the power of word of mouth. Searching for titles on Goodreads is the top way people find books for their to-read shelves. That means they first heard of it elsewhere—likely from friends or the media.” (Brown). This study also shows recommendations from algorithms (Goodreads, Amazon, etc) as influential, and browsing in-store and online as big players.

If most book sales are a result of word of mouth—friends, family, coworkers, influential blog reviews, recommending books to each other—and browsing and algorithm-based recommendations, how is advertising fairing as a driving factor? According to Bruce Batchelor, not very well. (The same Management and Marketing class also states that print, broadcast, and TV advertising does not factor in very highly). “Even the largest publishing houses are quite tight with spending on display advertising—that’s the term for any ad that isn’t in the classified section—because display ads really don’t work all that well for book sales even when promoting a likely bestseller by a politician or other (in-)famous celebrity.” (Batchelor).

Essentially, advertisements aren’t a trustworthy marketing practice for books. To sell enough books warranting its print, marketers must turn to other strategies.

One of my fears about the trade fiction publishing world is that books will live and die by the whim of the algorithm, and what little control a publisher seems to have of noticeability will be wrested from their fingers. Publishers will throw in the relevant info about the book and have to bank on a confluence of digital forces to resolve into that title becoming a suggestion for a certain browser. Playing in the digital space limits the flexibility in tactic a publisher has to draw attention to their title. The algorithm dominates. A little bit of self-feeding popularity loop with a dash of randomization.

One company sprouted to try and combat this inherent issue with the digital suggestion algorithm, a company that has conceptualized a program called BOOKSAI, an Artificial Intelligence book recommendation program that relies less on the “people who bought also bought” method in favour of a different philosophy for recommendation.

They claim that the traditional recommendation setup reinforces an elitist selection of books where few books tap into a torrent of momentum that lifts them to massively popular status, and most books are left in the dust, being unable to create awareness in the audience that would want to read them (Booksai). As well, the traditional system can be gamed by fake reviews and purchases to vault the title into mass market awareness (see the story on how Handbook for Mortals trumped The New York Times in the Donaldson article).

How BOOKSAI hopes to solve this is through an artificial intelligence that actually reads books and recommends them based on qualities such as style, attitude, mood, and tone. It aims to shift recommendations from books of similar genre or plot or by the same author, to books of similar style. From what is it written about to how it is written.

Now that isn’t a new concept. Traditionally, book recommendations have always incorporated the how factor over the what factor. However it is a new application of the concept and it’s fun to think about the effects a recommendation AI like that becoming commonplace might have on the publishing industry. Could it level out book awareness more equally and more specifically to audience target needs?

I do not think BOOKSAI is the solution I am setting out to find, however. An integral part of books is community. The shared knowledge of having read the same text connects people. This is why word of mouth is such a powerful selling force.

As well, the idea of sitting back and letting an AI pick what people read next, for the traditional algorithm and the proposed BOOKSAI algorithm both, goes against a couple basic tenets of publishing and marketing which I will describe after a brief comparison.

After Donald Trump won the USA election in November of 2016, a lot of minds turned to social media and an outpour of critical analyses of the effects of social media on the outcome of the election ensued. It was suddenly all Facebook’s fault for two reasons: fake news (Facebook did not employ a rigorous enough filtering system to ensure only the best news), and highly targeted algorithms controlling what people saw, based on their tastes. “Tens of millions of American voters gets their news on Facebook, where highly personalized news feeds dish up a steady stream of content that reinforces users’ pre-existing beliefs” (Wong, Sam, Solon). This effect created a “bubble” of news that conformed to your interests. Liberals were aghast that Trump won because they were not aware of how many people there were in alignment with Trump. Because they did not see those newsfeeds.

In the world of fiction, it’s different but similar, there are parallels. Fiction feeds ideas, creates modes of thought, enhances understanding of language. Broadens understanding of perspective, creates empathy, exposes readers to boundless viewpoints. With the approach that fiction exists not just to entertain but educate and shape and grow people and societies, the parallels suddenly start to get startlingly similar: the algorithmic approach of recommending books similar to ones we like will create closed minds and “bubbles,” if you will, of modes of thought.

The two tenets I hinted at earlier are this:

In Marketing, it is a marketer’s responsibility to create awareness of a product and educate people why they need it (Luecke). Essentially, it is the marketer’s job to create the market for the product. In book publishing, this translates to creating awareness of a book and educating people as to why they need to read it, and encouraging that need into a sale.

In Publishing, it is a publisher’s duty to distribute books (or other forms of written media) to a public/market for the sake of the betterment of society. This means pushing people out of their comfort zone to read something that otherwise would not fit into their profile of what they already like.

Together these two principles underlie why I cannot stand behind an algorithm-dominated mode of book recommendation. And hence, the problem of marketing is returned with no solution found.

I will bring back my original question: How can a publisher market a book of fiction from an author with no platform—and now expand my question—without relying on the traditional recommendation mode of similar reads and avoid an algorithm-dominated future?

The answer, I believe, holds close parallels to how publishing continues to exist in Canada at all. Much like people (cultural policy nuts) must educate about the importance of cultural content so that the government funding for books will continue, people (intellectual growth nuts) must educate about the importance of that same cultural, and intellectual, content so that people want to (creating a market) broaden their modes of thought.

The approach to this I am not sure about. With a lack of capital and a lack of effectiveness in many traditional advertising methods, it is difficult to create that awareness, that need for a book, especially with the overwhelming number of books in existence. But I will argue this: book marketing should move beyond finding the audience that wants the book to creating the audience that wants the book. Publishers must not just concern themselves with publishing books, but must also focus on ensuring the continued importance of books to a society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Batchelor, Bruce T. “Book Marketing Demystified: Enjoy Discovering the Optimal Way to Sell Your Self-published Book; Learn from the Inventor of Print-on-demand (POD) Publishing.” Agio Publishing House, 2007.

 

BOOKSAI. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. http://booksai.blogspot.ca/

 

Brown, Patrick. “How do books get discovered? A guide for publishers and authors who want their books to find an audience.” Goodreads.com. February 17, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/343-how-do-books-get-discovered-a-guide-for-publishers-and-authors-who-want

 

Carvajal, Doreen. “Promoting books via TV commercials and movie trailers has become affordable.” Nytimes.com. April 28, 1997. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/28/business/promoting-books-via-tv-commercials-and-movie-trailers-has-become-affordable.html

 

Donaldson, Kayleigh. “Updated: Did This Book Buy Its Way Onto the New York Times Bestseller List?” pajiba.com. August 27, 2017. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. http://www.pajiba.com/book_reviews/did-this-book-buy-its-way-onto-the-new-york-times-bestseller-list.php

 

Gardner, Rachelle. “Do Publishers Market Books.” Rachellegardner.com. June 30, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://rachellegardner.com/do-publishers-market-books/

 

Greenfield, Jeremy. “How Do You Discover New Books?” forbes.com. October 16, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2012/10/16/how-do-you-discover-new-books/#61ff9c0e74e4

 

Hyatt, Michael. “Four Reasons Why You Must Take Responsibility for Your Own Marketing.” Michaelhyatt.com. June 28, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://michaelhyatt.com/four-reasons-why-you-must-take-responsibility-for-your-own-marketing/

 

Kung, Lucy; Picard, Robert G; Towse, Ruth. “The Internet and the Mass Media.” SAGE. May 14, 2008.

 

Moody, Nickianne. “Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction.” Routledge. Dec 5, 2016.

 

Rust, Roland T.; Moorman, Christine; Bhalla, Gaurav. “Rethinking Marketing.” Hbr.org. Jan 2010. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://hbr.org/2010/01/rethinking-marketing

 

Wong, Julia Carrie; Levin, Sam; Solon, Olivia. “Bursting the Facebook Bubble: we asked voters on the left and the right to swap feeds.” Theguardian.com. November 16, 2016. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/16/facebook-bias-bubble-us-election-conservative-liberal-news-feed

 

Zickuhr, Kathryn; Rainie, Lee; Purcell, Kristen; Madden, Mary; Brenner, Joanna. “Part 2: Where people discover and get their books.” Libraries.pewinternet.org. June 22, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/06/22/part-2-where-people-discover-and-get-their-books/

 

 

Four books walk into a bar.

 

“Tell me something about yourself.” The bartender queries.

 

“I am a detective novel. A murder has been committed, and I must piece together a jigsaw puzzle.” The first book announces matter-of-fact, systematically arranging the toothpicks and lining up the peanuts.

 

“I am a romance novel. There are two protagonists, a central story about emotions and a guaranteed HEA.” The second book whispers. “Also, I am rich. I’ll pay everyone’s bill.”

 

“I am a suspense novel. No, I do not have a twin called Crime or Mystery.” The third book looks around covertly for its doppelganger.

 

“This is a literary book. It is everything the other three are not.” Curiously, a pre-recorded voice of a literary critic announces on behalf of the fourth book.

 

The bartender thinks a while and then promptly places a bottle of tequila in front of his patrons. “You guys have issues. You need a drink.”

 

Hell yes.

 

What is the identity of a book? It’s a loaded question and can be argued on many levels. From the book’s tangibility, to its cerebral presence, a book can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Classification of books is primarily done to establish a standardised supply chain between the author and the reader. It’s simply a means to make sure that a book reaches its actively seeking and passively unaware readers. Anyone wanting to read about World War, or about parenting, or a romance,  or about art history, will be able to identify the most probable place to look for such a book. It’s the first clue a reader has while seeking a certain book. So, for an author, it’s important to be in the right place to be found. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn’t know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn’t know where to shelve it (Vivian 2011). A category is the address where the author and the reader meet; their first point of contact. Two very distinctive addresses being literary and genre. The former is more revered, while the latter is more popular.

 

Genre fiction, which includes books like crime, suspense, mystery, romance, science-fiction, is generally considered formulaic. What is formulaic fiction? It’s the type of fiction that adheres to the pre-set parameters of a genre. Books in each category follow a certain trope and build a plot that is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t venture too far out of the prescribed lines.

 

Why do people read what they read? There are abundant of reasons, some of them better or worse than the others and many of them mutually contradictory. Some people read to pass time. Some read to savor the existence of time; sometimes to escape into someone else’s world; or to find themselves in another’s world; at times to flee from need for rational explanations; or to exercise their critical capabilities (Lesser 2014). Every reader that picks a book has some form of motivation for doing so. A book, no matter how well written, will be nothing without its reader.

 

The reader, while making a choice of reading a book, is effectively entering a contract with the author. A book is chosen based on the author’s profile, the genre, cover, description, review, possibly a sample page and sometimes serendipity. Novice readers might sometimes miss the available cues but experienced readers have developed an intuition and broad familiarity with the books and authors (Ross, Before Reading 2014).

 

The genre selected by the reader sets the benchmark for reader’s expectations. What started as a means to facilitate trade logistics – the categories, now defines the content that gets written. The publishing world self-regulates itself over a period.

 

What are these genre specific expectations?

 

Mystery readers know what to expect when they pick up a detective story. A murder has been committed, the reader is involved, along with the detective (and a possible side-kick), in sifting through clues to uncover a hidden, anterior story that happened off the pages, before the detective arrived. The writer needs to provide all evidence concerning the truth in early pages and yet, keep the reader guessing until the last page. In 1920s this genre was consolidated and rules were set. These rules specify the role of the detective and an introduction of criminal as a character. The writer needs to play fair with reader when presenting clues and use logic to solve the mystery. Supernatural agents, love interest, solving crime by accident, by intuition or by Ouija board are excluded (Ross, Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction 2014).

 

A Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. It can be female or male centric. This category has been the parent to detective, ghost, horror and romantic suspense. The plot is all about uncovering a secret that has happened before the story began; a missing family tome or opening of a taboo chamber in the house? The narrative is nested in layers to create distance between the reader and the reality (Ross, Gothic 2014).

 

The love story has a long history, with happy outcomes such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. In today’s publishing scenario, the definition of a romance novel is much narrower. The consensus seems to be that a romance novel is something broad enough to include Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, but narrow enough to exclude The Bridges of Madison County. A romance can have various elements from other genres – a historical, kidnap and espionage plots, sports theme settings, vampires, werewolves, aliens, and so on. But the central theme is always between the hero and heroine, as they move from misunderstanding, oftentimes dislike at the onset of the book, to declared love at the end. Everything else is secondary. A happily-ever-after (HEA) is a part of the contract between the reader and the author. The key is to achieve right balance of fantasy and realism, with a fairy-tale narrative trajectory placed into a recognizable world (Ross, Romance Fiction 2014).

 

Horror readers expect to be scared. This genre sees a lot of overlap from other genres like crime and science fiction as scariness is subjective. What might be horror for some, might not be for others. Horror is a fantasy that touches the reader’s deepest fears, where the universe is fundamentally malevolent and a reflection of the society as it exists today. The horror reader simply wants to confront his/her fears. Horror books give their readers the permission to explore their darker fantasies (Ross, Horror 2014).

 

Considering the expectations that are pre-established by the publishing industry, is it fair to call out the genre books for being formulaic? What is a formula anyway? In this case, a formula is a product of reader’s expectations and publishing standards. Literary fiction is quietly distanced from genre and its restricting parameters by simply being whatever genre fiction is not. The authors that do not follow these rules, do not find their audience and those who follow these rules are relegated to sub-par writing retention room (Mcgrath 2017). It doesn’t seem right.

 

The society that we live in today is a result of rules and regulations. Work and worship, family and love, celebration and death, everything is defined by rules. We know rules. We follow rules. We occasionally break rules. Rules exist to eliminate confusion and establish a way of life.

 

To go beyond the boundaries, one must identify them first. The tabla – a membranophone percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical and folk music in India is played with Taals – one of them being a combination of sixteen beats called the “Teental”. A tabla player creates music with these sixteen beats, using pressure, placement, momentum and speed. These beats can be played in various permutations and combinations to produce music. It’s amazing, the variations in rendition of a tabla, considering its limited sound repertoire. But then, music isn’t just about the sounds that you hear, but also about the silence between two notes, that adds to the depth of the music itself. This pause, or nothingness, between two notes is called Naad. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “primordial sound” in English. The sound which exists and is not produced by striking two objects. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. The entire world of music is defined by the rules. The guitar has six strings, the piano has 88 keys and the flute has eight air holes. The form of the musical instruments is just a point of departure, rather than the defining quality of music it can produce. What music it makes, in the hands of the right musician, is what counts.

 

Similarly, a book is not merely the permutation and combination of words strung together to form a story, but also what the reader reads between the lines; what they experience; what they remember when the book is finished. Genre fiction is all about the Naad. It plays within the genre rules, yet reinvents itself every time, to deliver a different plot and experience to its reader.

 

The art world mimics these boundaries too. Every painter starts with a canvas and a set of colors. But great art is not defined by the size of its canvas or the amount of colors. What defines great art is the use of the canvas, the symphony between the colors applied, the emotion conveyed, the treatment of chiaroscuro and how the overall painting interacts with the observer. The Late M.F. Hussain, a modern cubist painter of Indian decent, who gathered lot of critical acclaim internationally, was well-known for not painting the face and limbs of the subjects in his paintings. His rationale was that his work was at a higher level of abstraction and didn’t require conventional forms.

 

Similarly, genre fiction takes its point of departure from the basic understanding of its readership and the author then paints the canvas with myriad shades, to be enjoyed by the right reader, at the right time. The contract between the author and reader needs to be fulfilled. Yes, these boundaries are supposed to be pushed and it happens every once in a while. It’s a continuous process. Lines get blurred as one genre mixes with another; a romance is mixed with suspense, a sci-fi book pairs with mystery, a horror meets Gothic. In the digital age of today, where feedback is seamless and instant, an author has a fair idea about what the reader wants.

 

To say that literary writers are superior to genre writers would be unfair. Yes, literary writing showcases the beauty of the language more adeptly when compared to genre writing, but then, that’s the part of the contract between the literary writer and reader. The prose must shine. There is no such expectation in genre writing, which isn’t to say that genre readers don’t appreciate well written words. But for them, reading is more about the sound between the words, rather than the words themselves. Ultimately, various styles of writing exist because the readers read at different levels.

 

Ask anyone what their favorite song is? Or who their favorite painter is? Or which is their favorite book? The answer would always be a function of your perception, mood, awareness and consciousness. The answer would always be what resonates the most in that moment.

 

The so called ‘formula’ of genre writing is a part of the equation between the reader and the author. It should be kept away from generalization because it’s between the genre writer and the reader. An outsider will never understand the language of a romance or mystery book. Only a genre fan can do it. Like pattern is necessary to produce a rhythm, like a color story is necessary to produce art, genre fiction needs to follow certain rules to be able to deliver what it promises. Call it formulaic or label it something else, but it is exactly what the readers want.

 

Every sunset is beautiful. Is the sun just a round ball of fire with burnished hues? It comes up and goes down every day. So, what makes it so beautiful? You need the observer’s eyes to appreciate the beauty of a sunset. It’s personal.

 

Like the choices of a reader. They are personal too.

 

Anumeha Gokhale
Mpub

 

Bibliography

Jodie Archer, Matthew L.Jockers. 2016. The Bestseller Code. New York: St. Martin Press.

Lesser, Wendy. 2014. “Why I Read.” 3-10. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Lisa Adams, John Heath. 2007. Why We Read What We Read. Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Mcgrath, Taylor. 2017. “The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction.” https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/. 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-head-and-the-heart-a-call-for-literary-standards-in-genre-fiction/.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Before Reading.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 16-22. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 37-49. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Gothic.” In The Pleasure Of Reading, 65-74. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Horror.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 75-81. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Romance Fiction.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 166-80. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 2011. On Reading. London: The Belknap Press.

Vivian. 2011. Kvetch of the Day. 09 30. Accessed 11 22, 2017. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.