Before I started taking my writing seriously, I was almost allergic to the word genre. For one it just seemed so pretentious somehow; it was a word used by Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show, not a word an ordinary person who loves books would ever utter. I mean, how often do you go into a bookshop and say, 'The genre I'm particularly interested in is…' OK, as a former bookseller, I know there are people who'd say just that, but I hope you know what I mean?
During my MA in Creative Writing, however, I became aware that genre was something I needed to take seriously. During my first tutorial, I was asked what my genre is. The tutor must have noticed my panic because she said, 'Who's the writer you most love and wish to emulate?'
At the time I was obsessed with Ian McEwan and William Boyd. The tutor gave a lopsided grin. 'Ah, literary fiction.' I was glad I'd at last found what my aspirational genre was, but was a little puzzled by the tutor's reaction.
It was much, much later when I discovered, that:
a) Literary fiction is the most respected and high-brow of any literary genre
b) It's the most difficult genre
c) It's a genre you have to earn like a badge of honour
d) All authors considered part of this literary fiction genre were at the time (and still largely are) men. (More about women v men in the publishing industry under another letter).
I have since written several books which, if you ignore the literary fiction genre, could be classed as:
1. Romance (The Englishman)
2. Family saga (Coffee and Vodka)
3. Spy thriller (The Red King of Helsinki)
To have written books in several genres poses many problems for a writer (unless you're of the William Boyd or Ian McEwan ilk, when whatever you write is literary fiction).
First of all, if you do wish to seek representation with an agent, he or she will want to know your writing genre. Same with a publisher.
It's also universally acknowledged that readers prefer authors to keep to one genre only. Readers, according to the publishing industry gurus, want to read the same book (only slightly modified) over and over again. I would strongly refute this, but at the same time, anyone who knows anything about marketing knows that, while building a brand, it's difficult to sell products which fall into totally different categories.
So, with all this in mind, the next big question I should ask myself is not which of the 3 or 4 half-finished manuscripts I should complete, but which of the above three genres I should concentrate on?
And you thought all a writer needs to do is put pen to paper…