Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Are Genres a Help or a Hindrance? Guest Post by Derek B. Miller

Today I welcome Derek B. Miller, author of one of my top 10 novels in 2013, Norwegian by Night. Norwegian by Night won the CWA "New Blood" Dagger Award. Derek B. Miller is the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Geneva, and an MA in National Security Studies from Georgetown University, in cooperation with St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He lives in Oslo with his wife and children.

Are Genres a Help or a Hinderance?

Jeremy Bentham once quipped that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who put people into two categories and those who don't. Aside from being witty, Bentham was also suggesting that to classify is as natural as it is necessary. This was not an unreasonable position for a utilitarian.

From this perspective of he was of course correct. It is natural and necessary to differentiate among things that are different in order to gain some measure of control over them. To observe, to distinguish, to define, to classify, to arrange into formal sets of relationships, to measure … this is the stuff of logic, of language, of science, and it is vital to intellectual progress.

So no argument here on the value of classification.

But then there's art, in particular, its creation and its encounter. Here, logic is not the driver of artistic creation, and too often classifications confuse, obstruct, and puzzle rather than assist the reader.

Take music: An amusing article by MTVIggy ( was called “Beyond Donk: Top 10 Most Ridiculous Sub-Genre Names in Electronic Music.” While trying to argue that rock n’roll and disco were “clearly real things with actual stylistic differences,” the writers eventually threw up their hands in frustration with sub-genres (all mysteries to me) called Full-on Darkspy, Splittercore, Cybergrind, and my personal favorite: Illibient.

Like music, fiction books are “art,” (even if sometimes bad art) insofar as they are not created to serve a use other than to seduce, amuse, disrupt, or otherwise stimulate the mind, heart or body of the reader. If we also accept that the reader encounters this work to experience these things, then the relationship between writer and reader is an artistic rather than utilitarian one. Classifications could potentially (and often do) undermine rather than facilitate the quality and frequency of encounter. To be clear, I’m not arguing against art appreciation and the value that can be brought to the reader or listener by a tutored encounter with the material. Rather, I’m arguing against being told exactly what to expect and experience from that encounter.

And yet, that problem of “encounter” is a real one. After all, you don’t get to read stuff at all if you don’t know about it. Systems that facilitate our encounters — without mediating how the material will be experienced — would seem to be what we need. Alas, that’s tricky. Hard to talk about something without saying anything about it. Most of these sorts of people go into politics not publishing …

The need to classify books into genres may in fact be useless to the writer in the creation of art; and detrimental to the reader when encountering and being stimulated by that art; but it is also essential for bringing those two people into contact with one another. What this suggests is that genres and sub-genres (however absurd) will continue to exist and even proliferate so long as they have strategic value in the writer-reader encounter.

But this does not mean that we — as writers and readers — must be passive and compliant. We need strategies of our own because our needs as not the same as those who are trying to bring us together.

First, some advice to writers: Write something good and don't worry about how you might be classified. This is not to be ignorant or defiant. Rather, it’s to say the classification task comes later rather than earlier. What helps in accepting this stance is knowing that you will not be classified the same everywhere. Likewise (and this is key) there is no automatic sorting machine. Different people, different cultures, different languages — hence different markets — will see your work differently which is why your agents and editors and marketing professionals can be partners in placing work. The master move for the author is to become part of that strategic process, not a victim to it.

My own experience is a case in point. My debut novel, Norwegian by Night was published as a crime novel by Faber and Faber in Britain where it won the Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey "New Blood" Dagger. However, on setting out, I had no intention to write a crime novel, per se, nor did I think that was what I was doing. I had written a book that I liked and hadn’t much considered where it might fit into the market.

At first this was a big problem. Many, many publishers rejected my manuscript and some told me flat out that the problem wasn’t the writing but the challenge in selling it. Their existing categories did not accommodate my book. Here, categories were obstructionist in that they prevented the encounter between book and reader.

But later this was overcome by risk-taking editors, and the careful strategic marketing of the book in different markets. The classification of “crime” was not a universal solution. In America and Germany, for instance, it was published as literary fiction. In America the book has received good reviews but sales have been modest in hard cover. Yet, in Germany, it was a best seller for months. So even here, classification was not the main issue.

Not incidentally, one of the most common comments I’ve received from happy readers is how much they’ve enjoyed being surprised by the story and how much it did not fit into any simple genre. Here, the writer-reader dynamic is at its most pure and unmediated. My lesson from this is that writers need to write the story they want to write, and then work with the publisher and booksellers to build a strategy for engagement with readers, not submit to the domination of genres.

And here's some advice for readers (I'm a reader too): Remember that we are all free in mind, heart, and body to experience the richness of the world and to be moved by it. Do not passively accept the classifications given to books. Exercise your freedom of thought to read books the way the authors wrote them and even beyond that. The bookseller-reader relationship is not an adversarial one, but it is a highly imperfect one. Genres are tools and there is no such thing as an all purpose tool. Allow them to serve you, but don’t expect them to. In a phrase, do not go gently into that good bookstore. Rage, rage against the classification of art. Because only then will the art itself survive.


Kim said...

I was curious to read this post because my own first novel was a victim in the genre battles. My publishers had no idea how to classify it: literary, adventure, historical? It was not until it was nominated for an Edgar that everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, we could just call it a mystery. But then many mystery readers read it, and there were some who were upset because they felt misled. Because my book is not truly a mystery! The interesting thing is that I'm now reading the first ten years of Edgar Award winners, and there is no rhyme or reason to the "genre" during that time period. It's sad that so much these days has come down to marketing hooks. As for booksellers, I agree with you completely. I was an indie bookseller for years, and I tried my best to know as many books as possible, rather than just sell them based on their PR material. But that was a long time ago and times have changed. Booksellers are buried with reading copies and simply can't keep up - so if a writer can connect with even just a few, his or her book will find a wonderful home for a very long time.

Nordic Noir said...

This was a really interesting read. Many thanks. We have shared it over on our blog.

Clark Lohr said...

Really cool.