Choosing to self-publish liberates authors from the need to write within the constraints of fiction genres favoured by trade publishers. English novelist Clare Weiner (pen name Mari Howard) makes a compelling case for defying genre in order to write better books.
We’ve bought our coffees, we’ve found a table. Way before her behind touches down on her chair, she asks ‘What genre’s your book?’
I was new to the game of meeting up with other writers, though I’d got a couple of completed novels in manuscript, and some good full-page comments from the rejecting publishers, (who hadn’t mentioned genre). Inwardly, I wondered, if we have something to say, must we first decide a genre, then fit our story into it? Or, (to put it romantically), write right from the heart?
Who Needs Genre Anyway?
Khaled Hosseini’s Thousand Splendid Suns, which engages with the lives of women in Afghanistan, is a great example for heart writers: it is the story itself which matters. And how Hosseini tells it, fitting no specific genre, which compels. Traveling at speed, across Germany and France, I wasn’t hemmed in by passengers from across the EU. I was in Afghanistan with Hosseini. Surfacing briefly, in Brussels, to change trains.
His latest, And the Mountains Echoed, has several narrators, and includes letters, and a fictional interview. Does he get away with this ‘because he’s famous’? Or because his storytelling comes from the heart? Or, because his storytelling builds on long tradition?
JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a massive tome: why does Tolkien get away with it? His storytelling also builds on a long tradition, and he knows that tradition very well. It’s also a work from the heart: Tolkien, like Aldous Huxley, was concerned for the future of the post-war world, technological developments, and the political landscape.
African and Middle Eastern Role Models
African and Middle Eastern writers have captured the market (at least for me) in terms of heart writing. They’re asking the big questions. Interestingly, subjects which western writers express with ‘visceral’ detail are presented in a dry, matter-of-fact, minimalistic prose, like a shocked silence: ‘it was horrible, so horrible you would not want to’ve been there. It happened. How can human beings be so cruel?’ While we are presented with increasingly graphic visual detail in movies, newsreels, and even on stage, such writing, ironically, demonstrates the powerfulness of less-is-more. Underplaying for impact belongs specifically to the written word.
I believe we need fiction that asks the big, controversial, questions, and highlights the impossibility of easy answers. It can’t be done inside a genre. It may visit all but belongs inside none: it belongs to a larger canvas, a freer field. It is ‘writing without borders’, but your storytelling must still be tight.
And without the usual givens. My writing magazine has run several pieces on ‘sex scenes’. The most moving romance I’ve ever read is by Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese Muslim writer, who describes relationships with immense depth and insight, and yet without ‘sex’. It’s as if Aboulela is freed, by her determination to write within her religious tradition, from having to put together a convincing scene from crass action, humour about body parts, and the generally messy side of sexual intercourse. In The Translator she explores, with insight, and without sentimentality, the tender, the cautious, and the deeply moving. It’s a very ‘different’ book, incredibly powerful, and will stay in my mind forever, chiming with reality.
If what I put down is half as good (and she certainly inspired me when writing Baby, Baby), I might call myself a writer.