Genre Queen

It could, of course, be Genre King.

I am not an ambitious woman.  Well, not any longer.  It  is true that, at one time, I wanted to be either the pope or the president, career paths I am clearly unsuited for, one by reason of biology and the other by reason of being utterly unskilled at making any kind of enterprise involving more than one participant run well.  Very briefly, I also thought I might become a partner at the big law firm where I landed when I graduated from law school, but the work was so soul suckingly boring, and I was so spectacularly bad at it, that this ambition ended ten minutes after I hung up from my first phone call with a lawyer on the other side.  “You’re unethical,” he hissed.  “You lied to me.  Where are my documents?  You said I’d get them all.  I didn’t get them all.  You’re unethical.”  It went on and on and on.  At some point, I should have said, “You’re an asshole,” but I didn’t.  Instead, when the horror was over, I hung up the phone, put my head on my desk and moaned and vowed that I would never again harbor any ambitions of any  kind.  I would be an underachiever.  People would be pleasantly surprised when I managed to do anything of note.

But you see, it’s also true that for my entire life — ever since I knew this particular job existed — I’ve wanted to write stories.  And it turns out I do indeed have an ambition.    It came to me the other day when I was reading an article about a kerfluffle in the literary community involving a woman who writes literary fiction.  Her advice to young writers?  Aim high.  Do not write derivative crap.  For some reason, this made people who write genre fiction mad because they felt insulted and made people who write literary fiction mad in her defense.  And me?  I just thought, “Okay, then.  I  will write the BEST genre fiction there is.” I will never be a literary innovator because I am not interested in literary innovation — but I can certainly aim high enough to write really terrific genre fiction.  So, that got me to thinking about whether there was such a thing as excellent genre fiction, and that got me to thinking about the day when fiction was not divided into genre and literary.  Wilkie Collins, for example, just wrote fiction.  It was mystery-type fiction, but it was shelved in Victorian libraries (if they even shelved things in any kind of order), relatively close to Dickens, who wrote just fiction too, fiction which also often had secrets and mysteries at its heart.  Like, who’s my real mother?  Who’s my father?  And what happened to all my money?

Really, all I want is to write stuff that’s so entertaining and so beautifully written that people will close my book and think,  “Wow.  That was worth the money.  Plus, what a nice cover.”  I do not want them to close the book and feel sort of bad, the reading equivalent of eating a big mac, plus fries, plus some frozen dessert thing.  That is what it feels like to read crappy derivative fiction and we all know that that sort of stuff is filed both in the genre section and the straight on fiction section.

Genre Queen.  That’s what I want to be.  And how do you achieve THAT?  Well, first you write the things you love to read.  If you happen to love genre fiction, as I do, particularly spy books and mysteries, then you write that.  And you learn how those stories are structured by reading them carefully.  And then you write one of your own, but you tell your own story, the one about a place you lived when you were a child, or a man you loved once, or an event that has never left you.  And you ask questions you’re afraid to ask, and then you go ahead and try to answer them, all the while using the form you really like to read as a way to answer them.  That’s what I do anyway.

It turns out that the great thing about becoming Genre Queen is that you don’t have to marry Genre Prince and wait for his grandmother to die in order to achieve your goal of being Queen.  Also, you will never have to worry that people will find out what your wedding dress looks like before you show up in your Rolls Royce and step out to the oohs and ahs of the world.  (Gack.  Who ever would submit to that kind of thing?  Crazy.)  It turns out there can be a couple of Genre Queens and Kings.  PD James is one.  So is Dorothy Sayers.  Eric Ambler.  Sometimes John LeCarre.  Me, I’m a Genre Scullery Maid at this point.  I’m aiming for Genre Lady in Waiting next.  After that, who knows?  There’s a lot of room on that throne.


16 thoughts on “Genre Queen

  1. Genre Queen sounds like a great thing to strive for, and I love that your image is a Hammett novel. He was the Genre King, that’s for sure. One of the great writers of the 20th century.

    Me, I’m influenced by movies and comic books and old time radio shows. And novels, but the others are primary. And I’m cool with that. On my blog I talk about influences like Robert Altman films and Broadway Danny Rose and Popeye (the strip, not so much the Altman film).

    I will probably never be written about in the New York Review of Books. Oh, well. 🙂

    • I found that Hammett novel in my mother in law’s house a couple of years ago. My in laws read Hammett and Virginia Wolf, Dorothy Sayers and Eudora Welty. And they were all stuffed into bookshelves together. (I like your list of influences, by the way. It sounds like their stuffed bookshelves!) In the end, it matters not at all who writes about you or what they say. In fact, one of my favorite things a writer has ever said is Virginia Woolf — “so long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters. And whether it matters for ages or hours, no one can say.” It’s a losing game, trying to matter. Far better just to try hard to get your story as right as you can.

      PS: Anthony — I can’t register on your blog (today’s 5/18/11), so I can’t tell you how great your Orson Welles reviews are by leaving a comment on your blog. If you see this, I just wanted to thank you for the reviews. They’re a wonderful resource.

      • That sounds like my father, who was probably the biggest influence on my eclectic taste. He’d read anything, “literary” and “genre” and whatever. He used to say the only real rule about writing was “write well,” and he’d go after good writing wherever he could find it.

  2. That woman’s advice was just genrephobic. It’s nonsense. The only hierarchy in writing is better or worse, and that’s determined by comparisons either with other people’s works or other examples of your own. Plus, it’s no fair to compare apples to oranges. The Glass Key is just as good as Hamlet.

    • Hi Mikey — I don’t think she meant to insult anyone; I get the impression that she just wanted to encourage writers to push themselves and write their own true thing. It’s an interesting question, really, what we think is worth reading and writing. Like you, I think there’s room to love both The Glass Key and Hamlet!!

  3. Fab post! Can I be the Scullery Maid’s Assistant? Meanwhile, I’ve just finished Ruth Rendell’s latest – Tigerlily’s Orchard – and came away genuflecting to her plotting skills. She’s a master.

  4. Uchh, I hate labels. Besides, I’m not sure that most readers –like Anthony’s father – even know or care what “genre fiction” means. Either they like a book, or they don’t; they find it well written, or they don’t and they care about that or they don’t. I agree with you, Lily, that I don’t think she meant to insult anyone, and I don’t really get what is so horrible about encouraging writers to push themselves — no matter what “genre” they write in or where B&N decides to shelve their book.

    I love this post too! May we just call you a Fiction Queen, and wish you a nice cover?

  5. Someone in my last fiction workshop questioned if I was going “the genre route” for my work in progress. I suppose I am working in genre elements (such as suspense) because when I was trying to write in a “literary” vein, I was boring myself to death! I say nay to these silly false distinctions. Good books come in many forms!

    • Sometimes when they ask if you’re going “the genre route” you expect them to start to talk like Yoda (“seductive, the genre route can be”).

      I don’t think there is a Dark Side to this particular Force. 🙂

    • That just happened to me too! Well, I wasn’t asked. I was told I’m writing genre by a fellow writer–then some sort of warning was added with a polite smile, but I tuned out and nodded and smiled back, thinking, genre? Me? Hmm. I’m a literary writer embarking on an epic historical novel. I suppose historical is genre, but I hadn’t thought of it that way until that moment.

  6. Kristi — Agreed. A book’s subject matter does not take it out of the running for being good. Or, as Yoda would say, “Good, in many places can be located.”

    Anthony, Agreed. There is only the Force. Not the Genre Force. Not the LitFic force.

  7. So glad to see you back!

    Have you read John Lawton’s series with Inspector Troy. I recently finished A Lily of the Field and closed it reluctantly, sad that i had gotten to the last page.


  8. Dear Queen Bloglily – methinks you’ll make it. And no, that writer wasn’t out to insult any body of authors – there are plenty of people out there writing derivative crap in the vein of Virginia Woolf or Don DeLillo, and that’s far MORE painful than substandard Danielle Steele. Really good anything is the target at which we’re all aiming, and I have every faith in you to hit a bulls-eye.

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