Genre vs. Traditional Fiction

Yesterday I wrote about traditional stories, the kind of untagged, unlabeled, uncategorized and ungenrefied fiction we grew up on. There used to be certain sections for genres in libraries and bookstores, but most books were shelved alphabetically under “fiction.” I read all types of books without discrimination, but I found the most satisfying books not with the genre stories, but in with the general fiction. And that’s the kind of book I tried to write.

I don’t know why genre became the core of the book business rather than the peripheral it once was, but it’s probably because of marketing — as one editor who rejected Light Bringer told me, “I loved the story, and your writing is excellent, but I don’t know how to sell it. It doesn’t have enough science fiction elements to be science fiction, and it has too much science fiction to be anything else.” (The truth is, Light Bringer was never meant to be science fiction. It a traditional story based on both modern conspiracy theory and the Sumerian cosmology, though I admit, it does have elements that are construed as science fiction. Luckily, I eventually found a publisher who publishes traditional fiction as well as genre.)

I don’t know what came first — readers’ need to buy books that fit into certain categories or book marketers’ need to funnel readers into those categories, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, this genreization of the book business makes me an outsider, both as a reader and a writer. I have a hard time sorting through the 130,000,000 million books available to find ones I want to read, and I have a hard time fitting my books into the available genres. (When I have to give a category, I say “conspiracy fiction.” That’s not a genre, or at least I don’t think it is, but it gives me a pithy and realistic way of labeling my books.)

The hardest of my books to categorize, besides Light Bringer, is More Deaths Than One. It has many of the elements of a thriller, but the story is not about what happened to the main character (Bob) but who is he and how he reacts to what happened to him. In a thriller, there should be some sort of showdown between the hero and villain, but in More Deaths Than One, that showdown is given to an offscreen character, and Bob hears of it second hand. Some readers think the scene is a cheat. Even I think it’s a cheat, or rather I would think so if More Deaths Than One was a thriller. The hero should always be the one who performs the decisive action in the story, but in this case, the decisive action is not the discovery of the truth, but how Bob and Kerry (the woman he loves) deal with that truth.

I could have had the showdown and then Bob and Kerry’s scene afterward, but then their scene becomes anti-climactic. I could have had the two scenes concurrent — the showdown and their reactions, but there is no way Bob would have opened up to her with a dangerous creature in the room. And most of all, he would never have brought her to the attention of the villain since he would have wanted to protect her at all costs.

You’d think that with the emphasis on the two characters that More Deaths Than One is romantic suspense, but it is far more than that (and far less. Those who have read it for romantic suspense don’t like it because the romance isn’t forefront. Nor is the conflict a romantic one — Bob and Kerry get along from the beginning). More Deaths Than One is traditional fiction — a story that demanded to be written in a certain way, regardless of any genre conventions.

As Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic, said, “What are you waiting for? Read this book. Now. More Deaths Than One is much better than any ‘bestseller’ out there. The plot is constantly surprising and intricate, the characters draw you into the tale and the overall writing is top notch.”

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Kind of Fiction I Grew Up On

On Malcom Campbell’s blog post yesterday, BOOK BITS: ‘Black Beauty,’ Plagiarism, Donna Small, Larry McMurtry’s ‘Custer,’ Book stories for the election, he described “traditional fiction” as the kind of fiction we grew up on before novels started getting whittled down to novella-lengths and forced into marketing categories. Dare I say, literary fiction is what’s left after publishers and booksellers have sliced and diced readers and books into every possible pigeonhole, slot and category they can possibly imagine? We are, I think, so scared of making our own decisions about what we read these days, that we cannot pick up a book without knowing how it’s been tagged, labeled, categorized and genrefied.”

Ah! Now I have a term for the sort of fiction I write, and it’s the perfect term — traditional fiction. My novels are not genre fiction in any way, and those who try to fit the stories into such pigeonholes end up not liking them. There is not enough romance for the romance readers, not enough horror for the apocalyptic crowd, not enough villainry for the thriller lovers, not enough grue for the horror aficionados, not enough science or fantasy for the scifi folks.

Each of those elements has a place in my books, of course, since each aspect is part of the story’s big picture (in the same way those elements make up the big picture of our lives), but none overwhelms the basic intent of my stories, which is to tell a satisfying tale with archetypal characters and classic themes that can last beyond the fads of the day. In other words, a traditional novel.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, for example, there is plenty of horror, such as the gruesome end of those afflicted with the red death, but generally the horror is more subtle than visceral — empty streets instead of bodies piled everywhere, struggles to maintain a semblance of normality instead of rioting. The experiments done on humans during both the hot wars and the cold wars twentieth century are not experienced first hand by the characters, but the slow reveal of those old horrors affect them deeply nonetheless.

A Spark of Heavenly Fire explores the theme of love in all its guises, not just romance, but friendship, caring, trust. There is love mixed in the villainry, too, because someone had to have lovingly created the organism that caused the red death. Unlike genre stories, there is no hero trying to stop the villain before he can release his “baby.” The deed had been committed before the story even began. We don’t see the story from the villain’s eyes as in a thriller, and it’s only at the end that we realize with what love and glee the villain had set his creation free.

More than horror or history, romance or mystery, A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the story of ordinary women who found only failure in the ordinary world where everyone else seemed to find success, but when the world turned upside down, they found their place and their worth, and they came alive. As Washington Irving wrote, “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.

This is the kind of fiction I grew up on as a reader, the sort of traditional story that digs deep so that what affects the characters also affects the readers, the sort of ungenrefied story I have always loved. And it’s the kind of fiction I grew up on as a writer. It was halfway through writing A Spark of Heavenly Fire that everything clicked and I became a writer.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+