Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The rise of literary genres

In an ever more tightly focused books market, divisions into niche appetites are ever more specific

Great novels
Genre: From ghost to graphic to gran. Illustration: Damien Poulain

A week ago, writing about 62-year old Hilary Boyd's Thursdays in the Park (Quercus), I coined the term "gran lit". Hardly original, you will say, (no dispute there), but it caught on. Subsequently, variations on "gran lit" appeared in the Times, the Telegraph and the Independent, as well as getting recognition in Australia's Herald-Sun.
The gran in question (Mrs Boyd) also popped up on both the ITV News at Ten and the Today Show, challenging the conventional wisdom: just because you're over 60, you're not interested in having a fling. I'm wondering how long it will be before gran lit joins chick lit, and the rest, as a term of art. That's to say, as a shorthand for a now-booming genre of fiction for the "grey market".
The development of the literary marketplace in the past 30-something years has been echoed by a new, and acute, sensitivity to the place of genre within the trade. In a market-savvy creative economy, you could say that genre has become everything. I have been able to identify 15 contemporary shades of "literature". No doubt, readers will think of others, but here are some obvious first nominations.

1. Lit lit
Two versions here.
a) Poetry. No higher form - a straight line from Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Hardy and Hughes.
b) Fiction. Also known as "literary fiction"; a genre whose contemporary exemplars include Julian Barnes, Philip Hensher and Zadie Smith.

2. Ghost lit
A surprising number of successful books (bestselling memoirs especially) are written by ghost writers. But there are also ghosted novels, too. By definition these wraith-like creatures have no names and are known only to their fellow spooks – and the publishers who depend on them.

3. Graphic book lit
Manga novels have been a booming genre for the past 10 years. The Observer sponsors a graphic short story prize, but graphic books have yet to become an established part of the mainstream.

4. Chick lit
The motherlode. There's far more of this lit than most readers realise. If, as some suggest, it began with Bridget Jones, there's now a second or even third generation.

5. Gran lit
A new entry: see my opening comments, above

6. Erotic lit
The quintessential expression of this genre is, of course, EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey, which has now begun to acquire some respectability with a nomination for a National Book award. My own guess is that it's a craze that will soon (if it doesn't already) seem embarrassing and ridiculous.

7. Booker lit
Fiction that plays well with Booker prize judges is sometimes characterised as unreadable and pretentious, with some justification. On the other hand, the Booker's track record of winners is impressive. As a prize, Booker is rivalled only by the Orange prize, now the women's prize for fiction. In a larger category – prize lit – Booker and Orange are the market leaders.

8. US lit
For me, the big names here are still Philip Roth, Paul Auster, and Don DeLillo. Of course, US fiction (and poetry) is too vast a canvas to be reduced to a single frame.

9. Commonwealth lit
The literature of the Commonwealth used to get a lot of commercial and critical attention. Changing readership patterns in the world have reduced the significance of "Commonwealth" writing, but it will probably survive, in some form, for another generation. (see also: 10 and 11)

More at The Guardian

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