Should Subject Define Genre? by Barry Lillie

For those in the know, I’ve almost completed my novel, which is, for the writing process called 52. A week ago I mentioned to a friend that the final title will more than likely be Wasps in a Jar. “So what’s the story about?” I was asked and so I explained that the main protagonist is a woman aged 59 who has secondary breast cancer, which has established itself as an inoperable brain tumour and she is given a life expectancy of one year: Hence the working title 52, as in weeks.

My friend shuddered and said, “That must make for a miserable read,” to which I responded, telling her it’s a humorous book (notice I didn’t say comedy). “How it can be funny,” she replied. “Cancer isn’t funny.”

I agree, cancer isn’t funny. But why should subject matter dictate the genre. In fact I’m more open to authors who push the boundaries, and create something that defies what many would see as the norm.

For example, I read a highly amusing book called Clovehoof; a riotous tale about the Devil being made redundant and reallocated to a Birmingham suburb. The book had many biblical references and characters, but never did the text become blasphemous and neither did it ridicule religion, and peoples’ beliefs were treated with respect. The story played out with great swathes of belly laughs. Now none of this would have been achieved if the genre of comedy had been put aside for a plodding literary tome as most books surrounding religion tend to be.

Why should a ghost story always be horror? Granted, darkness has to feature somewhere otherwise the story’s atmosphere becomes sterile and you need elements of fear otherwise how can the author chill the reader. In Malcolm Havard’s novel Touched, the action takes place in modern settings, with romance as a sub-genre.

Also with the forthcoming release of Misha M. Herwin’s House of Shadows, another supernatural novel that is set mostly in a modern converted artist studio and a Bristolian council estate, there’s a distinct lack of genre stereotyping.

Both stories have moments of darkness threaded into them but it’s the tradition of experienced storytelling and concentration on character that create those needed chills a good ghost story requires. In fact the final chapter of House of Shadows drags you at breakneck speed to the book’s conclusion without a single drop of blood being shed or gothic arch being mentioned.

I’m sure that there are some books that wouldn’t work with conforming to a particular genre. James Herbert used the same pattern for most of his horror stories; they worked so well for his style and with respect he was in the business of delivering what his readership wanted. But his most overlooked book, Fluke, was a brilliant piece of writing; a man who thinks he’s a dog or a dog that thinks it’s a man. With this book he dispensed with the trademark imagery of gothic arches or decaying modern buildings, even putting aside the hideous creations he had invented. Fluke works because none of these trademarks are there and that makes this beguiling tale quite chilling for its stepping out of its genre.

It can be so refreshing to read a book with love as its theme but not as a romance, of murder outside of a thriller and crime as a comedy. I enjoyed a book about werewolves earlier in the year that turned out to be an erotic gay romp … maybe I should have read the blurb before picking it up, but what I had expected to be a novella dripping with gore turned out to be engaging and a new way of treating the subject matter.


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