Sunday, 3 February 2008


I thought that I might pose a question or two to the rest of you about genres.

When I started writing the Herring Seller’s Apprentice my plan was just to write a novel. Obviously it would be a novel that would win the Booker Prize, but beyond that I had few clear plans for it. As the book progressed and the bodies started to pile up, it occurred to me that I was probably writing a crime novel, but I still had no particular intention myself to become a crime writer. I remain mildly surprised every time I go into a bookshop and find my book firmly in the Crime Section.

I’m not complaining. The people who review crime novels seem a really nice crowd – well-read, knowledgeable of the genre and enthusiastic. I have had marvellous support from crime web sites such as It’s a Crime, Reviewing the Evidence Eurocrime and Tangled Web. I also rather like being able to reply, when people ask me what I write, that I write detective stories. Few people admit to not liking crime novels. It’s a respectable, unpretentious field to be in.

Some reviewers, including the excellent Grumpy Old Bookman, have noticed that there was more going on in Herring Seller than the humorous-crime that met the eye. He wrote: “the ending of the book, like much else in it, is capable of more than one interpretation. So, as I said at the beginning, tricksy stuff. Keep your wits about you while you smile”. Indeed. If “devious” was a recognised genre, that’s more or less where I would want to be.

When I started writing the second book, my plan was just to write a second novel. Obviously it was a novel that would impress Richard and Judy and would make me disgustingly rich, but otherwise my ambitions were modest. I noticed half-way through that nobody had been murdered yet, and concluded that this was therefore probably not going to be a crime novel. This made me feel guilty in the light of much of the above. I have promised a number of people that I shall return to a life of crime as soon as I can.

So, the questions for you are as follows. When you all set out to write, did you plan to write in a particular genre? Do you write in a genre that you always enjoyed as a reader? Do you feel that genres are a valuable marketing tool (“if you liked Agatha Christie, you’ll sure as hell like me”) or something that restricts what you write? If you do change genres, should you also change your name – and, if so, entirely (e.g. John Banville/Benjamin Black) or just a bit (e.g. RN/Roger Morris)?

As I contemplate what my third book should be, I’d really like to know the answers.


Alis said...

Hi Len! I think this is a really good question. When I'm asked what kind of book Testament is, I'm always a bit stuck and I go for 'not literary but not too pot-boiler-y either, some history but it's not really a historical novel.. it's kind of general adult fiction..' Duh! during the years when I was rewriting the book and submitting it here there and everywhere I was told more than once that one of the problems was that it didn't fit into an obvious genre.
In answer to your real question, no I don't set out to write in a particular genre, I just set out to tell a story and, like you it seems, watch what happens!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yes, I'm the same. I don't know what it is until the marketing department tell me. I had no idea Light Reading was a crime novel, and I was particularly surprised to find it was a woman's book, whatever that is. Three Things About Me was apparently a 'summer read'.

I never set out to write in a genre. The short stories are the same. It's only when it comes to selling them that I make up my mind, not before. That applies to all the genres I write in: even sci-fi.

Faye L. said...

Personally, I'm quite happy to be defined as a historical novelist. I think what I write fits quite comfortably in the genre, and I like reading it so I don't mind being categorised the same way myself; I'm quite flattered by it, in a sense.

I don't know what I'd do about my name if I were to change genres, because to be honest, at this point I couldn't imagine doing so.

David Isaak said...

I have so much to say on this topic that I'll post it on my own blog rather than hijacking this thread, but meanwhile...

I guess I'd say genres are both something useful for marketing as well as a kind of restriction. And, like most restrictions (sonnet form, or the rules of first-person narration) it can be viewed as a sort of useful formal discipline.

Or so I tell myself when I'm not chafing under it.

As to "Herring-Seller's Apprentice," which was brilliant, I think it fits nicely into comic crime, but that's not a very restrictive label. Donald Westlake has managed some pretty diverse stuff, from "The Ax", which is scathing and disturbing social commentary, to frothy things like "Smoke", all without leaving the confines of comic crime.

I don't think people who have read "Herring" will pick up your next book for the mystery plot elements per se; I think they'll pick it up for your voice, sensibility, characterization, and the unexpected way that you unfold your plots. So I think you have a lot of latitude there--I think your readers would be happy with one body, ten bodies, or no bodies at all.

David Biro (my new pen name)

Anonymous said...

I agree that genre-thinking is at once liberating and constraining (and, yes, I too can feel a blog post coming on...). And one problem is that genre labels are sometimes seen as precluding a literary-level concern for originality and language.

I think if you've got any sense (and want to have any mileage as a writer beyond the first couple of books) you write what you write, and since people change, that will too. One of the things that's interesting and enouraging about the whole MNW project seems to me that it does draw its boundaries so generously, so that you MNW guys have the space to do what you want to do...

Matt Curran said...

As someone who started out writing horror stories, but ended up debuting with a historical fantasy (The Secret War) and is about to start writing a Victorian thriller, this topic is very dear to me. I don’t think I can do it justice in the confines of a “comments” box, so like David, a blog entry is on the cards…

Bugger. And there was me thinking this week would be a sedate blogging week.

Tim Stretton said...

I'm quite happy with the idea that, for now, I write 'fantasy'. It's a genre with pretty wide boundaries: Gilgamesh, Beowulf and Gulliver's Travels can relatively easily be accommodated.

If I ever decided I was going to write 'Literature' (but please, take me out the back and shoot me if I look like going in that direction)I'd probably use a pen name.

At the moment, I'm having a lot of fun writing in a genre frequently and lazily dismissed as adolescent, and am looking no further ahead than the next fourteen volume epic...

Eliza said...

I never know what I'm writing either. PWTM has been classed as crime and romance (the latter by the Germans).

Just stick to your genre of 'extremely good' Len!

Looking forward to reading the next book.


Len Tyler said...

I am impressed by the speed and quality of your responses! I liked David's piece on his blog and look forward to reading Matt's. I certainly agree with Tim (on this as on many things) that most genres are actually pretty wide and give us quite a lot of elbow room. I think Elizabeth's is a good example of how genres can successfuly overlap and impress a lot of people in the process.

I had, of course, pretty much decided which way my third book would go (subject to Macmillan's still unknown views on my second). But I shall follow the wise words above, particularly David Biro's sound advice on pen names, hence signing myself off as,

yours sincerely

Len Montblanc-Meisterstück

crimeficreader said...

Thanks for the mention, Len.

Speaking as a reader, I think that having a different name when crossing the genres or indicating a different type of book is good as readers know what to expect. The classic example of this is Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Want more Wexford? Get the next Rendell. Want a psychological thriller? Seek out a Vine.

David said 'I don't think people who have read "Herring" will pick up your next book for the mystery plot elements per se; I think they'll pick it up for your voice, sensibility, characterization, and the unexpected way that you unfold your plots.' I agree to a degree. You certainly have a strong and distinctive voice in the comic. As a reader, it's always good to pick up the next book and know that the voice is familiar; it paces the read from the outset.

Finally, I think you know already that this reader wants more Elsie Thirkettle! But I'd be happy to read anything you write and the surprise of change can also be quite exciting.

Len Tyler said...

Thanks, Rhian! Your support (for me and other MNW writers) is really appreciated.