I was thrilled to launch November, my month of daily posts at Novel Niche, with my review of Morgan Kelly’s stunning, audacious debut novel, Midnight in Your Arms. NN is generally considered (I’ve been told) to be a “serious site” — as opposed, one supposes, to a bouncy blog. The inevitable question I found myself fielding was this: “You mean… you reviewed a romance novel? Really? That doesn’t seem like your style.” Derivative, poorly-written, cloying romance writing isn’t my style, no, but Kelly’s novel is none of those things, as anyone lucky enough to read Midnight in Your Arms will see within its opening pages.
This issue of how genre-labelling defines and guides our next bookstore or library selection is dear to Morgan Kelly’s heart, too. Without further ado, here are her thoughts on that oft-perilous system of classification, combined with reflections on her writing, and reading career. Thank you, Morgan, for choosing Novel Niche as your resting-place for the end of your official blog tour! I am honoured, and thrilled, to keep company with you here.
Morgan Kelly and her publisher, Avon Impulse/HarperCollins, are generously offering one free e-copy of Midnight in Your Arms. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post (along with your email address, or another reliable method of contact.) This giveaway is open internationally, and the winner will be contacted in one week.
When I first became a reader, I didn’t know there was any such thing as genre. When I did come to understand the concept of genre, it was only in the sense that books needed to be categorized by topic and style so that the reader could choose one for herself that best fitted her tastes or mood. This was back in the days when reading was for me so pure and unalloyed a pleasure that another person’s opinion of my reading matter didn’t even enter into it. No one really had opinions on what I read—people were just glad to see that I had in fact learned to read, that I took to it with no difficulty. My teacher had done her job. My mother had done hers. I had done mine. All was right with the world.
Fast forward a decade into the future. Suddenly, there was a spectre haunting the banquet at which I had previously feasted unencumbered by a sense of literary pretention or elitism—the spectre of public opinion. I felt a strange pressure to decide what sort of reader I was going to be, closely akin to and perhaps even indistinguishable from the decision about what sort of human being I was going to be.
Instead of saying “Sir, may I have some more!” of everything I could get my hands on, I was expected to become “discerning”. To read books that were chosen not for pleasure or curiosity alone, but for how they would make me look to the people who saw me reading them. There were suddenly public books, and private books. Books I read out in the open, judiciously approved, and those I read when no one else was in the house. Books I would brag about reading, and books I would hide beneath the mattress, like someone addicted to and ashamed of her subscription to Hustler.
These contraband books were of varying genres. I hid my magic-ridden fantasy and gruesome horror from my religious relatives. I hid my historical romances from, well—everybody! Because those sorts of books, the ones of the dripping butcher knives, midnight séances, and riven bodices were not considered literature. They would be detrimental to my developing mind and intellect. I was to be ashamed of them.
Let me tell you, literary elitism has never come easy to me. I’ve always read anything, everything, and lots of it. With more on the side. And yet, I had the distinct feeling, from teachers, literary friends, and everyone else involved in my development as a reader, that I should curtail my base bibliomaniacal tendencies and read only works of substance. So I learned to be a secretive reader. A reader ashamed. It took a long time and a few years of independence and self-possession before I got mostly over it. And there was always a great deal of defiance inside of me that railed against the oppression of public opinion about reading material, and yet, I still felt compelled to hide what I read.
When I became a writer, I naturally began writing “literary fiction”—a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but what I define for myself as anything that: A) doesn’t fit into an actual genre of popular fiction B) People are smugly proud of reading on public transit C) a book the title of which people drop all over the place like the name of a celebrity with whom they once rode in an elevator D) might have an infinitesimal chance of being published in the New Yorker.
I wrote literary fiction because it was serious, and I was and remain a serious writer. By which I mean that I am deeply serious about the craft of writing itself, a feeling that got entirely mixed up with the need to be taken seriously as a writer. Two very different things, but somehow irreparably conjoined in public consciousness. And I knew without needing to be told that to be taken seriously as a serious writer, one must not write genre fiction, just as one must not (admit to) read(ing) it in order to be taken seriously as a reader. So I didn’t write genre fiction.
And I didn’t write it.
And I didn’t write it.
And then, I did.
I had never stopped reading it, enjoying it, or hiding it. But I think when I started to think about actually writing it that something shifted inside of me—the Writer Self began speaking to the Reader Self on a much deeper level. The Reader Self reminded the Writer Self of the fact that I only write because I’m a reader. Writers who don’t read don’t make sense to me—and believe me, I have met more than a few. My Reader Self reminded me that my entire business is to tell stories that people want to read. To tell as many stories as I have in me. And that there is no story unworthy of being told well. That I should write whatever was in me as best I could, spanning genre and thumbing my nose at its strictures, too.
I reminded myself that the reason I enjoy reading modern horror is because a woman named Mary Shelley wrote the genre-defining novel that is considered by many to be the greatest horror novel ever written, a classic masterpiece of writerly genius. There would be no Stephen King without Mary Shelley. There would also be no Stephen King without Dickens, who wrote gripping, human stories about the people and for the people for a penny a word. People forget that he wrote popular pulp fiction. So did Shakespeare. It’s only historical retrospect that labels their works superior to the books being written in the same genres now.
The Brontë sisters wrote Gothic romances. So did Sir Walter Scott and Horace Walpole (in fact, he arguably wrote the first one, the Castle of Otranto, in 1764—a book that saw a lot of action from beneath the mattresses of the Georgians). Classic literature created the molds for much of what is considered trashy pulp now, from horror to romance and back again. And yet, we are taught to scorn the people who read and write the modern descendants of the novels people clutch to their bosoms as though fondling holy relics in a cathedral.
This year, after publishing only literary fiction and poetry, I sold and published my first historical romance to HarperCollins. My dream of signing the dotted line on a contract emblazoned with the header of one of the Big Six had finally come true.
And yet, I admit I felt nervous.
I felt as if I had somehow, possibly, betrayed some aesthetic and artistic code by writing genre fiction. This is really hard to admit, but I was worried that my “literary” writer and reader friends wouldn’t accept me as a newly minted romance novelist. That I was choosing genre-fiction over literary fiction, and there was no going back. That I had gone down a highway with no chance of a U-Turn. That I didn’t know who I was as a writer anymore. Which is weird, because I have always known who I am as a reader. Even though I didn’t always advertise my reading material, I’ve never really worried that reading pulp fiction would injure my delicate readerly sensibilities. Why, then, do I worry so much about genre and writing? It doesn’t make sense. It’s hypocritical. I may not always discuss my predilection for historical romance with the same people with whom I discuss Proust and A.S Byatt, but I still continue to enjoy it. It’s like flipping a secret switch inside my brain, a switch that didn’t come with the model—it was a mod. At some point in my reading life I had been neatly bisected down the middle, my “serious” literary self on one side, and my carefree, genre-fiction loving self on the other.
But it isn’t that easy, is it? It’s not so cut-and-dried. How can anyone claim that someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, who writes “genre” fiction, isn’t a master writer and a modern-day literary genius? Because she is. And so, in my opinion, is Stephen King. And among my romance-writing colleagues, there are many a Shakespearean professor and History PhD. among them. Which sounds like I am saying that the genre is therefore redeemed because Ivy-League educated women write them. That’s not what I mean. What I am really trying to get at is that genre-elitism is divisive and pretentious. It doesn’t matter what you read and write. Anything can be a work of beauty and meaning, or a load of rubbish, or simply an enjoyable distraction from the difficult business of being alive. Why do we ascribe status and hierarchy to every word that passes before our eyes? It’s exhausting. And most likely pointless. It certainly doesn’t save us from reading bad books. Nor does it make sure we read all the good ones. And if it does neither of those things, I don’t see what the point of literary segregation is.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Books are either well-written or badly-written”. He said absolutely nothing about genre. I’ve read as many badly-written serious “literary” novels as I have counterpart genre (aka page-turner, pot-boiler fluff) fiction. Why are they redeemed in public consciousness simply by virtue of their genre, and books with heaving bosoms or Halloween masks on the cover are condemned by the notion that they are not literary, no matter how riveting the plot or elegant the style in which it was written? Why is Mary Shelley okay and not Stephen King? Why is Jane Austen marvelous but not Julia Quinn? And why are some of if not many of the people I know averting their gaze from the fact that I just had my first novel published by one of the biggest publishing houses in the world as if I have made an alarming and very public and humiliating faux-pas? If I had written a different style of novel, someone would have thrown me a party by now. As it is, I feel like I am supposed to be apologizing—justifying myself as a fallen writer.
And you know what? I don’t want to! I’ve written a book I am proud of, in a genre I enjoy reading. I am excited that perfect strangers all over the planet are reading the words I wrote for them. And when they decide whether or not it is a bad book or a good book, I hope genre won’t come into it. I am not saying I am the next Emily Brontë. I’m not saying I am equal to the celebrated Julia Quinn. What I am saying is that I think we could, the three of us, sit down at a table together and have a lot to talk about. The same person could read novels written by all three of us, and Stephen King, and anyone else they damned well pleased, and not wonder what it says about them. It says enough that s/he is reading.
Dear Reader, what I am saying is this: read a lot. Read whatever you want. Don’t read anything you don’t want to read because you think you should. Let’s just read. Anything. Everything. As much as possible for as long as we can. I will work on sewing the two halves of my Reader Self together again, because really, there is so much bleed-through going on, I don’t think the vivisection ever really took.
We don’t need to be ashamed of what we read and write. We don’t need to judge other people for what they read and write. Let’s just remember that it’s all personal taste and opinion. Let’s keep it civil. Let’s remember that when the novel was first invented, it didn’t matter what genre it was, people were supposed to be ashamed of reading one. We’ve come a long way since then. Let’s keep on going. We’re not done yet.
I’ll write stories, whatever I have in me. I’ll read everything I can get my hands on. You do the same. Then let’s sit down and discuss the latest Lisa Kleypas, contrasted and compared with the most recent A.S Byatt, before moving on to the relative merits of E.L. James. We don’t have to like what each other reads. Hell, we don’t even have to like what we read. We can think it utter crap, or literary perfection, or a pleasant post-tea and pre-nap afternoon diversion. But not because of genre. Clear out the bedsprings, my friends! Air out your literary laundry. Let the end of Genre Bigotry dawn. Who knows but the next Thomas Hardy could be lurking at the bottom of your massive, teetering pile of refuse-to-reads. Or at the bottom of mine. I’ll check now, and let you know. You can borrow it as long as you give it back or pass it on to someone who might love or hate it, too. And then pick up another book and do it all again, ad infinitum and beyond.
Morgan Kelly reads and writes in every conceivable genre. A Brontëite, a Whovian, a Xenaphile, and a Buffyonian, she loves storylines with kick-ass heroines, brooding heroes with fine style, and meaningful, witty dialogue. Her first spooky Gothic historical romance novel came out this year with Avon/HarperCollins. She likes to think Midnight In Your Arms is the bastard love child of Daphne Du Maurier and Ernest Hemingway with Emily Brontë as a Godmother. Her ideal tea party would include Sylvia Plath, Lou Reed, Her Majesty the Queen of England, and you. You can be her fan on Facebook; friend, fan, or follow her reviews on Goodreads, and read her blog posts on her official website.