Morgan Kelly’s Musings on Genre, Fiction-Tradition, and Reading What You Love

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. 

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto

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.

Lisa Kleypas’ Mine Till Midnight

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.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars

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.

Morgan Kelly’s Midnight in Your Arms

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.

38. Midnight in Your Arms by Morgan Kelly

Published in 2012 by Avon Impulse.

“Her dreams would take her there, and she would run through its sunlit, eerie halls as free as a little deer in the wood. It was the first time she understood that sunlight did not dispel terror, any more than terror was wholly unenjoyable. Rather, she found she liked being terrified. It was a feeling so pure, so deep, that everything else quite paled in comparison. Stonecross was both her worst nightmare and her deepest wish fulfilled. It was with her in every season, at any time of day or night. She need only close her eyes, and step into her dreams, like Alice through the looking glass.”

Laura Dearborn is no stranger to ghosts. They have whispered their secrets, grievances and regrets into her ears for much of her life. It is only in the aftermath of World War I that necessity impels her to use these skills for sustenance. The burden of collecting shillings for a psychic medium’s soul-wearying work swiftly takes its toll, so when Laura receives word of a most startling inheritance, she wastes little time. Bound and determined to embrace Stonecross Hall as her own — as she has long felt in her bones, reason be damned, that it must be hers — she finds herself thrown into the non-corporeal arms of Alaric Storm III, a Crimean war veteran who reigned and brooded behind Stonecross’ fine mullioned windows … some sixty years’ hence.

There is a well-stocked arsenal of reasons why Midnight in Your Arms could spoil one for regular romance reading, not least of which is its ornate attention to detail. Many writers in this genre seem to consider that a surfeit of heaving bosoms and undone cummerbunds will compensate for meagre plotting and substandard research — not so with Morgan Kelly’s debut novel. Multiple nods to architectural awareness are made in every description of Stonecross Hall, which, by the end of this supernaturally delightful read, will feel legitimately like a character in its own right. The accoutrements of Laura’s trade; the sharp contrast of fiercely beautiful moorland terrain with soot-choked London’s ennui: these are rendered so convincingly that we taste the sea-salt spray; we see the spirit board’s planchette move with or without the guidance of our shaking fingers.

War stalks the pages of the novel, and the memories of those who have known its bitter draught. Laura and Alaric are haunted by far more than pleasing, maddening glances of each other. They have both seen too much, lived through more than they can forget. As Laura muses, during her first night within Stonecross’ alternately comforting and goosebump-inducing walls,

“She wanted a man who wanted her. So few of the men who had returned seemed to want anything, and she certainly could not see herself with a man who had not fought. It seemed to her that there would be something essential missing, a sort of joint, generational understanding. No one who hadn’t been on the front line could fully understand her. She needed a man who knew what it was like to live with ghosts.”

Our hero and heroine have been tempered by more than cotillions and cocktail parties; theirs are irreversibly wounded lives in which the knowing of each other is an unlooked for bridge of solace — a beacon across dark water that assures with each glinting semaphore, you are not alone. 

That the two lovers should cross paths almost instantaneously seems to be a hallmark of popular contemporary bodicerippers. Midnight in Your Arms shies away from this. Instead of sending Laura and Alaric careening into each other’s clutches on the first page, the writer takes time to establish each of them in their separate, individual worlds. This might not curry favour with readers used to more immediate gratification. In truth, it strikes one as a calculated, bold move — a statement that assures even the most seasoned of romance readers that not everything allegedly outside the realm of ‘serious fiction’ is a foregone conclusion. Kelly’s careful world-establishment, of Laura in the 1920s and Alaric in the 1860s, is a nod to considerate stage setting, infrequently seen in titles of this ilk.

For the ways in which this tale charts new territory for romance writing, it plumbs depths that resound at the heart of any intense love story — that notion of two souls finding their fate in the other. We rarely read romance to be reasoned with, and Kelly’s contemplation of the lengths to which men and women can go to find unison with that truest, unflinching other part of themselves makes for an immensely gratifying, toe-curling read. This story offers us one of the most spectacular leaps of reason, the idea of time that bends to the will of era-crossed inamoratos. It makes it less suited to those who prefer their romance cut and dry, dressed up in business suits and stuffed with dirty martinis. An ideal adorer of Laura and Alaric’s adventure is more likely to be found mapping the constellations and dreaming of Dr. Who, fancying herself at home in the novels of Diana Gabaldon and Ursula K. LeGuin — or one who challenges himself with questions of how Ennis and Jack might have fared as gunslinging vaqueros with robotic arms in 2027.

Laura herself triumphantly declares to Alaric, when their twinned future seems most tenebrous, “Time isn’t what we think it is. It’s something so much more. It’s infinite. This moment is endless. We will be here like this forever, even after we are both dead and gone.” 

Morgan Kelly, with her inaugural Charleston in that vast, glittering ballroom of romantic fiction, made me think of quantum physics side by side with ardent kisses. This, and other her glass-ceiling-shattering feats of talented composition in any genre, makes Midnight in Your Arms an oft-astonishing pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it, I clasped my Kindle tight to my chest, and thought, “I would so love to ask Laura Dearborn on a date… that is, if Alaric Storm III could be prevailed upon to spare her for one dance.” He probably wouldn’t, but, as the best romance reminds us over and over again, stargazing is not merely admissible, but perfectly necessary.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Morgan Kelly, through Avon/ Harper Voyager/ HarperCollinsPublishers for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.