Spring Conference Blog: Transcending Genre

Posted on April 5, 2019 in News & Reviews, Scotland

Chaired by Eris Young, writer in residence at Lighthouse Books and managing editor of fantasy magazine Aether/Ichor

Panellists:

Ann Landmann, Founder, Cymera Festival

Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director, Canongate

Lina Langlee, Literary Agent, Kate Nash Agency

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Kicking off, Ann Landmann defended the necessity of categories: as organiser of a sci-fi/fantasy/horror festival, genre is an essential denominator for her audience and speakers. Francis Bickmore countered that genre is a necessary evil, a ‘hoop to throw books through’, making the case that each book is its own genre.

All acknowledged genre has uses in e.g. bookshops. Landmann, a former bookseller, told us that humans like categorising things. And bibliographic data is among the few things totally within the publisher’s control. It’s important to get your BIC codes as accurate as possible – but it’s just one mechanism of many. As Lina Langlee pointed out, a huge part of marketing genre is the package. Cover design signals genre. Readers often want a reliable experience, and that’s why they are drawn to these instantly recognisable books.

Langlee thinks about genre a lot more now that she selects her own books to work on, rather than books commissioned by someone else. Like Bickmore, she considers projects on a book-by-book basis: ultimately, she needs to love the writing and the story. However, she balances her list so she isn’t representing multiple authors in the same genre and putting them in direct competition.

Michel Faber’s work transcends genres. Under the Skin is, arguably, sci-fi – but some reviewers wouldn’t see it as such because they ‘don’t read sci-fi’. Canongate build author identities: you follow distinct voices wherever they go. Sales and marketing departments are not always on board with this. (Nor, it seems, is Landmann, who argued from experience that people are too stuck in their ways to try out different genres.)

The chair asked where genre elitism comes from, and how do we push back?

Literary reviewers and literary novelists, apparently: Langlee thinks about readers, people reading SFF, romance – the books that don’t get reviewed in the press. According to Landmann, the press are equally unwilling to cover Cymera Festival, focusing their attentions on events like EIBF, where there are only a handful of authors writing in genres she likes to read. Bickmore advocated for the fantastic communities around genre fiction, like the supportive and friendly Scottish crime scene, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association. All novelists feel excluded, he claimed, but literary novelists particularly have a habit of defining themselves against the others.

Is our relationship with genre changing? Bickmore argued that thanks to TV and internet, culture is more accommodating to pluralism. Langlee agreed readers and writers have more freedom to jump between genres, but definitions of genre are becoming tighter. Young suggested the strictness Langlee was talking about came from top-down marketing decisions, but Bickmore’s ‘plurality’ came from readers, who are reading more widely. This was backed up by an anecdote from Langlee about a ‘really funny crime writer’ she’s taken on, whose manuscript has been passed between baffled commercial fiction and crime editors – nobody sure what to do with a project that defies neat pigeonholes.

There is a tension, Young said, between cleaving to the market and responding to change. Bickmore compared it to the difference between commercial American radio versus John Peel – like John Peel, you want to celebrate the miscellaneous, and publish books people will die for, not just the equivalent of the song they’re least likely to turn off.

Blog by Sarah Barnard, Membership Secretary