Genre shame

One of my favourite aspects of being a writer - probably the favourite part, honestly - is getting messages from readers. It’s a profoundly satisfying and validating thing to hear from others who have read my words. If you’re one of the people who has written to me, I’m deeply grateful. If you haven’t, I’m still grateful to you for reading. It’s a sunny day here in Edinburgh, and there’s plenty of gratitude to go around.

Most of the mail I get is about my more intimate, reflective pieces, such as the personal essays here. The sender often talks about their own analogous experiences, which is a touching demonstration of trust, and very moving for me. It’s my belief that we ought to be sharing these difficult, vulnerable parts of ourselves, because they have the most potential to unite us with others.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing a novel. The first draft is complete (I wrote about what I learned while writing it), and I’m now embarking on the second draft revisions. After the revised and final drafts, I’ll be self-publishing it on the Kindle store, and perhaps in other formats later.

The day that the novel is released into the world is now distantly visible to me, after being shrouded in fog for many months. As that day draws closer, a certain buried feeling of unease increases.

Let me just get this over with: my novel is an adventure thriller. It’s in a pulp genre. This is my confession to you, even though there should be nothing to confess.

People who read my work in magazines, and particularly here on this site, tend to expect that my long-form fiction will be literary (whatever that really means). Nope. I’m also not writing pure sci-fi, despite my repeatedly-professed love of the major TV franchises in that genre.

I feel some guilt, or maybe shame about that. I shouldn’t, I know. But there it is. I’m hampering my own enjoyment of those moments when readers get in touch to say that some of my writing had meaning for them, because a traitorous part of my mind then whispers that maybe I’ll be letting these people down when I publish a pulp novel. It’s a crazy way to think, but a hard feeling to dispel.

My tone when writing fiction, at the moment anyway, isn’t the same tone I use in my most reflective pieces. In my essays, my tone is introspective, melancholy, and flits between hyper-detailed description of the moment, and figurative reflection. I’m not going to either defend it or apologise for it; it’s just how I write, because it’s how I think and feel when I’m talking about real things that matter to me. It seems to have resonance for readers, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Fiction matters to me too, very deeply. Stories are how we contextualise the world, and they can embody our hopes, let us test our fears safely, and give us a framework on which we can hang our fantasies. Stories are incredibly important, not just as entertainment or cultural artefacts, but as tools and nourishment for our minds. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

When I’m worried about something - or even actually scared - I chew it over privately for a while. Then, I explore how and why I feel that way by writing about it. In almost every case, I share those explorations here, because you probably have some of those feelings too, and maybe seeing that you’re not alone can help you. It certainly helps me when I’m the reader and someone else has shared something important.

I’m doing that here and now. I’m sharing this vague pre-emptive shame, which is probably the constant companion of most authors. I’m holding my hands up and saying, yes, it’s pulp genre fiction. I’m going to be dabbling in related genres in future, like horror, maybe even sci-fi, and anything else that takes my fancy. Am I comfortable with it? Not yet. But I’m getting there. It’s helping to have this talk with you. I appreciate you lending a sympathetic ear yet again.

Maybe you’re a writer too, perhaps even in the most unseemly, maligned genres like horror, young adult, romance, the sparkly vampires phenomenon, or whatever Fifty Shades is. I salute you. If people want to read it, you’re justified in writing it - even if the only reader is yourself. Stories are their own truth, and their own justification. I truly believe that.

I’m slowly coming around to accepting that what I want to do (besides continuing to write essays and articles, of course) is to tell stories. Specifically, I want to tell stories for as wide an audience as possible, and to write something that I’d enjoy reading.

I have the Aeneid on my bookshelf, and I’ve read it - in various English translations and in Latin. But you’ll also find Dan Brown there, and Clive Cussler. There’s a load of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Michael Crichton makes a few appearances. My Kindle is stuffed with Scott Mariani, David Meyer, Alex Lukeman, and James Rollins. Lovecraft and Poe. You’ll find Homer and Alighieri too, but you won’t often find me reading them unless a particular mood strikes.

I’m OK with that. I will be OK with that.

Will I write something long-form and literary in future? Very possibly. My tone will evolve too, inevitably. It’s my hope that the shame will fade too. For now, I can only follow my instincts and interests.

If that changes your opinion of my writing, and of me, well… I can sort of see where you’re coming from. That’s the struggle I’m having, and why we’re having this talk.

Perhaps neither of us knew me as well as we thought.

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My writing is supported by readers like you. Any contribution helps enormously.