Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Boxes and Boundaries

I had an email from Will, my editor at Macmillan, yesterday which was not the hoped-for offer to publish The Last Free City. On the other hand, neither was it a rejection. Instead, it was a request to linger a little longer over the decision while various factors are taken into account. One of these, reasonably enough, is the sales performance of The Dog of the North, but more interestingly there's also the consideration that they can't work out what kind of book it is (I paraphrase Will's views here).

This isn't a post about the iniquities of the publishing industry--after all, The Last Free City may still appear under the MNW banner--but instead about genre. Like it or not, books are not just 'books'. Someone has to sell them, and for that they need to have a label. It's all very well to rage about the artificiality of genre boundaries, but the fact is readers like them just as much as booksellers. Genre labels are here to stay, and that's something we all have to live with.

That isn't such good news for The Last Free City: it's a fantasy without most of the trappings of fantasy; an historical novel about a place that never existed; a romance punctuated with shocking violence; an action novel with long periods of reflection. No wonder Macmillan don't know how to sell it. Readers of fantasy, of historicals, of romance, of action, might all find much to enjoy - but equally they will find their expectations confounded at key points (I'm actually making the novel sound much better than it is here...). From an artistic point of view, I can defend this as healthy and challenging; but I can understand marketers taking a rather different perspective.

The downside of the genre boxes is that it can make work which is genuinely original and contemptuous of accepted boundaries difficult to sell. Genres are self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing: the more books that are bought which fit the mould, the thicker those walls become. (This can create a different set of problems: I'm bursting with admiration for Brian McGilloway who can operate wholly within his genre boundaries and yet create something fresh and original).

So what kind of book is The Last Free City? If pushed, I'd go for that sub-genre of fantasy sometimes known as fantasy of manners. This is characterised thus:

Major influences on the subgenre include the social novels of Jane Austen, the drawing room comedies of P. G. Wodehouse, and the historical romances of Georgette Heyer. Many authors also draw from nineteenth century popular novelists such as Anthony Trollope, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens. Traditional romances of swashbuckling adventure such as The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, or the works of Rafael Sabatini may also be influences. The Graustarkian romances typified by The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, or George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark itself, are also of some consequence as literary precedents, as are the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett.
A typical fantasy of manners tale will involve a romantic adventure that turns on some point of social punctilio or intrigue. Magic, fantastic races, and legendary creatures are downplayed within the genre, or dismissed entirely. Indeed, but for the fact that the settings are usually entirely fictional, some of the books considered "fantasy of manners" could be considered as historical fiction. Ellen Kushner is perhaps the definitive writer of fantasy of manners tales; almost all of her novels have some of the traits of the genre, and her homoerotic Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners (1987) is considered as the epitome of the genre. An earlier example, and possibly the first true fantasy of manners, is the Gormenghast series (specificially the first two books) by Mervyn Peake
Is there still a market for this kind of thing? You tell me--or better yet, tell Macmillan's marketing department!

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Frances Garrood said...

How very frustrating for you, Tim. I really do sympathise, especially after the long wait. This genre thing is a pain, isn't it. Either a book is a good read or it isn't. I never really thought about genre until MNW (and still haven't discovered my own). I just read books I enjoyed, and never even considered the matter. Now that's all changed. But I'll keep my fingers crossed for Dog of the North, and really hope that your novel will be published eventually.

no said...

Keeping fingers, and everything else, crossed for you.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks chaps.

If does end up turned down, I'd rather that at least it's on the grounds of unmarketability rather than out and out rubbishness...

Alis said...

OK, clearly what we need to do is to mobilise anybody and everybody we know to go and buy TDOTN... and make you into a brand. We'd see 'A Novel of Mondia' on the front cover and know what a genre-busting treat of fantasy manners we were in for.
But oh my goodness, your comment:'If does end up turned down, I'd rather that at least it's on the grounds of unmarketability rather than out and out rubbishness...' rang such bells with me as I wait for the decision on Not One of Us! Web Admin said...

Hi Tim

I understand this situation quite keenly as The Black Hours was pretty much a similar problem, i.e. not an MFW Curran book and so didn't fit the brand they had in mind for me.

The problem of being published by a "giant" is that the question of marketable fiction is a little higher on the agenda than perhaps the quality of the fiction (though both are never neglected). It's a small thing though, because we're all adult enough to understand we're in a business and that these are business decisions, and that we’re pretty damned lucky to be published by Pan Macmillan.
The fact the Last Free City hasn’t been knocked back but is in limbo is still encouraging because it hasn’t been turned away for the lack of quality. I guess this means that should the book become a ‘free agent’, then you’ll probably be able to find a home for it elsewhere, while at the same time the doors will still be open for you at Macmillan New Writing (as I understand, for former authors they almost always are).

From someone who wrote a completely unmarketable book in 2002, when Historical Fantasy didn’t exist (agents and publishers had a problem with mixing horror and history), I would say persevere. The Secret War was picked up when publishers discovered that fantasy sub-genre had legs, and books that nod to fantasy but without the obvious trappings may well come back into focus at a later date.
But I’m crossing everything, hoping that the marketing department believe they have something special in their hands…

David Isaak said...

We used to have a very bad Western drama on TV over here called "Branded."

It's a problem--even if you're successful. I've heard that Ken Follett met with massive resistance when he decided to write historicals rather than thrillers--and he was staying within accepted genre bounds.

Tim Stretton said...

David, the really odd thing is that I was worried it was too similar to the Dog - more politcal intrigues, more duels, more grubby moral compromises...But now they think I've strayed from the brand. Curious!