The main concept: is it necessary to eliminate literary categories?
Hilary Mantel, in her 2017 Reith lecture, which has recently been published in a posthumous collection of nonfiction titled A Memoir of My Former Self, reflects on the early days of her career as a novelist. This was during the 1970s, when historical fiction was not considered respectable or highly regarded. It was often associated with historical romance. Mantel shares that even if someone read an exceptional novel like I, Claudius, they wouldn’t label it as historical fiction, but rather as literature. Therefore, she was hesitant to label her own work as such. However, she still pursued her desire to write a novel about the French Revolution, as she couldn’t find one that she truly enjoyed. Thus, she began crafting her own story.
In 1979, the author completed A Place of Greater Safety, a remarkable depiction of the revolutionaries Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins. However, the novel was not published until 1992, despite the author’s belief that the French Revolution was a fascinating topic. She later revealed that it had been widely rejected, possibly due to a lack of interest from the reading public or publishers. In order to finally get published, she wrote a contemporary novel called Every Day Is Mother’s Day. It wasn’t until she contributed to a Guardian article about unpublished first novels that A Place of Greater Safety was finally released.
The category of a book can be a restrictive concept, as it does not reflect the unique processes of writing and reading. Instead, it primarily serves the interests of those in the publishing, retail, and commentary industries, who aim to sell books efficiently and rapidly. This is not a criticism of the skilled individuals in these fields, who often challenge the labels imposed by the industry in order to prioritize quality over sales.
Let’s take a look at the most problematic category: “literary fiction”. While it may include elements from crime, horror, thriller, science fiction, espionage, and romance, it ultimately lacks any real significance and serves only as a vague label for what is considered clever or ambitious, or for books that are not easily understood by the average reader. What if we were to eliminate this non-existent category entirely? The result would likely be minimal, except that we would be able to approach books without preconceived notions.
Can we classify Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, last year’s Booker prize winner, as a ghost story due to its deceased protagonist, or as a thriller as he must uncover his own murderer? Is it a historical novel for its backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, or speculative fiction for its depiction of the afterlife? How do we categorize past winners like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo or Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings?
Finding ways to describe narratives is not itself the problem, and nor is genre in the wider sense. An understanding of literary traditions that have formed over centuries and across cultures is not essential to the enjoyment of an individual book, but helpful to a broader appreciation of how texts interact with one another through recurring styles and motifs. The urge to categorise has had a deadening effect, reinforcing hierarchies that rely on an idea of what is “serious” and what is not, and by the genuinely liberating understanding of literature, in all its forms, as a playful, thoughtful, experimental tussle with words and ideas.
This does not mean that one cannot enjoy exploring the many paths of literature. During the lockdowns, I found solace in a specific type of psychological thriller: domestic noir. These stories typically feature a female protagonist whose seemingly perfect life is disrupted by a combination of unresolved issues (a distant or problematic husband, a failed home renovation, financial struggles, difficult children) and the introduction of an outsider, often a glamorous new neighbor. I was intrigued by how these novels captured modern anxieties of the middle class, such as property values, long-term relationships, education, and career stagnation, and then offered a solution through the arrival of a disruptor, only to reveal that the current status quo may not be so bad after all. Often set in affluent London suburbs, these books also included vacation trips to a rented villa that not everyone could afford, where a body would inevitably turn up amid abandoned plates of tzatziki and glasses of retsina. I started to imagine writing a parody of these stories called “Kitchen Island,” but I lack the talent and cleverness to do so. These entertaining reads were also skillfully crafted tales with impressive plots and atmosphere.
That I might feel these novels were, in that grimly joyless phrase, “guilty pleasures” because I read them more quickly than I might read the work of Jon Fosse or James Baldwin or Isabel Waidner is to misunderstand the potential of variousness. They were simply another facet of my reading life, speaking to a different impulse, yielding a different reward. I might eat a boiled egg for lunch and immerse myself in a complicated recipe of unfamiliar ingredients at dinner time; finish a cheerful romcom and then turn to a painstakingly detailed documentary. These are not perceived as contradictions, but as perfectly reasonable options available to those of us lucky enough to have them.
I am currently diving into a fresh novel called “Orbital” by Samantha Harvey, who happens to be one of my preferred modern authors. The story takes place in outer space, aboard a spacecraft orbiting the Earth, with a diverse crew of astronauts experiencing physical, mental, and emotional transformations. Harvey’s previous novel, “The Western Wind,” was set in the year 1491 and she has also explored topics such as Alzheimer’s disease, Socrates, adultery, and sleeplessness. How would you categorize that?
Hilary Mantel’s Memoir of My Former Self (published by John Murray for £25)
The book Orbital, written by Samantha Harvey and published by Jonathan Cape, is priced at £14.99.
George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is published by Bloomsbury and costs £10.99.