Sloppy Genre Novels, a Reader’s Perspective

sloppy genre novels NY Times Book reviewIn a recent piece in the New York Times Book Review a well known British novelist is scathing about what she calls “sloppy genre novels”.

I’m currently in Reader Mode. (I’m editing. That always sends me to reading for consolation.) Writerly reaction will have to wait.

But Facebook has shown me that several genre novelists have raised an eyebrow at this apparent attack.

The phrase is racy and moderately memorable. Memorable enough to make it into the puff paragraph, anyway. It is, alas, imprecise.

Attack on Genre Novels?

sloppy genre novels blow landingThe art of the insult, of course, is to leave third parties in no doubt of what you think. In particular, you want to ensure that those whose efforts you have under your cosh are quite certain that the blow has landed.

This phrase doesn’t.

It begs the question:

  1. are some genre novels sloppy and some not?
  2. is the quality of being sloppy an inseparable accidens of any novel which may be sorted into any genre?
  3. is there a sloppy genre? (Possibly what Webster’s dictionary defines as “romantic in a foolish or exaggerated way” and what my friend Professor Brainstawm, whom I have mentioned on this blog before, would call “a bit soppy.” I interpret this to mean that the work deals with human emotions, particularly love, which the characters articulate in a fashion that sends your Restrained Englishman into an agony of embarrassment. Bless.)
  4. does sloppy in this context mean one or all of: careless, slapdash, messy, excessively casual, inattentive, showing a lack of care, attention or effort?

Material for a good argument, maybe, but a bit specialised and likely to end inharmoniously. I’m going to dump this debate in the trash can without regret.

Reader of Genre Novels?

I’ve been reading fiction a long time and I think of books first and foremost as individuals. Like many readers, the only genre I really notice is Harlequin Mills & Boon. And that’s because the books come in a uniform, like air crew.

What’s more, when Amazon tries to persuade me that I’d like more of the same genre, I give a hollow laugh. The theory seems to be: read one Italian detective, read 50 of the blighters.

I mean, you’d laugh if someone said, “You like this Asian thirty-year-old who reads Patrick O’Brian and does parkour, so you’d like all these other Asian 18th-century-naval-fantasists who jump over bits of urban architecture for fun,” wouldn’t you? I mean one Nelson wannabe is enough for anyone.

So if I read Harlequin Mills & Boon I might feel a bit put off by this hectoring Brit telling me that it’s bad. But otherwise, I’m probably not going to identify as a reader of genre fiction.

Reader Seeks Book

But what I am still looking for is what the New York Times “By the Book” format promises me – word of mouth reading recommendations. And not one of the books which she mentions comes out of this interview as really mouth-watering.

In fact, I so profoundly disagree with one of her points, that I wrote a sort of refutation of it seven Sloppy genre novels Hot Water PGWyears ago! If I were going off on holiday to France and wanted, while lounging by the pool, to read about the pre-war drinking class of American expats on the Riviera, I would not choose Tender is the Night. I’d go for Hot Water  by P G Wodehouse.

Professor Norman Geras invited me to write a review of a novel of my choice on his wonderful, quirky, humane blog. He’d had some distinguished guests and even more distinguished book recommendations, so I was particularly gleeful that he accepted PGW. Hot Water, as I said at the time bears comparison with the Fitzgerald in many aspects. And, unlike the semi-autobiographical shenanigans of Fitzgerald’s joyless alcoholics, it is a delight.

sloppy genre PGW But, if you won’t take my word, take the Master’s. It was, wrote PGW on publication, quietly satisfied for once, “A corker. There isn’t an incident in it that doesn’t act as a delayed bomb and lead to an explosion later.”


Small, Select Genre

PGW, of course, virtually created his own genre. Arguably he was joined there by successors Tom Sharpe and the wondrous Terry Pratchett. And not a sloppy book among them, in any of the meanings of the word.

Hot Water. You won’t regret it.

16 thoughts on “Sloppy Genre Novels, a Reader’s Perspective

  1. henriettegyland

    I agree, there wasn’t a single of the “recommended titles” in the New York Times piece I would feel compelled to pick up. They reminded me too much of school, of reading as an exercise in “developing my mind” as opposed to reading for pleasure. And reading is something I do for pleasure, no guilt involved!

    1. Sophie Post author

      So agree about not being guilted into reading stuff, Henri. Life’s too short.

      Actually, when I thought about it afterwards, there are several books and authors I like and one I really love – Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘Little White Horse’. She just didn’t make them sound enticing. Maybe she doesn’t do enthusiasm.

  2. josiebonham

    I entirely agree with you Henriette about reading for pleasure. Reading should be enjoyed.

  3. lesley2cats

    I shall start it this afternoon. Of course, It might fall apart while I’m trying to read it…

  4. lesley2cats

    Comment 2: I’ve just read the piece on Hot Water in Norm’s Blog. Perfectly written by, if you will, a Mini-Plum.

  5. Elizabeth Bailey

    I read that article and as usual the most controversial statement was jumped up to the top in hopes (with some success, I might add) of creating contention and thus ensuring the article spread far and wide. Maybe we should be taking a leaf out of this author’s book and starting something on our own account? Is this the new wave of promo? Hmmm, I can feel a panel discussion agenda coming on 😉

    1. Sophie Post author

      Interesting. I don’t think I have the temperament for self-promotion by combat, though, Liz.

  6. Sue McCormick

    In a recent conversation at dinner, I mentioned to my husband that (some years back but no more than the last 28 years), there was a large wave of glee over a book (love story) called “The Bridges of Madison County.” I read it, enjoyed it, still recall it at times, and am NEVER tempted to read it again. BUT, as I was reading it, I thought “What is all the fuss about? This isn’t any better than “genre writer’s — say, Nora Roberts, or whoever” work is.” And the the genre writers give me more fun; I want to go back and visit with those people.

    I call this type of review a “Jack Horner” review. It isn’t about the book; it’s about the reviewer’s ego.” And the best way to “prove” that you’re better than the hoi-polloi is to put down a genre.

    1. Sophie Post author

      That is such an interesting comparison, Sue. They even turned it into a movie starring not only Meryl Streep but also Clint Eastwood, didn’t they?

      I remember trying to account for it at the time. Of course, it was by a man – I seem to recall that he was called a professor in several of the articles I read, so that would have just about doubled his status over any genre writer’s before any critic had even opened the book.

      He was also a photographer and there was quite a strong hint that the story had autobiographical roots, which is always intriguing in PR terms. And then there’s the Doomed Love thing going on, as in the Lady of the Camellias. Didn’t do Dumas any harm either.

      As for putting down a genre, I fear that you’re right. I’ve noticed it before. I call it the Malvolio Syndrome. “You are lesser things. I am not of your element.”

  7. Rhoda Baxter

    Funny you should mention PGW. I was chatting to a colleague and he asked me what I write. “Romantic comedy”.
    “What’s romantic comedy?”
    I thought about what he read and tried to find an example that would make sense to him. In the end I suggested it was a bit like PG Wodehouse in content (not style) because it was about love and capers and had jokes in it. My colleague was scandalised. He was adamant that PGW did not write romance. His logic went like this:
    I do not read romance. I read (and like) PG Wodehouse. Therefore PG Wodehouse cannot write romance.

    I gave up.
    I love PGW (especially the Blandings books). His style is different to that of modern rom coms, but still. Boy meets Girl, Boy can’t have Girl/ Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl. That’s romance as far as I’m concerned.

    All in all, I don’t think the Dr Gregory’s interview did her any favours.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh, dear, I can just imagine it.

      Of course PGW is quite critical of Rosie M Banks, author of Melvyn Keene, Clubman and Only a Factory Girl, not to mention Madeline Basset who thinks the stars are God’s daisy chain and a baby is born every time a fairy blows its wee nose. I suppose we can’t entirely blame your colleague

      But he’s certainly up for non-soupy romance. I’m particularly keen on Piccadilly Jim for the love story, actually.

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