In 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?
The 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:
- are some genre novels sloppy and some not?
- is the quality of being sloppy an inseparable accidens of any novel which may be sorted into any genre?
- 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.)
- 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 years 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.
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..