The Pleasures of Genre

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Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.

First Page

January 1, 1806 | Stanford On Avon, Northamptonshire

“A burial is not the way to start a day, let alone a year.”

Cranny—Lucien Charles Sedgewick, 12th Duke of Cranleigh—took no comfort from his friends’ grunts of agreement. The corpse-grey morning seemed surly, as if it knew 1806 had arrived with Death as its companion.

And a close friend—Edward Melton, heir to the Earl of Highgate—was Death’s first prize.

Faust squeezed Cranny’s shoulder. “Come on, Cranny. It’s time.”

Cranny trudged over the snowy ground and under the earl’s stricken gaze, joined his friends around the funeral wagon. For the first time in two years their close-knit group of ten were together, though not as they’d imagined. Not with Edward in the casket. Even Chipper had left his sick bed and made the arduous journey north, though ill health rendered him too weak to do more than walk behind the casket.

They carried Edward’s casket into the Melton family graveyard where gravestones huddled together like hardened conspirators, forever guarding their grim spoils, even as time and the elements erased the epitaphs they bore. Solemn funerary attendants stepped forward. The urge to scream at them to be gone clawed at Cranny’s throat, but dear, departed Father’s edict—whipped into his flesh and burned by pain into his memory—prevailed.

Do nothing to bring shame on the family name.

They surrendered the casket to the attendants and soon the drone of the clergyman’s voice joined the low moan of the wind. Eyes narrowed against the whirling snow, Cranny braced himself. As the casket descended into the grave a great knot formed in his throat, every creak of the straining ropes hitting his brain with all the power of a blacksmith’s hammer striking the anvil. Edward did not belong in the waiting maw in the cold earth. Not at twenty-six.

Guilt crunched Cranny’s heart, and his blood hammered in his ears while his muscles bunched and quivered with an odd need to do… violence. Some unspeakable cur had attacked Edward and his men and left them dead or dying while the snow bloomed scarlet with their blood. And it is all my bloody fault. His chest hollowed and the ache behind his ribs sharpened, snatching his breath. His vision blurred. God’s teeth. I will not cry like a whelp. Spine rigid, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat and pulled in a lungful of frigid air.

He would see the murderer hang. Dammed if he wouldn’t.

Another gust of wind whipped about him, its icy claws slapping at his greatcoat. What lay beyond the grave? The image of a small, white-haired ghost flashed through his head on a stumbling heartbeat. What in Hades? Perhaps the memory was a reminder that life was fragile. Transient. Perhaps it was a reminder he had yet to fulfill his obligations to his dukedom, lest he fall victim to the family curse and end up in an early grave too.

God. Death was a damned sight more appealing …

First-Page Critique

No one had more lovers,
No one needed love more
She had seven lovers
But only one love and he was…
The King of England.

A “genre” is a type of something, for our purposes a type of novel. Sci-fi, mystery, detective, western, thriller, fan fiction, YA … these are just some of many popular genres of the “novel”which, once upon a time, was itself a literary genre.

A genre implies all the conventions and expectations that adhere to it. As John Mullen explains in How Novels Work, his superbly insightful survey of fictional techniques, “A genre is not just a category for literary critics, it is also a resource for the writer. … Genre offers a challenge by provoking a free spirit to transcend the limitations of previous examples.” Genre gives the writer something invaluable: a set of requirements or constraints to work with or against, rules to obey, or flout—or both.

Novelists and critics alike haven’t always viewed genre in such a positive light. As G.K. Chesterton, whose own detective novels featured a priestly sleuth named Father Brown, lamented back in 1901: “Many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil.” While some, like George Orwell, admitted to enjoying Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, even Orwell drew the line at taking genre fiction seriously.

Others were even less charitable. “Reading mysteries,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “is a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” Such appraisals didn’t go unchallenged. When Wilson’s views went public in 1944, they provoked more letters of protest than anything he’d ever written. Among the dissenters was Raymond Chandler, whose detective novels Wilson judged inferior to anything by Graham Greene. Chandler’s response? “Literature is bunk.”

More recently when President Obama awarded horror novelist Stephen King the Medal of Arts, it caused an uproar among critics, including Harold Bloom, who sniffed, “King is an immensely inadequate writer … [of] what used to be called ‘penny dreadfuls’”— another genre.

Given the rise in both popularity and sophistication of the young adult novel over the past ten years, it’s no longer so easy to look down on genres from the lofty heights of “literary fiction” (itself a genre, albeit with an exalted air, and not really comparable with others since its conventions aren’t fixed). Far from being frowned upon, genre is seen, especially by younger writers, as a vital and vitalizing force. More and more literary novelists—David Mitchell, Annie Proulx, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few—incorporate or pay tribute to genre through hybrid works. The Hunger Games is romance. So is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Emily St. John Mandel’s critically acclaimed Station Eleven is science fiction. Literary fiction’s subsumption by other genres and vice-versa has become so pervasive one must wonder what distinction if any can still be claimed by “pure” literary fiction beyond … uhm … pretentiousness.

Tempting though it may be to flout or otherwise challenge the conventions of genre, there’s also a lot to be said for playing by the rules. In the case of this first page, the genre is the regency romance, a subgenre of the romance novel, the conventions of which Margot Livesey outlines for us in The Hidden Machinery, her delightful book of essays on the novelist’s craft:

  1. The lovers are unlikely in some obvious way.
  2. They meet early and are then separated—either physically or emotionally—for most of the narrative.
  3. There must be significant obstacles—“dragons and demons”—to be overcome.
  4. Changes of setting, even from drawing room to street, are vital for revealing the characters and moving the narrative forward.
  5. Many minor characters will assist the lovers on their journey.
  6. A subplot, or two, is required to keep the lovers apart, to allow time to pass, to act as a foil to the main plot, and to entertain the readers.

Set in the time of the British Regency (1811–1820), regency romances evolved from the “novel of manners” as practiced by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, who dramatized the domestic affairs of the English gentry. The modern regency—written long after but set in the same period—was first popularized by Georgette Heyer, who penned several dozen between 1935 and her death in 1974.

With its provocative opening (“A burial is not the way to start a day, let alone a year”), our first page holds out a model of the form. Though starting right off with dialogue has its risks (namely the confusion attendant with confronting readers with an ungrounded, disembodied conversation-in-progress), it also gets right down to business—namely the business of evoking character, as this opening dialogue does very well. We haven’t met Cranny; we don’t even know his name, yet already this dialogue nails him to the page. It does more: it nails down the point-of-view. Until further notice—to the bottom of this first page, anyway—everything will be filtered through Cranny’s gloomy sensibilities.

That filtering makes use of a technique known as “free indirect discourse” by which the narrator’s voice is colored by the point-of-view character. Note, in the fourth paragraph, the choice of modifiers and verbs (“trudged”, “stricken,” “arduous”), how they convey Cranny’s grim outlook.

Fifth paragraph: the gravestones “huddled like hardened conspirator’s”—more Cranny. All is filtered through his perspective, his personality. Though the “free” in free indirect means that it could be, nothing here is neutral, objective; everything is flavored by our protagonist’s bleak disposition. It’s the salt in this stew.

Rather than attempt to describe characters’ abstract feelings (hard if not impossible), wise writers evoke them as concretely as possible. With “Guilt crunched Cranny’s heart, and his blood hammered in his ears while his muscles bunched and quivered” this author does just that, balancing abstractions (“guilt”) with active, solid nouns (“blood/muscles”) and verbs (“hammered/quivered”). This is but one of many approaches the author uses to render Cranny’s emotional state, from dipping into his thoughts (“I will not cry like a whelp”), to precisely rendering his visible gestures (“he thrust his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat and pulled in a lungful of frigid air”).

Whatever else good writing does, it evokes character. A good rule for determining what to put in and what to leave out: If it evokes character, keep it.

Your First Page SelginThrough a wisely chosen, thoroughly engaged close third-person narration, this author injects us richly, vividly, clearly and precisely into this opening scene, one we inhabit thoroughly. The weather (the wind, the whirling snow), sounds, temperature, thoughts, memories, opinions, and attitudes—all are there, as are actions, gestures, etc. “Literary” or not, genre or no genre, this is good writing.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

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