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Monday musings on Australian literature: Genre Worlds

November 20, 2017

While reading the GenreCon 2017 twitter feed, which resulted in last week’s Monday Musings, I came across the twitter handle @PopFicDoctors. Intrigued, I checked them out and discovered they are behind a research project and manage the website Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-first Century. The project is being funded by an ARC (Australian Research Council) Discovery Project Grant, for three years from 2016 to 2018. It involves four academics (the Doctors!) from universities in Queensland, Melbourne and Tasmania. You can read more about them on the site’s Research Team page.

Popular fiction is, they say, “the most significant growth area in Australian trade publishing since the turn of the century” and so their project has been framed “to systematically examine 21st-century Australian popular fiction”. Fascinating. On one level it seems a bit weird to me, with the second decade of the century not even over, to be studying trends in the 21st Century. However, having learnt a lot about Australian popular fiction through my involvement in the Australian Writers Challenge, I can see that the chosen topic – Australian popular fiction – is worth researching. I’ll be intrigued to see what the PopFic Doctors come up with.

They identify their areas of investigation as:

  • the publishing of Australian popular fiction;
  • the interrelationships between Australian popular fiction and Australian genre communities; and
  • the textual distinctiveness of Australian popular novels in relation to genre.

To do this, they will focus on thirty novels in three genres (fantasy, romance and crime) in order to produce “a comprehensive picture of the practices and processes of Australian popular fiction”. (I’d love to see their list but I don’t see it on the website.) The research process involves “detailed examination of trade data, close reading of texts, and interviews with industry figures.” That sounds comprehensive – and, to me, interesting. They have produced a flyer documenting what they achieved in the first year of the project.

GenreWorlds Conference

Now, back to Twitter, I was initially confused about some of their #GCoz tweets because they said they were at “GenreWorlds”. Well, the website explains it. Genre Worlds was a one-day academic conference that was run in association with GenreCon. Its specific areas of interest were: Genre Fiction and New Media, Genre Elements in Play, Industry Developments, Travelling through Time and Space, Genres and Society, and Shaping Genre Fiction.

And so, as I did last week, I’m going to share some of the info I gleaned from that conference’s tweets (#genreworlds17) with the tweeter’s username given in brackets, where not otherwise identified.

Romance fiction

One of the presentations that was popular with tweeters was Dr Sandra Barletta’s on “women of a certain age” in Romance fiction. Claire Parnell tweeted Barletta as saying ‘Romance as a genre for everyone consistently depicts older women as Other’. Other tweets on her paper were:

  • Romance fiction has been at the forefront of acknowledging the importance of diverse representation, but still largely fails to include older women as part of this. (PopFic Doctors)
  • Older women face a double standard in media in regards to fuckability that does not apply to men aka the silver foxes. (Claire Parnell)
  • Romance publishers are starting to seek mature women protagonists … but define mature as 35-45. (Claire Parnell)

So older women are “other” and just 35 to 45 years old! There’s a way to go yet … and Barletta apparently threw out the challenge:

Sandra Barletta’a advice to publishers, writers: Flatter us. Give us something to aspire to be instead of old. Reshape what we see, because what we see matters. Come to the forefront of social change–and make money! (PopFic Doctors)

Other tweets on Romance fiction told me that “Self-published romance has grown substantially from 2010-11 to 2015-16″ (Claire Parnell) and that “Romance far outstrips other genres” (Kate Cuthbert).

And then there was this interesting one about Romance heroes in Harelquin novels versus self-published ones: “@cparnell_c research found Harlequin novels feat. heroes w/ ‘masculine’ jobs – cowboys, officers – and self-pub novels feat heroes w/ wealth-based jobs” (Kate Cuthbert).

Other genres

There were tweets about other genres and sub-genres too. Did you know, for example, that there’s such a thing as Football Fiction? I didn’t, but this tweet informed me: “Representation of female protagonists in YA football fiction is fairly equal. Lee McGowan suggests this is because fiction offers women a place to see themselves in sport when streaming on tv is limited” (Claire Parnell). I think something has been lost in the translation to twitter here, but I’m intrigued that this sub-genre exists.

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists

Disguised Speculative Fiction perhaps?

There was also interest in something called interstitial fiction. Laurie Ormond tweeted “Interstitial fiction (blending literary and genre tropes) has been increasingly visible in the last few years” and Angela Hannah tweeted “Are you reading speculative fiction disguised as literary fiction? Interesting discussion of interstitial fiction”. I’m a bit uncertain about the point being made here regarding “disguise”, but Laurie Ormond, probably reporting on the same presentation, tweeted “Literary works are deploying techniques and tropes of genre fiction to explore climate change”.

And here’s another tweet about the relationship between genre, literary fiction and classification: “Australian noir is closely linked to literary fiction and is not always categorized as noir – Leigh Redhead” (Claire Parnell). Is this implying that Australian noir is/can be disguised as literary fiction?

Oh, and there was also talk of New Adult Fiction, but I don’t have many tweets for that – a topic for another day.

On readers, book clubs and literary fiction

Of course, as a reader, I was particularly interested in tweets about the reading end of the spectrum, and there were a few of these.

It’s so fantastic hearing other academics talking about the significance of book clubs and reader experience. (Caitlin Francis)

A couple of other tweets referred to book clubs and their focus on literary fiction:

  • Vassiliki Veros – ‘literary fiction’ dominates library & online clubs. Q&A: lack of ‘gf book club guides.’ (Lynette Haines)
  • Librarians are cultural gatekeepers, especially when selecting books for book clubs @VaVeros(Beth Driscoll)

I’d love to have heard this presentation by librarian-academic, Veros. My reading group rarely uses book club/reading group guides because we have rarely found the questions relevant to how we discuss books, so it’s interesting to see Haines’ tweet suggesting that the lack of such guides for genre fiction may be one reason for such fiction being less commonly read by reading groups. However, being a librarian, albeit a retired one who didn’t work in this area, I take the point about the gatekeeper role played by librarians. They should be alert to the needs of their readers – that’s their job – but selection is always a juggle.

If there’s one overall thing I’ve gleaned from the tweets, it’s that more will be said about the relationship between genre and literary fiction!

Anyhow, there were other intriguing tweets, including one about genre-tagging by GoodReads’ members, but I think this is enough. I was pleased to read that papers from this Conference will be published in a special edition of Australian Literary Studies. I’ll be looking out for it. You may hear more as a result!

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had enough of genre, I’d love to know if anything here has caught your attention.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2017 12:00 am

    The one genre that I take a real interest in is SF and listening recently to Multiverse – a collection of stories paying tribute to Poul Anderson – it was fascinating to hear what an important part conferences played in connecting both writers to readers and writers to writers.

    • November 21, 2017 8:06 am

      Yes, Bill, I guess it’s just like the general writers festivals, except I suspect with genre festivals being so much more targeted the connections are easier and quicker to make.

  2. November 21, 2017 1:14 am

    “it’s interesting to see Haines’ tweet suggesting that the lack of such guides for genre fiction may be one reason for such fiction being less commonly read by reading groups.” The book club list as a gate keeper! Luckily in our small book club, adherence to the list is tenuous as best. And the categories are very broad, allowing them to be checked off by a book of virtually any genre. But then, we don’t all read the same book at the same time. Perhaps this is atypical. Sounds like a cool conference. I wonder if the growth of genres has to do with the democratization of opinion thru the internet, where we are no longer “told” which books are best by the New York Times for example? Also we know there are others out there with similar preferences so we don’t feel so self conscious indulging our own…

    • November 21, 2017 8:14 am

      Yes I think your group is a little atypical andypop though I do know of a couple of other groups which meet regularly to discuss what they’ve been reading and share books rather than all read the same book.

      That’s an interesting hypothesis re the internet’s role in the increase in genre reading. I can certainly see how that could be. It will be interesting to see if they explore and/or find this.

  3. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    November 21, 2017 4:29 pm

    I am in awe of how you unearth these gems, Sue. Thank you for sharing. I am thinking of what ‘New Adult Fiction’ would be. I wonder if it would be about the infamous millennials. 🙂

    • November 21, 2017 7:57 pm

      Thanks Deepika. Good guess – love that you gave it a shot! Wikipedia says it’s fiction with 18-30 year old protagonists which I’m guessing is saying it’s for that age group too, so yes that includes some millennials doesn’t it? It seems a little weird to me but I suppose if there are books written particularly with that audience in mind and featuring their issues, it doesn’t hurt to identify it. You clearly haven’t come across it!

  4. November 21, 2017 6:30 pm

    Yeah, well, it does seem a bit weird to me to be researching trends with just 30 books in three genres… I’d be interested to know how much academic credibility that kind of limited research can have, in terms of identifying any trend.
    Whatever…
    I suspect that Terra Nullius would also count as Interstitial fiction – because it blends LitFic and speculative fiction, but I’m mindful of Robert Eaglestone’s thoughts about contemporary fiction in his VSI. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/08/03/contemporary-fiction-a-very-short-introduction-by-robert-eaglestone/)
    He talks about the contemporary blending of Litfic and genre, but that “the boundaries of genre are rigidly enforced by publishers, academics, booksellers and journalists: novels are branded by genre as clearly as cleaning products, so that the book buyer always knows what’s ‘in the tin’”. For me, these blends are not genre fiction at all, because as Eaglestone says “…genre fiction has limitations.  It’s restricted by precisely those things that [most] people like about it”. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than any other kind of fiction, but that’s why it sells so well, because readers know exactly what they’re getting and are happy to part with their money. Once a writer starts dispensing with the predictability of genre fiction, some of their audience will depart. ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office’ plays deliciously with genre tropes, but I know (from Jane Rawson’s own blog and her place in the MUBA awards) that whether it was shelved by gatekeepers or not, it didn’t sell like a work of genre fiction, more’s the pity because it was a beaut book, just as Terra Nullius is.

    • November 21, 2017 7:47 pm

      Yes, it sure will Lisa. I wonder whether the 30 books are just for one aspect of the study – like a case study aspect – but that for the data gathering they’ll look more broadly. We’ll just have to wait.

      And yes, I’m inclined to argue too that if a book departs from the genre “formula” it is no longer that genre, but I guess in a way it depends partly on how far the book departs. Sometimes I suppose a departure might end up being the harbinger of a new formula for its genre. Some of these departures or blends win genre awards as well as literary awards. (The sympathizer won a Crime Award in the US I believe as well as various general fiction awards.)

      It’s interesting, really, that we spend so much time talking about this – but I can’t help being fascinated by how and why different people read. I note too that Historical Fiction is not one of the genres the PopFic Doctors are researching though it was covered in the conference.

      • November 21, 2017 7:52 pm

        Yes, that’s interesting. Historical fiction is the one genre that I most often enjoy!

        • November 21, 2017 8:03 pm

          Yes, me too. I’m wondering if it’s the one that is the least “formulaic”. I mean by this there are the more formulaic historical fiction books – like, these days, Philippa Gregory? – but there’s probably an equal number of books set in historical periods that bear no resemblance to formula? That’s probably not the case for crime, romance and fantasy?

        • November 21, 2017 11:30 pm

          Yes, could be. Year of Wonders is historical fiction, and so is The Half-drowned King and so is Bridget Crack. But of those three, Bridget Crack is the most subversive, while both YOW and THdK interrogate the role of women without being untrue to their period. Whereas the historical fiction I devoured as a girl, e.g. Jean Plaidy was good fun but formulaic.

        • November 22, 2017 8:15 am

          I never did read historical fiction – Plaidy, Heyer – as my friends, like you, did. I think I’ve always had a taste for writing closer to my own time. World War 2 was about as far back as I read though I suppose there were exceptions (well of course, the classics but they’re mostly not historical by definiton). I’ve come to like historical fiction more in adulthood, but of the more analytical ilk you describe here. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books are a good example, too, aren’t they? And books like That deadman dance. You can see why these researchers have left this genre alone!

        • November 22, 2017 11:04 am

          *chuckle* I discovered Jean Plaidy when I was given one of her books as a prize at school. I also got a Nan Chauncy at some stage, and Eleanor Dark’s No Barrier. Amazing, eh? I wonder who did the choosing, or if indeed any thought went into it at all…
          Yes, Hilary Mantel, and actually, now I think of it, quite a lot of Indigenous writing, such as Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act. They’re set in an historical time period, but they’re not at all what I think of as historical fiction.

        • November 22, 2017 2:25 pm

          No I agree they’re not what we’d normally think of I agree, but technically they are. Probably a study in their own right!

        • November 22, 2017 2:27 pm

          Oh and at our school we got to choose our own. Each prize had a dollar value and the local bookshop brought in a book display that we could choose from. It was great.

        • November 22, 2017 4:32 pm

          Ouch, that sounds much fairer!

        • November 22, 2017 5:23 pm

          Fairer may not necessarily be the word, but nicer or more guaranteed to please would be right!

  5. November 22, 2017 7:25 am

    New Adult Fiction, really? Pretty soon we are going to genre-ize everything to death — midlife crisis fiction, newly old fiction, old as the hills fiction, not dead yet fiction, 30-something and still living at home fiction. Will it even end??? 😉

    • November 22, 2017 8:16 am

      New Adult fiction has been around for quite some time now. Stories aimed at above teens, specifically, those who are new to adulthood. They have more adult themes than YA but might still be about relationships, uni life, etc.

      • November 22, 2017 8:28 am

        Thanks Theresa. That’s what I rather guessed, but not being into YA at all, I have not had my ear to the ground on what’s been happening, in that area. Is there substantial Australian output here, or is it mostly American ?

        • November 22, 2017 10:41 am

          It’s taking off in Australia but mostly American. Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire, Katie McGarry, Gayle Foreman and K.A. Tucker are all pioneers in this genre and remain popular. It’s very much begun as ‘college life’ fiction.

        • November 22, 2017 10:59 am

          Ah, that makes sense. And that’s great it’s taking off, particularly if it keeps twenty-somethings reading.

        • November 22, 2017 11:33 am

          I recall reading a study some time back that attributed reading apps on smart phones and the rise in NA fiction as the reason for many older teens and young 20s reading more than ever before. US study only.

        • November 22, 2017 5:17 pm

          That’s interesting, Theresa. I read an English study, I think it was, that said while the twenty somethings were happy with eBooks for study, they preferred print for recreational reading!! May be young US people are different to young UK ones!

        • November 23, 2017 7:57 am

          Perhaps! It depends too who runs a study and for what purpose!

        • November 23, 2017 8:21 am

          Yes, very likely Theresa!

    • November 22, 2017 8:20 am

      Probably not, Stefanie. Where there’s a dollar, there’s probably a marketer willing to call it a genre! Now, “newly old fiction” you were saying?

  6. November 22, 2017 8:14 am

    On ‘women of a certain age in romance fiction’ Australian author Maggie Christensen has all of her main female characters older, as in over 50. Her newest release (reviewed on my site tomorrow) has the female protagonist at 65. She crafts excellent stories focussing on the issues older women who are widowed or long term single face when meeting someone new. She’s quite unique. I have an interview with Maggie coming up in the next few weeks.

    • November 22, 2017 8:25 am

      Oh thanks very much Theresa. I ‘m guessing she’s a bit of an exception. I hope the speakers at that conference know of her. I’ll look out for that review.

  7. November 23, 2017 9:16 am

    I’m being interviewed for this project next month, and have also been part of seminars exploring the ‘world’ of genre fiction – networks, associations, conferences, etc – which is part of the research, as well as the textual analysis. It’s exciting as a genre writer to see scholarly attention in this area.

    • November 23, 2017 9:38 am

      Oh that’s great to hear Angela. I agree that it’s great to see academics researching this area – and in such an engaged, active spirit. I understand their research is threefold – read the books, talk to people, gather the data. I love it.

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