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Last word: Susan Glickman on frustrations with genre categorization

(photo: Mark Raynes Roberts)

One of the reasons I decided to write a mystery novel was my frustration with the issue of genre categorization, writes Susan Glickman

In Shakespeare’s first folio, The Merchant of Venice is listed as a comedy and Cymbeline as a tragedy; today we would either reverse these classifications or slot the plays into post-Renaissance categories invented to accommodate Shakespeare’s heterogeneity, calling Merchant a “problem play” and Cymbeline a “romance.” We’d also classify Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well as problem plays, while the “romance” category would vacuum up two other nominal comedies, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

John Heminge and Henry Condell, the editors of the first folio, were Shakespeare’s close friends, fellow actors, and co-investors in the company for which he wrote his plays, so one might assume they knew which genre his plays belonged to. But we dissent, because our understanding of genre has changed since Shakespeare’s day. The plays, of course, remain what they always were – structures of words to be performed by bodies moving across a stage or enacted in the privacy of the reader’s imagination. We could substitute the word “cauliflower” for comedy and “taxidermy” for tragedy if we liked; this would have no effect upon our experience of the works themselves.

I appeal to the example of Shakespeare because 1) everyone knows his plays and 2) no one worries too much about what genre they fit into. This is not to say that the concept of genre isn’t useful; since Aristotle first divided poetry into epic, lyric, and dramatic, students of literature have found genre a very helpful way to talk about the structure of works and the transmission of traditions. But I’m not convinced that thinking within such tight aesthetic categories is equally useful for writers themselves, whose job, after all, is to represent life. And life is never just tragedy, comedy, history, or romance; it’s all of those, all at once. Thus: the smell of grapefruit and burnt toast + horrifying news on the radio about atrocities around the world + your kid making a profound observation before farting loudly + your husband kissing the back of your neck in that way that still makes you tingle = breakfast.

Still, I have to admit that not writing within easily recognized genres has complicated my life. My first novel, The Violin Lover, was composed in sonata form for three voices – violin, piano, and cello – but I suppressed that fact, as well as cutting out many intermezzi on topics like the difference between the operatic voice and the speaking voice or the invention of the public concert, because publishing folk insisted the musical stuff was beside the point. What I was writing was “literary fiction,” they declared, especially given that I was already known as a poet. If we had to pick a subgenre, well, this book was set in the past, so clearly I was writing an “historical novel.” And that was that.

When asked the genre of my second novel, The Tale-Teller, I described it as “feminist picaresque” – after all, its realistic framework of life in 18th-century Quebec was constantly being interrupted by heroic tales of feral children, pirates, and escapes from harems.  I was informed by agents and editors who admired the writing but disliked generic miscegenation that my book ought to be either historical fiction or fantasy, and I wasn’t permitted to write both at the same time. I stuck to my guns and found a publisher (Cormorant Books) that got what I was doing. But still, the French translation by Boreal has done better than the original; reviewers in Canada’s other official language celebrated the work for exactly those qualities – philosophical engagement and linguistic playfulness – overlooked by English reviewers who insisted on reading it as historical fiction.

One of the reasons I decided to write a “murder mystery” set in present-day Toronto was my frustration with this whole issue. I wanted to see if deliberately writing within a genre would change the way I wrote. I can’t say that it has, except for having to be fanatic about plot details that might engage a clue-hunting reader. For better or worse, Safe as Houses is no less “literary” than my other novels and went through just as many drafts. It consists of two different narratives from two different points of view covering two different time periods; readers who pay attention to both will unravel the mystery a lot quicker than the protagonist does. Does this mean it isn’t really a mystery after all? It includes dead bodies, a variety of crimes, and both professional and amateur detectives, so what else could we call it?

Read the book and decide for yourself. Whatever genre you decide on is fine with me. After all, we called Pluto a planet for 75 years, and now we don’t, but it remains a celestial body of rock and ice with five moons that takes 248 years to complete a single, highly eccentric orbit around the sun. The important descriptions of anything are always more detailed and specific than what genre it belongs to.

Susan Glickman is the author of six volumes of poetry, most recently The Smooth Yarrow (Véhicule Press), the Lunch Bunch trilogy of children’s books, and the critical work The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape. Her novel Safe as Houses is published by Cormorant Books.