Sunday, 17 July 2011

The novel contortionist: genre-bending to fit a pigeonhole

I first saw pickled eggs many years ago in a fish & chip shop called Chophards. A huge glass jar squatted on the counter, the kind of jar that might contain unspeakable specimens in a nightmare laboratory. It was a permanent fixture, as though the contents needed to mature for a century. Those eggs swayed in a light yellow fluid and were things of terrible mystery and horror.

Random people ordered them with their fish and chips over the course of the years. There was no typical pickled egg consumer. Young, old, affluent, breadline. A gasp in the queue always followed that rare occasion when someone said 'Cod and chips please. Oh, and a pickled egg.'

Back to the future and I found a jar of pickled eggs in a local supermarket. Had to have them.

'Are they raw when they're put in the vinegar?' asked my 10 year-old daughter. 'Do they still have the shell on? Why are they pickled? Who eats them? Why? I mean, why would anybody pickle an egg, Dad?'

'Try one,' I said.

We both bit into the cold white. It was resilient with a mild pickle taste. The yolk was a contrast, crumbly and vinegary. Within a few hours the two of us had consumed all of the things.

A couple of days later and I decided to reorganise the bookshelves, as I couldn't find a particular book (again!). I'm not particularly obsessive about keeping things in order, and often can't remember book titles or author names, so sorting into genre made sense. It seemed manageable. Just genre, no alphabetical order of authors or titles.

Classics, crime thrillers, action adventure, chick lit, literary fiction, non-fiction (sub-section on Africa), fantasy, childrens. Then the leftovers. Those leftovers included nearly all of my favourite books. They defied genre. Not enough pace for a thriller. The crime aspects too incidental. Language not sufficiently literary. Maybe a classic when I'm long gone, but not yet. No chicks or chocolate. My favourite books, all genre benders. Misfits. Pickled eggs.

Not everyone would agree. Some might say that John Irving's 'A Prayer for Owen meany' is literary fiction.The same for Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love' or Steve Toltz's 'A Fraction of the Whole'. But they don't fit comfortably into the company of John Banville's 'The Infinities' or Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses'. Nevertheless, that's where you'll find them in the bookshop, alongside Cormac McCarthy and the heavy lads.

My favourites shelf is a shelf of quirkiness. Inexplicably enjoyable, not sufficiently aligned to any one genre. The books that I remember most fondly are all a bit weird in one way or another. They're pickled eggs, well, some are gherkins or onions. Little wonder, then, that my first ebook, Peril, is undeniably a pickled egg. There's too much of me in it to be anything else.

Tutors, mentors and peer groups are likely to advise an unknown author to stay within the genre rules. I did try and write within a genre - two action adventure novels. Unfortunately I was belly prone on the authorial learning curve and the results were quite deplorable. When I found a voice the genre rules had been thrown to the wind and writing became a true joy. But the result didn't fit a pigeonhole.

Many writers' seeds of inspiration germinate and nudge tender green shoots up through fertile soil and into a warm sun. Some find themselves in the midst of a humid jungle. It's crowded, competitive for the sunlight of attention. The young plants flourish, blossom and bloom.

Out on a dry plain another seed follows nature's call to be greeted by a scorching heat. Tumbleweeds roll rootless across the wilderness, driven by a dessicating wind. Our brave new shoot develops a tough skin and puts out prickles to dissuade predators. The young cactus flourishes in that baking desert. A prickly pear. Maybe that would have been a better analogy than a pickled egg, but cactii are few and far between in rainy Ireland.

Genre rules aren't hard to find on the internet and in tutorial guides. I'm not a big fan of 'how to' books but maybe I should become one. I prefer the 'how not to' type of tongue-in-cheek guide eg. 'How Not to Write a Novel' by Mittelmark & Newman. That particular book is great entertainment but trying to write with rules (or don't rules) can make the author self-conscious of style, stymie their spontaneity, crush any creativity and generally over-alliterate.

Are you a reader or writer of genre-challenged novels? Does an 'inappropriate' mix of crime, thriller, mystery, romance, murder, intrigue and naughty bits do it for you? Have a pickled egg. Surprising and lovely.


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  1. Now I'll be hoping to find a bookstore with a "Pickled Eggs" section of shelves.
    Great article.

  2. Yep, fiction to tickle the tastebuds! Thanks.

  3. Much prefer pickled eggs to genre.

  4. Do you know of any respected agents who deal in pickled eggs? I'm three books down and counting, and I've applied so many slash marks to my book pitching descriptions, it's getting cluttered around here! I'd like to find a rep who can sell the slashed-up gross-genres, but so far...

    1. Hey Richard. No, I don't really know any agents at all. Since making the indie decision I've lost touch with all that. Pickled egg is a hard sell, sometimes it's best to just say egg. Or pickle.

    2. Wait... can you make a Scotch Egg with a pickled egg? THAT might be a genre-defying edible!

    3. Now there's an idea - a pickled egg sub-genre. Just about describes my current project ;-)