For about ten years of my life, most scraps of writing time I got my hands on were spent in a long, weary battle with the short story form. I’d read enough of them, I suppose, to really want to do that too. Get the whole beautiful, cruel thing down in a few pages. Except for me, the form usually won. At my desk, in bed, in the library, in cafés, at writing group meet-ups, at writing workshops, I learned, the slow and painful way, how hard the form is, how unforgiving. So much for the idea that a fiction writer cuts her teeth on the short story before moving onto the novel. In my case, it was the writer who got bitten, even if, very rarely, something new would shakily glimmer into view, through the still-bad sentences and similes that didn’t work.
Then, one work-quiet January, I sketched the first draft of The Estate, quickly and urgently. Straightaway, I knew it was a suspense novel; something borne out of the malignant and claustrophobic atmosphere of the estate in which it’s set. I also knew that I was probably the only person left in the world who still uses the term ‘suspense novel’, so it was no surprise that when Audible decided to produce it as an Audible Original that it was marketed as a psychological thriller, or that Hachette Ireland did the same when a year later they published the print version. It’s the correct label, I’ve no doubt about that. But it does mean that I’ve gone from someone whose (meagre) body of short fiction would have put me in the literary fiction camp, to a writer of genre fiction. Which has me mulling over what this means to me as a writer. What is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? Is there a difference at all? Has my goal in writing changed as a result? Do I even have a writing goal?
One distinction you often hear is that literary fiction places a greater emphasis on language or the writer’s sensibility. I think this is generally true but can we say it’s a defining distinction? There are exceptions, you see, that say not. Attica Locke’s beautifully written thrillers, for example, have won awards more typically associated with literary fiction. Tana French’s novel The Witch Elm prompted one reviewer to write that the fact French has never been nominated for a literary award was a ‘source of bafflement’ to her. I could go on.
Another truism is that genre fiction emphasises plot more than literary fiction. But plot is always there, even if the reader can’t see it. What you might find is that in literary fiction, plot always comes from within characters, which is how it should be if you ask me. As Henry James once famously asked, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ Perhaps it’s true to say in genre writing there’s greater risk of plot being imposed on character, at least in places. In genre fiction, after all, the writer is obliged to conform to certain reader expectations, or conventions, some specific to the genre (events ultimately placing extreme pressure on the mental state of the protagonist, the villain being defeated, the girl getting the boy or variations thereof, etc) and some universal, chief among which must be that the thing must entertain. The genre fiction writer never forgets that they are competing with Netflix.
The question, I suppose, is whether such ‘clichés of form’ as Geoff Dyer once put it mean that a work of genre fiction is doomed to be clichéd writing. Can the genre fiction writer ever contribute even the teeniest tiniest trickle to Jean Rhys’ lake of literature? Or was Arthur Krystal right in concluding emphatically that she cannot? While the standard genre novel might well entertain, he wrote in his article on the subject, it’s never ‘going to break the sea frozen inside us. … Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals’.
Part of me instinctively agrees with Krystal. But then I think of the stunningly good French crime procedural Spiral and the compellingly beautiful horror drama, The Terror. I think of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick, of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – genre writers who somehow managed to make their genre sing, to transcend the conventions even as they stayed faithfully inside them. I think of how Jane Austen and Graham Greene both described their novels (or at least some in Greene’s case) as entertainments. How at the end of Northanger Abbey, you can almost glimpse Austen smirking as she curtsies – yes, I have entertained you, yes, I have met your happily-ever-after expectations, but I have also driven a skewer into the heart of your society. I think of how Attica Locke’s thrillers brilliantly expose racism and inequality in American society; as she once remarked, ‘I think I get away with a lot of political stuff because of the presence of a dead body’.
That’s not to say that writing genre fiction isn’t a potentially risky enterprise if you wish to avoid clichéd writing, which I imagine is the case for most writers. But the point is, it is possible. And that’s what keeps it interesting. For me anyway, writing up against conventions while striving to avoid clichéd language is a process through which stories can emerge. Maybe a little like how some poets return to old poetic forms, like the sonnet or the vilanelle (or the sestina, if they’re feeling particularly masochistic) – something is created through the process of rubbing up against the rules.
Now that I think about it, I do have a goal in writing, and that goal has been tweaked if not changed since my move from literary to genre fiction. When labouring over short story drafts, I used to try (emphasis on the trying here) to achieve John Gardner’s description of fiction as a ‘continuous fictional dream’ that is so vivid and powerful it is ‘a single, cohesive gesture [that] … persuades us it’s a clear, sharp, edited version of the world all around us’. That’s still what I’m aiming for (emphasis on the aiming). But now, in doing so, I also seek to entertain. So far, that doesn’t feel like a compromise. It just feels really, really interesting.
(c) Liza Costello
Author Photography (c) Barry Cronin
The Estate by Liza Costello is published in Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland and is available now in all Irish bookshops.
About The Estate:
Beth Sheehan thought planning a future with her boyfriend Jason would be the answer to her problems. Now in her twenties, her wild ways have left her increasingly lonely, and Jason signals the promise of stability she’s never had.
When an opportunity arises that will help them secure their dream home, he convinces Beth to grab it. It will only be a few months before he can join her to house-sit, rent-free, in a remote new build out of town.
But something desperate lurks at the heart of the estate. Strange things are happening and, as Beth’s drinking worsens, new friends turn out to be prospective enemies. In a place where secrets abound, the most chilling one of all is about to be revealed . . .
A taut psychological crime thriller by a bright new talent, in which a change for the better turns into a nightmare of uncertainty.
‘TO BE READ IN A SINGLE SITTING, WITH THE LIGHTS ON’ JOHN CONNOLLY