The rise of genre fiction

Once derided as inferior to more ‘serious’ literature, genres such as crime and sci-fi are saving the novel from what some maintain is its long-heralded ‘death’ as a cultural form

The novel, if critics and editors are to be believed, has enjoyed many more lives than a cat. Its demise has been predicted and proclaimed since the early 20th century, when structure was questioned, and more recently as authors and readers pontificate about the future of books in light of digital advances. Amid these “death of the novel” discussions, a plot twist has been cooking in the background. While debates about the relevance of ebooks, self-publishing and online tools have taken centre stage at book fairs and festival panels, genre fiction has been quietly shedding its lowbrow reputation.

Long considered the lesser, far distant cousins of literary fiction, tales of crime, science fiction, fantasy and romance – while big sellers – were looked down upon. But as many writers turn to genre, especially crime, and as Young Adult fiction often soaked in dystopia or sci-fi continues to rise in popularity, there is a sense that the old discernment, or indeed snobbery, has finally worn off. Perhaps the doomsayers will be hushed and genre will rescue the poor novel from oblivion after all.

Is the trend a case of publishers and writers, anxious about the general direction of the industry, chasing the market? Do they see genre as a safe haven? Or are the two worlds simply setting their differences aside and merging?

“Serious authors enjoy experimentation and a lot of this means cross-pollination,” says Cairo-based Marcia Lynx Qualey, who runs the well-informed Arabic Literature (In English) site. “What happens if you mix literary fiction with sci-fi, with romance, with noir? What happens if you cross surrealism and cowboy stories? I don’t think authors are afraid of genre fiction any longer, or of being associated with it.

“[Genre] offers a new canvas for experimentation,” she continues. “Readers also experience a frisson when given something familiar, for instance the Red Riding Hood tale, told in a new way, as a police procedural. There is lots of room to use these exciting, fast-paced genres in new ways.”

For Arab audiences, stories about crime and criminality resonate well in the current climate, offering a space to voice ideas and explore social issues. The tradition is already strong in the Maghreb, while other popular examples include Egypt’s Mohamed Rabie’s Otared, which borders on horror and crime, and Ahmed Mourad’s work, such as Vertigo, a bloody political thriller exposing corruption.

“There’s great possibility for various crime and detective novels,” says Qualey. “Also, women really need to take charge of some genre writing. Women have mostly struggled to be ‘serious’ and prove themselves as serious.” She adds that placing such a burden on female writers is unfair.

Though genre is less of a market phenomenon in the Arab world than the West, there is an interesting literary history, an exchange, with the East. “There’s an argument to be made that crime fiction’s roots are in translations of The Thousand and One Nights, which were so influential in Victorian England and France, and then crime fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes novels and Arsène Lupin in turn became very popular in Arabic translation at the turn of the 20th century,” Qualey says. “It was largely overtaken by serious literary realism in the Mashriq countries (Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq), but the Maghreb kept the lights on [for crime fiction].”

Back to the present day and the West, where sales boom. In 2010, in the US, there were 358 fantasy titles on the bestseller list, more than double the number in 2006. And over the past decade, sales of crime fiction have risen 80 per cent in the UK, where the genre generates about £90m per year. 

Ian Rankin, the Scottish author, whose books tend to sell half a million copies within the first three months of their release, says it is only recently that crime novelists have been accepted into the wider literary ‘brigade’ as equal citizens.

“Crime fiction as a genre grew up with the growth in the lower middle classes, and also with the growth in travel,” he explained in an interview with the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle. “People were commuting to work on buses and trains; they needed things to read and crime fiction gave them a nice easy read while they were travelling. So there was this distinction.”

When his first novel was published and placed on a shelf alongside crime books, he moved it to the literature section, to sit among works by Sir Walter Scott and Muriel Spark. “I wasn’t that fond of crime fiction. I just happened to think a detective was a good way of looking at society and of exploring a city,” he said.

So Rankin fell in to crime somehow. For others, it is a more conscious choice. Tony Parsons, best known for his multi-million-selling family tale Man and Boy, recently switched to crime with The Murder Bag, after half a dozen of his literary novels tanked. Rarely, on the other hand, do genre authors turn literary.

Few could argue against mobility in creative pursuits: crossing styles and experimenting are inherent to an artist’s prerogative. So now that the battle has been won, the pretentiousness overcome, is fiction out of danger? And will the next generation have the benefit of a wide range of stories to choose from?

“More and more interesting books are being written, but not necessarily for young adults,” says Noura Al Noman, an Emirati children’s author. “I am pretty certain there are just a handful of Young Adult books a year. Not nearly enough for the consumption of 22 countries with a population of 350 million people,” she adds, referring to the Middle East.

“Publishers are still not sure of what sells and what doesn’t, and they are reluctant to invest in some genres, despite indications that the younger generation is looking for something different. The publishing industry is undergoing some interesting upheavals, and it will be some time before we see a tipping point.”

As an avid reader and mother, Al Nouman noticed there was a huge deficit in books for young Arabs. She picked up a pen and wrote the kind of story she would have wanted to read as a young adult. Her debut novel, Ajwan, is about a 19-year-old alien whose infant son is kidnapped by a shadowy militia.

“The younger generation sees fantasy and sci-fi as a window into the future – a better future perhaps than the one we are seeing today,” she says. “Current events in the region have surpassed horror books and movies. But in these books and movies we read about heroes who encounter all sorts of horrors and dangers, maintain courage and integrity and save the world. Perhaps that’s where the attraction lies. Also, let’s not forget the accelerated pace of technology and the way it has transformed the lives of youth. It is no wonder they want to read predictions of the future.”

Others in the UAE writing for a young audience are of similar ages themselves, which should also go some way to encourage reading. Dubai Abulhoul is 19, shares her name with the city she’s from, and is the author of Galagolia: the Hidden Divination. The book is hailed as the first Emirati fiction novel in English, and the futuristic story follows the life of Maitha BinHumaid, a 10-year-old, orphaned Emirati girl living in Deira, Dubai. Abdullah Ali Hassan al-Ahbabi became the youngest Emirati author with no fewer than three children’s books in 2015 at the age of eight. After seeing a giraffe for the first time at Al Ain Zoo, he made an animal the protagonist of his story.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, launched the Arab Reading Challenge last year to get more than one million schoolchildren to read 50 extracurricular Arabic books each.

“Reaching audiences is a big deal,” says Qualey, of the Arab Literature (in English) site. She says “networks of information” need to be set up and should include bloggers who let other teens know about the latest books to read.

“The authors are talented, fantastic, and will keep writing, pushing boundaries and trying to connect with new audiences,” she says. A new prize for Arabic Young Adult fiction, the Etisalat Prize, could also help boost the popularity of the genre.

With a more level playing field for all genres, a growing scene in countries still finding their way, and amid a slew of initiatives to encourage reading, is the novel no longer looking at an early grave? The story is to be continued…