The multigeneric novel

So, what kind of novel is it?

That’s a question that throws me. Yes, my books might look and sound like crime novels. But I’ve never felt completely at home in the genre, and with Death of a Typographer, even less so – notwithstanding the blood-stained punctuation mark on the cover.

There are good reasons why genre fiction is popular. It meets a basic human need for story in a way that is sometimes disdained by more ‘literary’ works. It offers the comfort of familiarity in a world that seems to be spiralling out of control. It provides resolution and ties up loose ends in a way that life doesn’t. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether literary novels are better than genre novels: broadly I agree with the idea that you can find good writing, as well as pretty lame stuff, in both camps. What I want to discuss is my dream of having my cake and eating it: the multigeneric novel. 

One problem with multigeneric novels is that publishers don’t know how to market them.  If a novel is rural crime, medical romance or gun toting western, then it’s clear who the audience is and where it will be found in the bookshop. When a book crosses those lines, things become messier. Since decisions about publication are largely made by sales and marketing teams, that creates a problem for the author who naturally wants their work published. The question, frustratingly, is not ‘Is this any good?’ but ‘How will we sell this?’

The success of some multigeneric novels demonstrates that there is an audience for them. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six very loosely connected narratives which employ tropes and techniques associated with historical novels, social comedy, political thrillers, sci-fi, epistolary novels and dystopian fiction. In his later novel The Bone Clocks he ventured into fantasy, as a gang of time-travelling, shapeshifting, ultraviolent demons tracked each other through the pages in a way you wouldn’t expect from a writer shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As a reader, I’m prepared to join Mitchell on this journey because he is a fine writer and storyteller, even when he ventures into genres I wouldn’t normally read. I’m not saying that multigeneric novels are necessarily better:  but they offer a different kind of reading experience. It’s like listening to an album by a band intent on musical experimentation – The Beatles’ White Album, say, rather than The Strokes Is This It. 

Jennifer Egan’s wonderful novel A Visit from the Goon Squad consists of a sequence of loosely related stories that jump between comedy, tragedy and satire, including a lengthy chapter in the form of a Powerpoint presentation, probably the first such chapter in the history of literature (also the first Powerpoint in history to bring tears to the reader’s eyes rather than putting them to sleep). When you reach the end of the chapter you are cheering for the characters and the writer for pulling it off (and getting it past the marketing department).

I find myself wanting to write multigeneric fiction for much the same reasons I like reading it. I like the element of surprise – oh, I thought this novel was one thing, now it’s something else. The diverse elements of the narratives appeal to different parts of myself. None of us is one thing, we have complex, contradictory identities and histories, personalities and obsessions, and a good novel speaks to us in many ways. Why shouldn’t there be jokes on one page, serious stuff on the next? Why not realism here, and the supernatural there? It’s risky, of course. I don’t always have the skill to pull it off.Some readers objected to the appearance of ghosts in my first novel, Ghostlines – the noirish realism of the opening chapters created an ambience that some readers thought inhospitable to spirits, and it lost me at least one publisher. Others loved it, though.

My new novel Death of a Typographer is another, more ambitious attempt. The main narrative is a kind of playful not-quite-realism, peopled by characters obsessed with typography. The action is punctuated by murders, which the protagonists have to solve, though I wouldn’t call this a pure crime novel – my model is more Douglas Adams than Ian Rankin. The interpolated narratives go down other paths – a supernatural tale, a love story, a political thriller – and in those chapters I’m trying to be a disciple of Mitchell and Egan. I’m aware that by writing this way I’ve created a rod for my own back, sales and marketing-wise. What is this novel? Who knows? Who cares? All I can say is that each of those stories is one I wanted to tell, in the way I told it. In some magical way, if I’ve succeeded as a writer, it all makes sense. And if I haven’t succeeded – as you never do, not completely – there’s always the next book.

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