Genre Trouble

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After three years of studying Film & Television, I have come to the conclusion that any descriptive label given to an assortment of cultural or literary texts is like a blanket woven from cobwebs. It may look secure from a distance, but if you prod it once of twice, it will crumble beneath your fingertips.

Genres are fluid umbrella terms to categorise books and films and music, but when you look deeper, it becomes unclear where to draw the line. When I was fourteen-years-old, I wrote a novel called Consequence. At the time, I would have defined it as a young adult science-fiction questionably-dystopian romance. (I was fourteen in 2012, when YA dystopian sci-fi-leaning romances were all the rage, so wee baby Eliza was actually surprisingly trendy). Consequence was self-published that same year, and the rest was history.

When I was seventeen, my perfectionist streak won out, and I decided to rewrite the novel. I spent the next four years writing and editing, biding my time, honing my craft until I had created something as close to perfect as I was capable of. There were months at a time when I all but gave up — my work ethic ebbs and flows like the waves of the ocean. There are days when I’m ready to conquer the world, and others where all I want to do is sit on my sofa, wrapped in my teal fleece blanket, and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine for the hundredth time, ignoring my responsibilities. I’m not lazy, but I struggle with consistency. The older I get, the more I learn that anything worth building in my life comes from time and effort. I have to play the long game, even when patience is not in my nature.

I have devoted ⅓ of my life to the writing and rewriting of this novel. Within that time, it has grown and changed almost as much as I have. The novel I wrote as Consequence in 2012 is going to be reborn as The Purest Form of Chaos in December this year. It’s almost three times its original length, and whilst the skeleton of the plot has stayed the same, the narrative has matured and the themes have changed. As I developed my skills as a writer, I noticed the tone of the novel begin to change.

In order to market my novel, I have to be able to categorise it, fit the story within a framework of genre. In essence, my novel is a futuristic retelling of the myth of Persephone and Hades, using sci-fi elements to justify the more fantastical components of the myth. I could classify Consequence as science fiction, but The Purest Form of Chaos has mutated in a different direction. 14-year-old Eliza struggled to write descriptive passages, therefore Consequence is largely dialogue-based. In some ways it’s more like a script than a novel.
When I discover a flaw or deficiency within myself, I seek to annihilate it. So I spent seven years mastering the art of descriptive writing. The Purest Form of Chaos utilises my natural talent for dialogue, and interweaves it with a descriptive poeticism that I built from ⅓ of a lifetime’s blood sweat and tears.

The Purest Form of Chaos is my magnum opus, it is my life’s work. It is all the best of me, pounded down into literary form. And it does not read like science fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. I reduced much of the romantic subplots, and the main love story is a platonic friendship, therefore it no longer counts as a romance either. It’s based on a Greek myth, but there is no magic, so I cannot call it fantasy. It is a masterpiece I spent seven years creating, and it’s a bizarre oddball that refuses to conform to the genre conventions it needs to help it thrive. (Sidenote: I realise I come across as arrogant calling my novel a masterpiece, but I poured seven years of my life into this book, I’ve earned the right to be proud of myself).

In some ways, I am the same as my novel: I do not fit neatly in a style or genre. Earlier today, I was redesigning my website, and trying to make my ‘brand’ more cohesive across my various social media platforms. I made sure I had the same profile picture on my Pinterest and Facebook page, I created a ‘business’ Instagram account (follow me: @elizasrobinsonwrites), and I stared at a blank page, trying to rewrite my author bio.
I have a different persona on each social media platform. My personal Instagram is mostly travel photos and purple flowers, or Instagram stories about coffee and reading. My blog has, historically, been me oversharing about every topic under the sun. But I’ve banned myself from writing much about my personal life on here anymore, so it’s time to build a new identity. On my Facebook page, I mostly post about writing — or the occasional travel pic when I was in Estonia this summer. If you mashed all these social media personas together, would that brand match my dark and twisty novel about war and friendship and what it means to be human? Probably not.

I have to promote myself in a way that promotes my novel. And I have to promote my novel in a way that matches my ‘brand.’ Which came first, the genre or the marketing?

Until recently, I didn’t talk much about my novel. When I was in school, people made fun of me for being a writer. (Direct quote from one of my GCSE classmates “I want to buy 40,000 copies of your novels so I can burn them.” I don’t condone book burning, but damn that would have made me rich…) For my first couple of years of university, I kept quiet about my book out of habit. Even when I told people I was a writer, I didn’t say much about what the book was about.

This summer, I spent two months working in a hostel in Estonia. In hostels, you meet a lot of new people, and those people ask you questions like “What brings you to Tallinn?”, to which I would answer “when I was fourteen I wrote three novels that were set here, and I’ve come here every year since I was eighteen as a pilgrimage to the land where my novels are set.” Then people would ask me what my novels are about, and I’d be like “Um….that is a GREAT question!” and flounder.

I’m not good with words. The spoken word, that is. I’m great with the written word, if you give me a solid seven years to perfect my craft. But when it comes to making the thoughts in my brain flow from my mouth in a non-awkward manner, I often struggle to express myself. The “what’s your novel about?” question is hard to answer, because I don’t know how to summarise my life’s work into a 30-second elevator pitch.

So while I have your attention, and can express myself nonverbally, here is what my novel is about:

Halfway through the 22nd century, much of the world has been destroyed, plagued by war and natural disasters. In the countries of Western Russia and Eastern Russia, a corrupt monarchy reigns. Beneath the fragile veneer of civility, the Tsar’s twisted obsession bubbles towards boiling point.
Phoenix Kashnikova is kidnapped from her prison-like home, rescued by a mysterious benefactor. A year later, Persephone is freed from her own captivity by the same man. The two young women meet in a palace in Moscow, and their lives are changed forever. The friendship formed within the palace walls is threatened by forces beyond the girls’ control, and the agenda of their kidnapper disrupts the quiet life they have created. Phoenix flees to Estonia in pursuit of answers, but Persephone’s fate has become intertwined with an enemy she cannot escape. Phoenix and Persephone struggle for autonomy against an all-powerful oppressor, on a journey that takes them across national and mental borders. Phoenix seeks to outrun the demons of her past, but for Persephone this is a fight for both her body and her mind. She soon discovers that the enemy she tried to outwit was within her all along. The Purest Form of Chaos asks: what does it mean to love, what does it mean to be human, where do we draw the line between good and evil, and who — if anyone — is deserving of redemption?

This was my first attempt in ages at writing a synopsis (something I struggle with even more than writing author bios). To me, it reads like the synopsis for a fantasy novel. The moment you have ‘monarchy’ and ‘journey’ within a few sentences of each other, it screams fantasy (or historical, but the first sentence establishes it’s set in the future). There are hints of dystopia throughout, but I tend to think of dystopia as an oppressive society, rather than an autocratic monarchy. To my knowledge, there is no rule stating dystopian governments have to be democracies-turned-autocracy rather than monarchy: the oldest autocracy of them all. It’s an assumption I made based on the dystopian novels I read as a teenager.

Which leads me to wonder: what is genre other than a collection of our expectations? I’m currently studying a Television Sitcom module at university, and I spent a good chunk of the first seminar arguing that various shows were not sitcoms because they didn’t follow a certain format. (I’m sorry, but you can’t call Fleabag a sitcom. I will die on this hill). Genre is a list of norms, it is the commonalities and middle ground, but it also adapts and changes over time. The dystopian novels I read as a teenager are nothing like 1984 or other staples of the genre (admittedly, I haven’t actually read it, but I can hazard a guess), and my novel doesn’t have much in common with The Hunger Games or suchlike, even though that was the book that inspired me to write something other than historical fiction. Genres adapt and change as the world and readers change.

So for now I will say my novel is this: dystopian science-fantasy new adult speculative fiction. It is also a love story, but it’s a platonic love story about a life-changing friendship, it’s not a romance. I don’t know why there’s not a genre name for non-romantic love stories. Perhaps because there aren’t enough of them. It’s a philosophical story, it delves into questions of where we draw the line of what’s human and what’s not — and what the ethical implications are of such categories. Are we human because we are socialised as humans, because we love as humans? Or are we human because of biology, or rational minds? Overall, my main reason for not classifying The Purest Form of Chaos as science fiction isn’t just because the literary style is closer to the fantasy genre, it’s because I rarely focus on technology. Science is an explanation for the events of the novel, but the story focuses on interpersonal relationships. Genres are umbrella terms, covering a wide range of attributes, but I have become accustomed to looking at my novel with a magnifying glass. I lose myself in the details, and no generic category will suffice to contain them.

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