Lucinda Elliot

Cross Genre Novels and the Problem of Choosing Categories: and Two Authors who Created a New Genre for Popular Fiction

A lot of promotional advice for authors emphasizes the importance of placing your books in the right category in order to maximise sales.

These categories always strike me as being unnecessarily rigid, though I believe they follow conventional bibliographic categorising.  They would seem rigid to me, as I write cross genre stuff. Typical of me to cause myself problems.

With the exception of my last but one book ‘The Peterloo Affair’  – again, trust me to have exceptions – my books are generally a mixture of historical, dark comedy, and gothic. They also have a spoof like element. This makes for problems about how to categorise them, according to the currently available system.

They generally contain a love story, and they usually end on an upbeat note. That would seem to make them fit into the broader definitions of historical romance.

Unfortunately, readers tend to grumble if they’re placed there. They don’t like the satirical tone. I do send up tropes of historical romance and gothic, though gently, and that doesn’t go down too well.

Besides, there is too much emphasis on other aspects of the plot to satisfy the requirements of the ‘average romance reader’ (whoever that is). Stories which spend a fair proportion of time on such extraneous details don’t satisfy many romance readers’ expectations. I gather that is one reason why ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Jamaica Inn’ don’t count as romances, even leaving aside the downbeat ending of the former.

Also, my own novels do often address social issues of class inequalities, etc, and it seems these are generally not themes which readers of historical romance want to hear about when they read an historical romance.

Besides, my books also have – ironically for stories with an occult aspect – a realistic component.  I gather most romance readers don’t want to learn, for instance, what a dirty, violent place the London of the late eighteenth century was – for all classes – and that any heroine who trips and falls in the gutter would come into contact with substances far worse than mud there.    

On the other hand, my books are not written primarily as dark comedy, either. There’s a humorous approach, but they’re not strictly comedy. Things too dark for any but the darkest comedy tend to happen in them.

Definitely they are historical. In fact, I pride myself on historically accuracy. Still, apart from with their gothic element, they seem incongruous next to the novels written as factual historical novels.

So, I end up placing them as ‘historical gothic’ as a first category, and using another like ‘occult’ or some such. It’s unsatisfactory. Sadly, you can’t normally exactly make up a genre to suit your books: well, you can, but only if you are world renowned.

I am intrigued about popular writers of the past who,  by the popularity of their books, created a category. In some cases, it seems to have been almost accidental.  The most obvious was Georgette Heyer.

Her books are normally described as historical romances, but in fact, to my mind they have too much extraneous plot detail for that to be an accurate description.  Intriguingly, in her case, historical romance readers don’t seem to object.  

Though Heyer is credited with creating the ‘Regency Romance’ genre, she herself never described her books as romances.  They are often more like ‘historical romps’ or mystery stories, sometimes ‘comedies of manners’, and the romantic scenes between male and female leads are often short, taking place mostly during the last few pages to provide the happy ending.   This is certainly the case with ‘Friday’s Child’, ‘The Convenient Marriage’,  ‘The Reluctant Widow’, ‘The Talisman Ring’, ‘The Grand Sophy’ and ‘Faroe’s Daughter’, to name just a few.

Of course, Heyer was greatly influenced by Jane Austen, whose own work is generally accepted as romance, though again, a fair amount of the story is taken up by other aspects of the plot.

She was also influenced by Thackeray (he uses the term ‘chit’  and various other slang terms beloved by Heyer in Vanity Fair’) and drew heavily on the use of slang and the customs depicted in an 1821 work by Pierce Egan,  ‘Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis’.  

I read that work with difficulty, myself. The florid, wordy style, apparently fashionable in the early nineteenth century, is frankly appalling. Also, Corinthian Tom and his ‘coz’ Jerry are so emotionally frozen that it makes for a bleak read for a woman.

Still, I found it intriguing to see how Heyer used this book, wholly designed for a male audience, combined with Jane Austen and Thackeray, to create a new genre, largely aimed at a female audience (I always maintain she was slightly influenced by the best selling writer of late Victorian and Edwardian  romantic melodrama, Charles Garvice, as well: he was given to writing about wild young aristocrats).

Heyer began writing very early; although she wrote several historical romances set in the Georgian age, many of which feature her hallmark style, beginning with ‘The Black Moth’ in 1918,  it was only in 1935 that she published ‘Regency Buck’, her first romance set in the Regency era.

Intriguingly, despite her massive success, she always yearned to be taken seriously as an historical writer. This was what she hoped to achieve with her last, unfinished novel, ‘My Lord John’ (1975).

…And that was an ambition she shared with Arthur Conan-Doyle, who in his Sherlock Holmes stories made the detective genre originally created by Edgar Allan Poe into popular fiction. He regarded these stories as vastly inferior to his historical works, such as ‘The White Company’ (1891).

Ironically, neither of the ‘serious’ historical novels by either of these writers are anything like as well known as their popular ‘genre creating’ works. There must be a moral there, somewhere…