What happened to General fiction?

I used to read almost anything when I was growing up. I’d pick up comics and magazines, the local sporting Pink newspaper, Ladybird histories, my Dad’s airport thrillers.

Although there have always been categories of books it seems no book can be published these days without being classified as thriller, crime, romantic or chick-lit etc.

I understand that marketers and publishers believe it boosts sales if books are clearly placed in categories. If you enjoy an Ian Rankin you’ll likely navigate your way about the crime-fiction shelves and pick up a Peter Robinson or Fiona Barton or Stephen Booth.

The same follows for romantic fiction and I know a number of book-present-buyers (yes, OK, they’re men) who trawl the tables and shelves of their local Waterstones or Smiths and make their purchases based on the look of the cover. Maybe it has a cupcake and a beach on the front. Or perhaps a man with a firearm at his side. Or a misty graveyard. Or a woman at a dockside in period costume.

This type of branding can lead to very similar covers and Private Eye magazine regularly demonstrates there’s barely a difference between some titles.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful for the consumer and, yes, it’s a business so it’s really about the buyer.

As a writer it can be tough though. I felt pressured to write to a thriller formula in my early exchanges with agents and publishers and sometimes writing styles or ideas don’t easily seem to fit the market. However, we all want to get paid and get readers so it’s easy to understand why agents and publishers want writers who fulfil a ready made market. Put simply, they deliver on expectations.

A downside to this is it can be hard to place and market, or even find a way to market, for some great writing. I sometimes wonder what has happened to what you might call ‘general’ fiction. In other words books that don’t necessarily fit into these categories above but provide a real page-turning read. An example would be Rachel Joyce’s work (see below) and often comic fiction such as John Mortimer’s trilogy (above) and works by the likes of Leslie Thomas and David Nobbs.

It’s a theory, of course, but I think it’s harder than ever for this type of fiction to break through. There are exceptions and a good book can surprise and break through by word of mouth (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time being examples). Perhaps it’s just anecdotal and maybe it’s just the covers and marketing strategy that has changed. Or maybe it’s tastes. But these books sold by the wheelbarrow not so long ago and still can – there is always a market for strong, believable quest stories.

I’m reading many of these books again, some for the second time. I’ve had a tough few months and it helps to read purely for joy and escapism – what is wrong with that? We shouldn’t worry about being seen with the kind of book we believe would impress others.

Perhaps it is this snobbishness that dogs general fiction. Writers such as the excellent Jonathan Coe are seen as literary exponents of general fiction and that’s acceptable, but perhaps other general fiction writers are sent down the genre path. In her book ‘Write to be Published’ the entertaining and humorous Nicola Morgan says…..’be cautious of calling your book ‘general fiction’ in your approach to publishers. Only use it if it genuinely doesn’t fit one of the other genres, but still ask yourself whether it is going to be easy for a publisher to sell.’

I’ll be reading a lot more general fiction and unearthing a few seventies and eighties titles. And maybe I’ll have a go again myself when I’ve regrouped in 2022.

Snobbery is also playing its part here. How else was Morrissey’s bio published as a Penguin Classic when the sad, funny, tragic and beautiful The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is yet to make even the 20th century classics list?

Please let me know what you think about general fiction? Do you read it and what are your favourites?

14 thoughts on “What happened to General fiction?

  1. Other than the books of bloggers that I buy (and mostly read) to support them, I mainly read historical non-fiction and historical fiction these days. But I never cease to be amazed at the sub-genres promoted on Twitter, and available on Amazon. These include the nauseating ‘Billionaire Romance’, a genre of love stories based on women marrying billionaires, and ‘Urban Fantasy’ which I have little idea about.
    Best wishes, Pete

  2. My two novels both fall under the category of General or Mainstream Fiction. Needless to say, I failed to find an agent or publisher interested in taking them on. I read all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry collections. My escapist readings include detective mysteries and science fiction. Like Pete, I support other indie authors and bloggers whom I follow on WordPress.

  3. I’m reading books by a couple of WordPress bloggers though they’re not my ‘usual’ genres, it’s good to do something different. I like historical fiction mostly but also alternative historical fiction like Dune, the Game of Thrones books (read before the TV got it) Stephen King books of course ( the older ones) and mostly anything written well with a good story! Not romantic bodice rippers though!

      1. The Stand for me, I also re-read books I love, have done Manda Scott’s Boudicca series 3 times, and currently re doing Clavell’s Shogun, sometimes once is not enough.

  4. I think a lot of readers feel the same way. When I’m searching on Amazon (I know! boo! hiss! but I’m abroad and it’s my only source of books) and I just want a ‘good book’. Click on ‘literary fiction’ (because it’s the only general option) and I get pages of billionaire romances and crime fiction. Sigh. I just want a well written story; maybe it has crime, maybe it has romance, but it’s just a story. How do we find these books?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s