Switching genres: a writer/reader’s dilemma

A writer friend recently told me that they were considering switching genres and whilst I was excited for them, I had to go and have a lie down in a darkened room because I could no more contemplate doing this than fly to the moon!

As every writer will know, the best advice we are given is to read, read, read  in our chosen genre and so my natural default is to read the type of books I like to write; emotional, multiple POV stories about the messes and marvels of love and family. I enjoy books that pay particular attention to the texture and poetry of place and feelings and I relish tracking the arcs of the characters’ personal journeys.

However I have of late and of necessity read books outside my normal genre. So far this year I’ve read two thrillers for my book group, ‘Dominion’ by CJ Samson and ‘The Swimmer’ by Joakin Zander and recently, I have ploughed my way through ‘Vagabond’ (‘Who can you trust, when betrayal is a way of life?’) by Gerald Seymour.

I say ‘ploughed’ because I’ve been asked to read it for the BBC Berkshire Book Group and foolishly waited until I was happily ensconced by the pool at a villa in Southern Turkey before starting it. This was, I found, not the totally ideal place to embark on it and reading it became somewhat hard work (time pressure and holiday notwithstanding)! So, why was this?

It is undeniably a masterpiece in narrative construction; the multiple story lines weave and meld (a favourite word of the author’s) both seamlessly and inexorably and, being a huge fan of ‘Bleak House’ by Dickens, I obviously don’t mind a slow-burn novel.

It has sentences of huge emotional impact, prose that’s both savage and gentle and the plot doesn’t miss a beat.

It has some very clever pairings of characters; there is a sense of mirroring in the novel which is pleasing and I valued how the sections about the Normandy beaches filtered into the narrative.

But, after a lot of thought, I have come to the conclusion that it’s the novel’s steady pace, the sheer inexorability of its movement from point A to point Z and the constant plate spinning of the different plot points that I found less accessible than the roller coaster emotion-centric reads with which I am more familiar.

Also, there is a lack of moral judgement inherent in the novel; everyone is a mix of good and bad, selfishness and selflessness and therefore as a reader it’s hard to set one’s own moral compass, something which as a writer of such emotion-centric novels I try (indirectly) to help my reader to do.

There is a lot of jargon and spy-code-talk, there are texts that flash up on phones from whom or why I had no idea and finally – and this is only a minor point because I too have made errors in my novels I am sure – I fear the author may have made a mistake as it is impossible to park outside M&S in Reading’s ‘high street’, and which is actually called Broad Street, but I only know that because it’s my home town!

So, whereas I do obviously appreciate the author’s skill and the courage it must take to write a novel that’s politically apposite and challenging, that encompasses the best and worst of human behaviour, that seeks to explain what motivates those who have fundamental beliefs, I prefer novels that deal with matters of the heart, which strip and lay bare these hearts, novels that have in them an inherent poetry, not weapons and code names!

It has been a very interesting experience reading ‘Vagabond’ and I am looking forward to discussing it on The Paul Ross Show on Tuesday 9th June at 2.00 pm but obviously may have to preface my comments with an admission that it’s not always easy to switch genres!


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