There was a bookseller I knew who, when someone wanted a job in the shop, gave them a list of titles and asked where – i.e., in which section: fiction, poetry, biography, New Age drivel, etc – they would shelve them. Ah, but that was a while back, when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps and there were porters at railway stations.
Category definitions are often like round holes for square pegs. The Novella Award welcomes ‘any genre of work, provided it is fiction, in the English language and between 20,000 and 40,000 words’ – so Alice Munro could probably enter one of her ‘short stories’. (Many stories by Munro, others too, would not be eligible for most magazines that publish short stories because of their wordcount restriction.) The Novella might have welcomed Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (I don’t know, I haven’t counted the words; in fact I haven’t even read it), a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker, which is for ‘novels’, isn’t it? The Man Booker is sensibly loose in its definition of what’s eligible: publishers of ‘literary fiction novels’ may submit, and each submitted book ‘must be a unified and substantial work’. (Is there a word for novels over a certain wordcount?)
I’m pretty sure that if last year I, as publisher, had submitted Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist for either the Novella or the Man Booker it would have got nowhere – despite it’s being within the Novella’s wordcounts and also, I’d say, a substantial work. (‘Unified’? Anna Aslanyan, writing for 3:AM: ‘the author’s decision to call it a novel seems justified: these confluent streams of consciousness amount to a narrative in prose where every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does . . . their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch.’) It just doesn’t look like fiction, or like many people’s idea of what fiction should look like. But by 2014 there was also the Goldsmiths Prize, set up ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, and it got shortlisted for that.
Reviewing Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS last year, Kate Webb noted that Cole’s work ‘occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka.’ Fiction that doesn’t look like fiction has been around since at least the time of Sterne, but recently it has been coming to the fore in a way that must have booksellers, with their neatly labelled sections, scratching their heads; and blaming Sebald for this doesn’t help anyone. Where are the booksellers to shelve a book that, according to its back cover, ‘weav[es] fact and fiction, travelogue and an erotically charged game of cat-and-mouse’? (This is Emmanuel Carrère’s A Russian Novel, and I guess there’s a clue in the title, and even more so in the publisher’s stated category: ‘Fiction’.) Where are they to shelve David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel? (A sort of reverse clue in this title.) Or Jack Robinson’s Nights and Days in W12? (Which I wrote and published, and I have no idea at all what to advise them.)
It looks likely that next year’s CBe titles will include one book that’s made up of prose and poetry in roughly equal parts, and another Robinson-ish book that’s made up of fact, speculation, fiction, you-name-it. How do I list these in any catalogue? I’m thinking of putting them both under ‘Mongrel’. Other suggestions welcome.