ODD: on genres, categories and why they shouldn't matter

Today my post on genre appeared at Faber Academy's Weekend Read. Here's an excerpt:

‘Nothing odd will do long…’ said Doctor Johnson; and you might think this a point well made, except that he went on to say, ‘…Tristram Shandy did not last.’

Because contrary to the good doctor’s words, Lawrence Sterne’s loopy, fractured masterpiece Tristram Shandywent on to prove itself one of history’s great slow-burners. Over the years, we’ve come to recognise its brilliance, profundity and wit, and it’s now seen as one of the defining works of the novel form. It had intertextual play and formal experiment down pat a couple of centuries before the sixties’ avant-garde came along and ‘invented’ them.

Colours to the mast, I love Tristram Shandy. As a reader, I’ve always gravitated to books that achieve such feats of genre-bending originality, that maintain a playfulness and formal dexterity while saying something profound about the world. And as Tristram Shandy proves, quirky doesn’t always equal niche. Vernon God Little; American Gods; Infinite Jest: some of the great popular successes of contemporary publishing, too, have defied categorisation. Which is why it’s a shame that publishing – like music, movies or any other creative industry – is so concerned with categories. It’s easy to see why: publishing is a market like any other. It’s easier and lower-risk to sell a book if you can position it as a little bit like that other book that did so well last season. In a market like this, you can to a large extent judge a book by its cover, because covers are designed to signal to buyers all the other books this particular book is like.

...read on at Faber Academy.