The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

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Millicent Weber

Millicent is a Research Assistant on the ARC Discovery project Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century, in the University of Melbourne’s Publishing and Communication program. She is also an assistant archivist with the University of Melbourne Archives. Millicent recently submitted her PhD thesis in literary sociology, through  Monash University’s Centre for the Book. Her doctoral research investigates literary festivals: their significance and impact within contemporary literary culture.

Who publishes Australian genre fiction, and in what ways? What do crime, fantasy and romance genre communities look like? How do their books reach booksellers, reviewers and readers? And why are crime writers always so chill?

Popular fiction is one of the biggest growth areas in Australian trade publishing, but to date these kinds of questions have received little critical attention. Genre Worlds is an ARC-funded project (2016-2018) that investigates the whos, wheres, hows and whys of twenty-first century Australian romance, crime and fantasy fiction. The mechanics of publication, distribution and consumption, and the ways that popular genres are understood by both practitioners and the general public: these are the key focal points for the project.

In October 2016, a number of academics, writers, editors, bloggers, reviewers and readers came together at some genre fiction events co-hosted by the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. The popularity of these events was testament to the interest in – and need for – research into genre fiction publishing. Ninety people attended the main symposium, and collaboratively pushed the events’ hashtag, #popfic16, to number one in Australia’s Twitter trend charts.

Academic Scene-Setting

So what is a ‘genre world’? On Wednesday 5 October, three of the ARC project’s Chief Investigators, Kim Wilkins, Lisa Fletcher and Beth Driscoll, joined Ken Gelder to present some of their research to staff and students in English and Theatre Studies. This extended seminar offered theorisations and critical readings of the mechanics of Australia’s contemporary ‘genre worlds’ of crime, romance and fantasy. The talks explored the way that these genres are defined both textually and contextually; their relationships to the worlds of literary publishing and to middlebrow cultural practices; the networked relationships between writers, readers, publishers, critics; and definitions of genre communities.

The State of Play symposium was held the next day and re-introduced some of these ideas in an industry- and public-facing context. Guest speakers at this event included romance writer Anne Gracie; fantasy writers Angela Slatter, Jack Dann, and Rjurik Davidson; crime writers Candice Fox, Adrian McKinty, and Angela Savage; publishers Kate Cuthbert, Rochelle Fernandez and Angela Meyer; and romance reviewer Kat Mayo.

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The State of Play symposium was held in the 1888 Building, on the only sunny day in Melbourne for months

Routes to Market

Publishers of genre fiction operate in a contested space, influenced by cultural, commercial and technological trends. The first panel, chaired by Beth Driscoll, was entitled ‘Popular Fiction and New Routes to Market’, and featured Kate Cuthbert from Escape Publishing, the digital-first imprint of Harlequin Australia, Rochelle Fernandez from Harper-Collins’ speculative fiction imprint Voyager, and Echo Publishing’s Angela Meyer. Combining the perspectives of publishers and commissioning editors, each working with a different genre, afforded comparisons between these genres’ different publishing processes.

Speaking to the boundaries of the different genres, Meyer emphasised the ways that Echo’s activities often bleed into both commercial publishing and literary fiction; while Cuthbert pointed to the proliferation of sub-genres within romance, with Escape currently publishing into 14 defined sub-categories. All of the panellists agreed that there has been significant growth in the publishing of cross-genre titles in Australia in recent years, particularly among smaller presses, and that there has also been a spike in publication of titles by authors and with protagonists from marginalised backgrounds. The speakers argued that these trends are connected to the growth of digital publishing, which opens up international and more diverse markets, and crucially helps more experimental or unusual genre titles to circulate beyond what are often conservative local markets.

The rise in digital reading has also seen an increased prominence of backlist titles on sales lists – 80% of Voyager’s sales, for example, are now from this long tail. These backlist titles often gain traction as a result of sudden, unexpected surges or drops in popularity of specific sub-genres, such as paranormal romance and rural romance.

Communities

Writing might be a solitary activity, but it requires the support of strong networks of peers. The second panel, ‘Genre Communities: How Is Popular Fiction Organised and Supported?’ was chaired by Lisa Fletcher, and featured romance author Anne Gracie, speculative-fiction author Jack Dann, and crime author Angela Savage. Each author spoke to the importance of different socially and textually constituted communities in defining and supporting the authors within their genre, as well as the value provided by more mainstream groups like the Australian Society of Authors.

Romance Writers Australia is notable for its 1000-strong membership, as well as for the support it provides through both online and offline channels. Gracie also spoke to the role that the organisation Novelists, Inc. plays in the romance community, particularly in the way it positions novel-writing as professionalised and career-driven. Dann discussed the important work done by trade magazines such as Locus in providing a venue for established and emerging science-fiction writers, but also in engaging science fiction and fantasy readers and writers around a key publication. In addition to professional organisations like Science Fiction Writers Australia, the other characteristic gathering points for the speculative fiction community are unsurprisingly conventions and associated trade fairs. These are places where writers and fans converge. By contrast, Gracie emphasised that some members of the Australian Romance Readers Association, although highly involved in the broader romance community, are often reluctant to come to RWA conferences. They don’t want to ruin the ‘magic’ of their reading experience by hearing craft-talk.

Adding to this conversation, Savage discussed the important role played by the organisation Sisters in Crime, which offered her a supportive, feminist crime-writing community (and a community of which Gracie, incidentally, is also a member). She also emphasised the deliberately politic, promotional and inclusive decisions made by the Sisters, commenting humorously that, ‘The women at Sisters in Crime chose a writer – Ellen Davitt – to name their awards. The men at ACWA (Australian Crime Writers Association) chose Ned Kelly’.

Alongside publishers, these communities also play a crucial genre-defining role. Publishers apply genre labels as marketing categories, while booksellers use them to decide which shelf to place a book on. Writers turn to these communities to find out what a genre actually is once they discover they’re writing in it. They’re important in bringing together readers and writers to decide what those genres entail, particularly so in a post-digital world where physical shelves in a bookstore hold less weight.

Gatekeepers

Who really decides what gets read – the critics, or the market? The third panel was called ‘Systems of Value: Gatekeepers, Critics, and Popular Fiction’. Chaired by Ken Gelder, the speakers were romance reviewer Kat Mayo, fantasy author Rjurik Davidson, and crime author Adrian McKinty.

Mayo is an avid reader of romance, and spoke to the way that this encourages her to write ‘from a position of sincere appreciation’. Further exploring the role that gatekeepers play as advocates, perhaps particularly when invested in genres, McKinty talked about the differences between punching up – giving a bad review to a Stephen King novel, for example – and punching down – giving one to a debut writer. This kind of personal investment also produces ambivalent feelings, with writers wanting to see success and the best possible writing within their genres, but feeling frustrated when these kinds of standards are not met.

This lead to a discussion of the commercial imperatives of popular fiction publishing. With the emphasis on ‘popular’, the market becomes the primary gatekeeper for popular fiction. Frantic publishing schedules leave writers with little time to enrich their work. This also often leads publishers and writers to make conservative decisions – as Davidson remarked, this explains the proliferation of plots centred on ‘the Destiny of the Kitchen-Boy’. But it’s a fine line. Familiarity is an important part of many readers’ experiences: a certain degree of repetition (when combined with a captivating story and some good writing) ensures the contract between the reader and the genre is fulfilled, and also promotes a sense of genre community through establishing shared knowledge. In Mayo’s words, ‘Any romance reader will know what it means when a hero smirks. He’s hot, but grumpy’.

Discussing the structural tensions in each of these genre spaces also led to a discussion of class politics. Contemporary crime fiction does important work in representing diverse social and class backgrounds. It introduces poor and working class characters to readers, while literary fiction is often regarded as middle or upper middle class in focus. But despite the established genre tropes, McKinty suggested there doesn’t always need to be a body on page forty-five – and he called for more crime novels investigating the minor crimes of everyday life, like bicycle thefts and plagiarism.

With the increasing growth of books that break down boundaries, open up new sub-spaces and challenge established conventions, reviewers of genre fiction need to be adaptable and open-minded. As Davidson put it, ‘Genres aren’t really boxes. They’re cords that run through a novel. Something can be crime, sci-fi and fantasy all at once’.

Writing Craft

Writers don’t choose genres – the genres choose them. But how does this happen? The final panel, chaired by Kim Wilkins, was titled ‘Breaking Through: Crafting a Career as a Popular Fiction Writer’, and featured romance author Anne Gracie, fantasy author Angela Slatter, and crime author Candice Fox.

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Writing Craft Panel, L-R: Angela Slatter, Anne Gracie, Candice Fox and Kim Wilkins

Each author offered personal accounts of the way she came to write in her genre and the way she crafted her work. When Fox was at school, all of her friends were reading Narnia books – but she was reading true crime. Gracie turned to a life of romance after deciding her great literary masterpiece wouldn’t make any money. Slatter was exposed to everything from a young age, from fairytales, to horror, to autopsy reports. Her place in fantasy clicked when she found herself rewriting ‘The Little Match Girl’ on a cocktail napkin.

Everyone agreed on the importance of wide reading, of honest feedback, and of experienced teachers and mentors. They also agreed that a certain level of plotting and planning was helpful in avoiding anxiety, but equally that an unplanned or only semi-structured approach might lead to better writing, allowing them to follow the lead of their characters. Slatter’s writing process begins with a draft that directly retells a fairy tale, followed by a more personalised second draft. Gracie focuses on combining historical detail with compelling characterisations. Fox pumps friends, family, and even her personal trainer, for expected plot developments – and then makes sure to defy those expectations.

Asked what advice they would give themselves when first starting out, Gracie spoke to the importance of joining writing communities from the word ‘go’. Fox made the mistake of reading negative reviews of her work online, and Slatter cautioned against writers restricting themselves to an Australian market. What is the best things about writing? For Fox, ‘Being a successful writer has given me permission to be who I always really was’. And for Gracie: ‘When writing is going well, I lose big chunks of time. When it’s not, I live a whole week before lunch’.

Afterword: Battle of the Genres

After the serious day’s talk, it was time for drinks, nibbles, and a less serious debate. The topic: ‘In the Battle of the Genres, Romance Will Always Win’. Team Romance featured Kathryn Tafra, Adrian McKinty and Anne Gracie, and Team Other Genres Kara Liddell, Kim Wilkins and Kate Cuthbert.

Thoughts from TEAM ROMANCE:

‘Romance does not battle. We are lovers, not fighters. Besides, we outsell the other genres’.

‘Statistics show that romance writers and readers have better sex’.

‘Crime fiction writers will tell you the oldest story is Cane and Abel. Of course, this is not true – the oldest story is Adam and Eve, a romance’.

‘Romance does not always win. But women always win. Romance has just sided with women a lot’.

Thoughts from TEAM OTHER GENRES:

‘Genre fiction is known for plot, and for conflict. Romance doesn’t have plot or conflict – therefore it’s not even a genre!’

‘No matter how great the romance, someone is still going to die alone’.

‘You don’t need to blow out other people’s candles to make yours burn brighter’.

With watertight arguments like these, it’s no wonder that the debate was a tie. And clearly the true winners of the day were team Genre Worlds. But it seems appropriate to end with a quote borrowed from the romance writers: ‘There’s something good about going home to an attractive lover, clean dishes, and a happy ending’.

One thought on “The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

  1. Well done wrapping up a BIG day, Millie. It was a great pleasure to be part of #popfic16

    Just one small correction to your post: Adrian McKinty made the point that Inspector Morse investigated practically two murders per week on TV, despite the fact that there hadn’t been a single murder in nine years when McKinty was at Oxford; he said that if Inspector Morse dedicated his energies to fighting the predominant crimes at Oxford, he’d be investigating bicycle thefts and plagiarism.

    Liked by 1 person

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