Making Genre

In the opening chapter of his Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, music critic and journalist Kelefa Sanneh makes the observation that

Musicians, I have learned, generally hate talking about genres. And reasonably enough: it’s not their job. Virtually every music interview I have conducted has elicited some version of the sentence “I don’t know why it can’t just be ‘good music.’ ”

And that’s been rattling around in my head for two days now.

Why do we separate music, art, books, by genre?

Now the thesis of Major Labels is that essentially, genre helps the audience identify and define itself, and assists those who actually sell the music in marketing to said audience. It’s both practical and emotional, largely wrapped up in the history of modern music and its evolution throughout the 20th and 21st century.

But what about literature?

Some thoughts on genre, and what we make of it.
Hellmouth, c. 1100

Arguably fantasy, even dark fantasy or horror (which incidentally is what Heretic is being marketed as), is the oldest genre in the western canon. What is Beowulf (c. 700-1000AD) if not a fantasy, revenge tale? What are the medieval parables of hellfire and damnation told to keep the faithful on the straight and narrow, if not horror? What are our most ancient fairytales, if not warnings of what waits in the dark?

But genres evolve.

At some point, people became the monsters we write myths about.

From possibly the first cat-and-mouse crime caper in English, Caleb Williams (1793), to Poe’s evolution in mystery, thriller, and perspective with masterworks like “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Purloined Letter” (1845”, and “The Black Cat” (1845), to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inescapable Sherlock Holmes stories at the turn of the century, into the modern masters of the 20th century and today.

Some are cautionary tales, some are logic puzzles, some are explorations of deranged minds, and many fall somewhere in the middle or wander outside entirely, but there are bloodlines that can be traced here.

June is “National Crime Reading Month” in Ireland and, while I’ll tell you that crime isn’t really my genre in the same breath that I disparage genre and ask “Why can’t they just be good books?”, I’ve decided to make the effort. I had the pleasure of going to one of the first crime reading events of the month last night, hosted by two of Cork’s modern greats (dear friend and fellow UCC MA alumni Tadhg Coakley, and the excellent Catherine Kirwin), and it got me inspired.

They were giving the audience their “Butchers Dozen”, six favorite crime novels each and then a thirteenth that they both put forward. Everything from Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (as great as the movie, but the gender politics have aged poorly), to Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man (do not read in the dark), to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl with the impeccable “cool girl” monologue read out for good measure.

All are pretty much universally recognized as some sort of crime novel, but genre is what you make it, right?

So, Fiona Watson’s Dark Hunter? That’s a crime novel set in 14th century Scotland, just as surely as Tadhg Coakley’s Whatever It Takes is a crime novel set in 21st century Cork, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer is an equally modern crime novel set in Nigeria. All equally crime novels, and equally different in tone, in narrator, in crime committed and justice served or withheld. I’ll read my June crime novels, but they’ll be crime my way. Win, lose, draw, or die.

I’m just in here for the good books anyway.

Chase thunder,


2 thoughts on “Making Genre

    1. 🙂 I’m keeping fingers crossed that The Blue Bar arrives in time to be included in my tally of June crime books!


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