Genre bender

fingerprintSo when Agent Simon sent my manuscript out into the world of publishing, he told me that I had written a piece of Crime Fiction.

Crime Fiction? I said, mildly appalled.

Not having had any dealings with publishing before, I thought to be classified as a writer of genre fiction was somewhat demeaning. This is an example of the ignorant state I was in. Of course, like many first-time writers I had thought I had written a literary novel, the best I could possibly write, potentially the next Booker Prize winner.

A little like a kinda sorta twenty-first-century Virginia Woolf.

To me back then, crime fiction was a lowly form. It was the Aggies I would guiltily devour from from a holiday cottage’s shelves while my husband sat with his James Joyce. It had police and a murderer and a neat conclusion. No book I have ever written has any of that.

But no. It was crime fiction, Simon insisted. Because it had a plot, twists, darkness and death. ‘A bit like Sophie Hannah,’ he said.

What? I thought. But I love Sophie Hannah’s books. And so they were crime fiction? Really? And then I suppose I have always enjoyed Barbara Vine, P D James, Ruth Rendell, Patiricia Highsmith…

I have since learned that, of course, crime fiction is one of the finest and broadest forms of fiction. Finest because the writer has to create an utterly believable world while keeping the reader guessing, turning the page, siding with the characters and enjoying the story. And broadest because it takes in everything from the hard-edged cop thriller to the twisted psychological end which is more my home. Crime fiction also has the most devoted, prolific and critical readers, and the best parties and festivals.

So now I’m a little wiser, I’m delighted to be marketed as crime fiction. However, the genre breaks down into a number of sub-genres, and this is useful because it helps readers decide which of the thousands of books published every year they are going to like. You have spy thrillers, cosy crime, police procedural, suspense, horror, paranormal, historical, psychological, zombie, dystopian, etc, etc.

All four of my books have been put in the psychological thriller sub-genre, but I’ve often felt that this doesn’t quite do the job. Yes, they’re psychological in that the action often is a result of the imperfect minds of my characters. But that can be applied to almost all works of fiction. Also, while I hope I have written page-turning stories, with shocks and surprises and the odd chilling moment, the engine driving my work is more an unravelling than the high octane roller coaster suggested by the word ‘thriller’.

So some readers have expectations raised by that word that aren’t met. I know I shouldn’t read my Amazon reviews, but I have picked up the odd critical response along those lines (eg ‘Good, but not a thriller’). So, for the past year I have been digging around for a name for a sub-genre for my work. Finally, over a G&T at Bristol Crimefest this year, Sam Eades my publicist at Headline and I came up with the term Domestic Noir, which really captures what I’m up to. I’d also say it might be a good sub-genre home for writers like Erin Kelly, Araminta Hall, Louise Millar, Paula Daly, Samantha Hayes, even more literary types like Louise Doughty, Julie Myerson and Lionel Shriver.

In a nutshell, Domestic Noir takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants. That’s pretty much all of my work described there.

So this is my first outing of the phrase. What do you think? Does it describe our work better than psychological thriller? Can you think of other writers who might fit into it? Can you extend the definition? I’d be really interested to hear your views.

16 Responses

  1. Love the term ‘domestic noir’.

    I realise now that a novel I failed to pitch correctly would have been better described as this, rather than ‘historical’.

    It’s a great umbrella term and really fits with what, and how, I write. And with this essence of the stories I like to read.

    Thanks very much – really helpful : )

  2. Interested in your new genre. I think it might even be what I write. There are crimes in my novels but so far no murders… As feminists I wonder whether we should be wary of relating the word domestic to mainly female stories.
    I don’t like the word chic, but at least it conjures up a slightly more feisty image than domestic. The allusion to a servant – ugh!
    So what about Black Chic? Or if you wanted to frenchify it Dame Noire? But isn’t that a rather wicked ice cream?
    Good luck with the writing and never leave the literary fiction slot completely. It’s an encouragement to write your very best – then to write better than that!

    • Hi Wendy. Thanks for your commets.
      I understand your hesitation, although I still think that we have to acknowledge that the domestic is still a massive issue for women, and, so long as we imply some sort of feminist critique within our work, it is an issue that must be addressed. And that’s not to say that it is the only setting for women’s stories – just this particular type of story…

  3. A really interesting topic, Julia. I’ve wondered about it a few times when I’ve read books which have been marketed as ‘psychological thrillers’ or ‘psychological suspense’. I’m not sure that the ‘thriller’ label is always a helpful one, for the reasons you outline here. A lot of them are slow burn situations. Things unravel over time. I like your proposed sub-genre name of ‘domestic noir’ and in many ways it does conjure up exactly the sorts of situations which you write about. The stuff that goes on behind closed doors and in the recesses of people’s minds. I’m not sure that I agree that this kind of situation needs to be about the female experience. It’s interesting to flip the stereotypes. I wonder, though, about the word ‘domestic’. Perhaps because of its connection with ‘violence’, and with woman-as-victim, is it going to restrict you? The trouble with labels is that they can be facilitating and hindering, both for readers (as you highlight) and for writers too. I’m going to ponder this issue further because it applies to my own writing also! ‘Psychological crime fiction’ doesn’t work either as the crimes may be physical. The psychological ‘bit’ refers to the experience of the characters and how that changes as the plot unfolds. Sorry. Not a very helpful comment to post here, but mainly because it’s such a tricky issue. I was wondering, for my second novel, about the term ‘suburban noir’. That might also be relevant for some of yours too?

    • Hi Vicky. Thanks for your comments. I did say that the sub genre doesn’t have to be exclusively about the female experience, but the female experience is largely what interests me as a writer and a reader. And I like the thought of subverting the female-as-victim/woman in peril turning it into woman AS peril

  4. Love the term Domestic Noir, have found myself using it quite naturally as if it had always existed, I hope it finds its way into the literary consciousness and becomes recognised as a genre

  5. I love this term, and have been mentioning it and attributing it to you in my goodreads reviews. Was wondering if you would be okay with my using it as a bookshelf heading on my goodreads account.

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