University of Barchester: a question of genre

3-2013 August Wells 028Somebody asked me today, ‘What sort of stuff do you write?’ And I, as ever, went, ‘Erm…’

I’ve never been good with genre. At one point I deleted the entire genre column from my iTunes. It seemed silly to have Carmen, Hildegard of Bingen and Haydn all filed under ‘Classical’, but separating them out into ‘Opera’, ‘Sacred Vocal (medieval)’ and, well, ‘Classical’, I suppose, was far too much like hard work for something I didn’t much care about.

I feel rather the same way about books. There are certain tropes that I like, but they aren’t exclusively found in any particular genre. For example, I like stories about large, messy households with complicated but functional relationships. One starts with Ballet Shoes – at least, I did – but one might equally read one of Streatfeild’s books for adults. Grass in Piccadilly, for example. Back to children’s books, and there’s the Casson family series. From there it’s not a long leap to school stories (but not all school stories, by any means) – but it’s also not far to science fiction. A spaceship is, after all, just another sort of household.

This is possibly the reason that nobody is prepared to publish Speak Its Name: if I don’t know which shelf it should go on, how on earth will anyone else? Usually I evade the question by admitting that the working title was, for several years, University of Barchester.

Speak Its Name does owe something to Anthony Trollope and the horrible high-minded mess depicted in The Warden. Trollope’s successors, too. It’s just that the chief players in my ecclesiastical scandal are about thirty-five years younger than theirs. Speak Its Name isn’t, admittedly, the first in the University of Barchester subgenre: it’s partly an irritated riposte to the bit in Dear Bob – which might have been the first Univ. Barset book – where concern over the protagonist’s sexual orientation all turns out to just be a hilarious misunderstanding.

And then there’s the other thread: the succession of American teen coming-out books, starting, I suppose, with Annie On My Mind, and continuing in the present day with the works of David Levithan and Alex Sanchez. We didn’t, and don’t have anything like the same tradition over here. Even Jacqueline Wilson, prolific and prepared to deal with ‘difficult’ issues as she is, has only included one gay main character that I’ve noticed. I suspect that’s due to the lingering effects of Section 28. When I was a teenager, the only teen book I came across that dealt with anything resembling LGBT themes was Dare, Truth or Promise, which was published in New Zealand. I don’t know how it got into the school library, but I’m very glad it did.

Having said that, Speak Its Name was never intended to be a teen book, and it isn’t one now. Too much swearing, for a start, and the characters are just that tiny bit too old. Oh well, whatever. I say ‘University of Barchester’, and the sort of people who would be interested in that kind of a book know exactly what I mean. I say ‘University of Barchester with a strong f/f element’ and that pretty much covers it. One of the great advantages of self-publishing is that I no longer have to care.

While I’m on that note: yesterday evening I sent off the application form to get an ISBN. Shit got real.

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